Going For It

GOING FOR IT….Enough about politics. Let’s talk about football.

I’ve been convinced for years that football coaches are way too conservative on fourth down: instead of punting or kicking field goals, they’d be better off going for it if they have only two or three yards to go for a first down. With the notable exception of Pete Carroll, though, mostly they don’t. (And the only fourth down of Carroll’s that anyone remembers is the one that went disastrously wrong in the Rose Bowl this year. But it’s worth remembering that for the past five seasons, they mostly went right.)

Now, however, I’m happy to report (via Tyler Cowen) that David Romer of UC Berkeley has written an exhaustive analysis filled with sigma signs and subscripts that provides a quantitative answer to this burning question: exactly when should you go for it and when should you kick?

The solid line in the chart below provides the answer. At the 50-yard line, you should go for it if you have less than five yards to go. At the 40-yard line you should go for it if you have less than seven yards to go. At the 35-yard line you should go for it no matter what. Beyond the 33-yard line, as you get into field goal range, the value of kicking rises and the “critical value” necessary to go for it declines steeply (though it stays above four yards all the way to the goal line). The dashed line summarizes actual coaching decisions over the course of the study and shows that, on average, coaches go for it only if they’re past midfield and have only about two yards to go. That’s much too conservative.

Romer’s analysis accounts for the probability of making a first down and then going on to score; the likely field position of your opponent depending on whether you kick or not; the likelihood of making a field goal; and a whole variety of other factors. Read the whole thing if you want to argue with him.

But the bottom line is simple: always go for it if you have less than three or four yards to go. Past midfield, you should go for it even in higher yardage situations until you get into field goal range. But even then, you should go for it if you have less then three or four yards to go.

In other words, Pete Carroll is a smart guy. It was LenDale White’s fault that USC lost the Rose Bowl.