Fourth-Down Follies?

by Jason Epstein

A growing number of analysts agree that taking a little more of the foot out of football is a winning strategy — if only head coaches would quit looking over their shoulders:

Although some statistics show there are often better options on fourth down, teams continue to punt, punt and then punt some more. But what if they did not? What if the punt was punted? . . .

“Coaches tend to be risk averse,” said Ben Alamar, a professor of sports management at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., who has studied NFL statistics. “People are typically uncomfortable moving away from the norms.”

David Romer, a professor of political economy at University of California-Berkeley, published a paper in 2005 on the statistics of punting that has become the gospel for the anti-punting faction. Romer, who analyzed data from NFL games from 1998 through 2004, determined, among other things, that teams should not punt when facing fourth-and-four yards or less, regardless of field position.

“Of course, there are times when punting is a good idea,” Romer said in an e-mail message, “just not nearly as many as football coaches seem to think.”

Brian Burke, the publisher of, said teams should go for a first down when they faced fourth-and-one, or when it was fourth down between the opponent’s 35 and 40 yard line. Burke also said that he believed that teams should try to score a touchdown when facing fourth-and-goal from the six yard line or closer, assuming a last-second field goal is not called for.

“If everyone agrees out of fear or ignorance to sort of play ultraconservative, nobody really has an advantage,” Burke said. “There’s no development, no evolution. Coaches have strategies that are generations behind where the sport really is. It’s going to take someone to stick their neck out.”

Coaches are hesitant to take the plunge because a string of failed fourth-down attempts could leave them vulnerable to criticism and affect their job security more than a conservative menu of punts ever could.

More here. (H/T Tom Tango)

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