Football: Fourth Down Situations - Teams Should Go for it More Often

Football: Fourth Down Situations - Teams Should Go for it More Often

Dick Moss, Editor, Physical Education

It's always an agonizing question. You're on the opponent's 30 yard line and it's fourth down with five yards to the first-down marker. Do you punt, try a field goal, or go for it?

If you ask professor David Romer, he'd say "go for it." Absolutely, no question about it!

Romer, an economist at the University of California Berkley, can back up his opinion. He performed a scientific risk/benefit analysis on the question of going for it on fourth down and his conclusion was that teams should take the risk more often.

The Study
Romer analyzed data compiled from 732 regular-season NFL games from 1998 to 2000. It included almost 20,000 1st quarter plays.

He was able to determine which decision is better - kick or go for it - based on a team's position on the field and how many yards are needed for a 1st down.

His conclusions were based on the following:

1. An analysis of the percentage of success with different distances to go on 4th down. His findings were:
  • 1 yard to go = 64% chance for success
  • 5 yards to go =44% chance for success
  • 10 yards to go = 34% chance for success

2. The potential benefit in terms of points.

3. The potential outcomes if the fourth-down attempt fails, including the likelihood the other team will score when starting at different locations on the field. For example, an opponent has a low chance of scoring when gaining possession on their own two-yard line.

Romer produced a decision graph (yards to go versus yard line) that indicated the situations in which - on average - it was better to go for it than kick the ball. The results were surprising and contradicted actual practice in most football games. Here's a brief summary:

Football: Fourth Down Situations - Teams Should Go for it More Often

(* The opponent's 30 yard line is the "dead zone," where a field goal is difficult, but a punt provides little gained yardage. As a result a first-down attempt, even when the yardage required is 9.8 yards, is better than a kick).

Actual Practice
Coaches tend to be conservative when it comes to gambling on fourth down. On the 1100 fourth downs Romer studied in which it would have been best to go for it, coaches elected to kick 992 times (90% of the time).

Romer believes the perceived cost of failure, in terms of public criticism, increases the perception of risk. Plus, there are gut-feel factors a coach is aware of that these charts don't address, such as level of play of the offense and defense at the time of the decision.

In contrast, Coach Kevin Kelly of Pulaski (Ark.) Academy, has taken Romer's philosophy and expanded it. In fact, he doesn't punt at all! In 2008, his team did not punt once during 14 games. In 2007 they punted only twice -- once to prevent his team from running up the score. And it seems to work for him -- his team won the state 5A title on December 6th.

In addition to using the statistical advantages revealed by David Romer, Kelly feels that playing with four downs instead of three-downs-and-a-punt, makes his play-calling less predictable because third-and-long is no longer is an automatic passing down.

Of course, your team's age and level of ability will also have an effect on your fourth down decisions. For example, younger players will have a much shorter field-goal kicking range. (However, that should increase the benefit of going for it when inside the opponent's 30 yard line).

The bottom line is, whether you're coaching a varsity squad or a flag-football team, you should consider going for it on fourth down more often!

You can download Romer's entire paper, directly from the U. of Berkeley website at the following (it will download immediately):

References: 1. David Romer, University of California, Berkeley, "Do Firms Maximize? Evidence From Professional Football." Revised, July 2005.
2. Jeff Fedotin, Arkansas coach punts traditional game plan." Rivals 2008.
3. Kathleen Maclay, UC Berkley Campus News, UC Berkeley professor gives surprising answer to NFL fourth down question." August 2002.
4. J.R. Minkel, Fact or Fiction: NFL Teams Should Go for More Fourth Downs, Scientific, September 2, 2008.

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