A new study by UC Berkeley economist David Romer urges football coaches to strive for a first down or touchdown on fourth down rather than punt or kick a field goal. But don’t expect Cal football coach Jeff Tedford to embrace this more aggressive strategy.
“There’s too many negatives that can happen,” said Tedford. “The ramifications are very serious.”
The Romer study, “It’s Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say?,” conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research, reviewed almost 20,000 first quarter plays in 732 National Football League games in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and found that coaches are far too timid on fourth down.
“The results are striking,” Romer writes. “The analysis implies that teams should be quite aggressive. In practice; however, teams almost always kick on fourth down early in the game.”
Romer found that on average a team should go for a first down in their own half of the field as long as they need to gain four or fewer yards.
Teams should be even more aggressive, he asserts, in the offensive portion of the field.
Yet on the 1,100 fourth downs that Romer found best to go for it, teams kicked 992 times.
Romer used an economics statistical tool known as the “Bellman equation,” weighing the points involved – three for a field goal, seven for a touchdown – and assigning values to various field positions.
One of the scenarios Romer examined was the classic fourth-and-goal from the two yard line. While coaches typically elect to kick a field goal, particularly early in the game when the score is close, the study found that going for a touchdown is more advantageous.
A team has a roughly three-sevenths chance of scoring a seven-point touchdown, providing a roughly equal payoff for a three-point field goal, the study found. But, even if the team fails to score, it would leave the opponent in terrible field position, Romer argues, tipping the scales in favor of going for the touchdown.
Tedford said the argument is compelling, but suggested that Romer didn’t factor in the intangibles.
“You’ve got to think about momentum too,” he said, arguing that a failure to score a touchdown during a fourth-and-goal scenario can give a vital boost to the opponent. “Football is a game of emotions.”
On the Cal gridiron, at least, it appears that emotional considerations will outweigh cold, statistical analysis.
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