The New York Times’ 4th Down Bot Says NFL Coaches Are Too Conservative

(Photo credit: New York Times)

(Photo credit: New York Times)

Not long ago I blogged about a high school football coach who implemented a fairly crazy strategy with his team—well, crazy to those who believe going for it on every fourth down and only kicking onsides kicks is a maniacal way of doing things. In that post I tried to justify why at least a portion of his strategy (going for it on fourth down more often) might have some merit in the professional ranks by using a statistical model developed by AdvancedNFLStats.com.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was thinking along those lines.

Using the same model, and working directly with the founder of the site, The New York Times developed what it calls its Fourth Down Bot. The interactive tool (which you should go play around with to get a sense of just how awesome it is) analyzed all NFL games since 2000, including the success rate of fourth down attempts and the value of having the ball at different places on the field—all part of AdvancedNFLStats.com’s expected points concept. The result of the analysis was the production of two charts: One depicting how a coach who looks to maximize points would react to a fourth down from anywhere on the field—whether it would be ideal for them to go for it, punt the ball away, or kick a field goal (chart to the left); the other showing how coaches have actually behaved over the last decade (chart to the right).

NYT 4th Down Bot

(click to enlarge)

It can be seen plain as day that, per the Fourth Down Bot, and consistent with my own analysis, NFL coaches are waaaaayyyyyy too conservative when it comes to fourth down. Their explanation:

The bot’s recommendations may seem aggressive, but they are the results of an analysis of N.F.L. games since 2000, including the success rate of fourth-down attempts and the value of having the ball at different places on the field.

The difference is stark: coaches are much more conservative than they should be if they are truly trying to score as many points as possible. Too often, coaches forfeit the ball through a punt, for instance, when they have a solid chance to make a first down. The field position they gain from the punt is often not worth the missed opportunity to keep a drive going.

Perhaps the most common mistake coaches make is punting or kicking a field goal on fourth and only a few yards. Recent football history suggests teams should often go for it on fourth and short even deep inside their own half of the field. By punting, they guarantee the other team will have the ball with good field position. By going for it, they are risking giving their opponents fabulous field position – but with the potential reward of keeping the ball.

Obviously, the best strategy varies, depending on a team’s strengths and weaknesses. But the overall pattern seems clear: coaches are far too conservative.

I support it all.

This tool does something interesting, though. The model switches with less than ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of a game. Rather than making the decision based on maximizing points, the bot switches to maximizing winning percentage. Decision making at the end of a game, given a team’s situation is always going to vary at least slightly when it comes to fourth down, and they factored that in. The Times also said that measuring winning percentage is more useful later in the game because it’s easier to determine the impact of a single play on the game’s outcome.

Like I mention in the old post, I don’t see NFL coaches adopting a more aggressive approach any time soon. Aside from trying to win games, they have a job that they’re trying to hold onto, and making what could be viewed as irrational decisions by going for it on fourth and short on their side of the field every time doesn’t really help to protect that job—unless, of course, those decisions ended up paying off and resulting in a few more wins per year. Then they might see their contract get extended instead of run through a paper shredder.

At the very least, if coaches would go for it on fourth down more often, it would make games more exciting for the fans. Be honest, how much does it suck watching teams punt the ball back and forth to one another and turn the game into a battle for field position?

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