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Game of chance

Cal prof wants more NFL coaches to go for it on fourth

Posted: Sunday September 01, 2002 10:42 AM
  Omar Easy Chiefs WR Omar Easy understands the bottom line: getting the ball into the end zone. AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- Fourth-and-goal at an opponent's 2-yard line early in the first quarter, and what's an NFL coach to do? It's a no-brainer -- take the chip-shot field goal and the easy points.

Fourth-and-4 at his own 40 with a 10-7 lead in the secondquarter, and what's a coach to do? Again, a no-brainer -- punt, pin the other team back and let the defense go to work.

Listening to an Oakland Raiders' game, University of California economics professor David Romer began wondering if there was a statistical basis for all of these supposedly easy-to-make coaching decisions.

Why, he asked, don't more coaches go for a potentially game-altering touchdown on fourth-and-short, rather than playing it safe with the field goal? And why don't they gamble on fourth down by trying to make a play, thus retaining possession of the ball and keeping the defense on the field, rather than always punting?

So, putting his mind to debunking the NFL's traditional no-brainer thinking, Romer and five research assistants examined 20,000 first-quarter plays in 732 regular season games from 1998, 1999 and 2000, then analyzed them with proven methods -- as an economist would, rather than a football coach.

"Basically, you have to recognize that you're not doing everything by a sense of what the odds are. When you drive the length of the field, you want to come away with points because, if you don't make it, there's a tremendous momentum you have to take into account."
Bill Cowher
Steelers head coach

The result was a studious, highly detailed 33-page working paper titled "It's Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say? A Dynamic Programming Analysis of Football Strategy." It was submitted this summer to the National Bureau of Economic Strategy.

"My fellow economists are thrilled with this," the 44-year-old Romer said. "I've been getting e-mails from people who said that paper was great and they're completely convinced."

Despite its weighty title and intimidating volume of data, Romer's conclusions are fairly simple: Coaches should gamble more on fourth down, not just in scoring territory but from nearly every spot on the field, even in situations such as fourth-and-3 from their own 10.

Of the 1,100 fourth downs where Romer thought it was best to go for it, though, teams kicked 992 times.

"In life, you face a lot of situations where, if you make the wrong decision, the consequences are terrible. But in football, what you often see the offense do is exactly what the defense wants it to do: kick the field goal or punt the ball," Romer said. "Yet there's a high payoff [for going for it on fourth down] ... it's an attractive gamble."

Not enough for Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher to significantly alter his play-calling strategy.

Given an outline of Romer's research, Cowher said it is impossible to quantify all the intangibles that go into fourth-down decisions -- momentum, confidence, personnel, injuries, matchups, the weather and the crowd.

"Basically, you have to recognize that you're not doing everything by a sense of what the odds are," Cowher said. "When you drive the length of the field, you want to come away with points because, if you don't make it, there's a tremendous momentum you have to take into account."

Still, Romer is mystified why coaches insist on kicking the field goal in such situations, saying, "This isn't World Cup soccer, where three points usually wins the game."

Romer's research reveals that teams going for it on fourth-and-short situations near the goal line are successful only 43 percent of the time -- not exactly overwhelming evidence that coaches are making the wrong call.

"Three out of seven from fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2 at the goal line?" Cowher said. "I don't look at those as very good odds. Momentum plays a very big part in football and when you fail in those situations ... you may put your team in a hole they can't overcome."

Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey remembers such failures altering not only the course of a game, but a season.

"It's really a feel thing when to go for it," he said. "Maybe with a defense like ours, you can gamble [on fourth-and-goal at the 1] a little more knowing they've got to go 99 yards against our defense.

"But we were 30th in the league in red zone last year, yet we won 14 games, so you can read anything into stats you want to."

Last year, NFL teams gambled on fourth down roughly once per game, usually on fourth and short yardage. The Detroit Lions went for it a league-high 25 times, converting 12, but they won only twice and thus gambled more because they constantly were behind.

The Chargers went for it the fewest times -- four -- yet converted all but once. The best teams with more than 10 opportunities were St. Louis (8 of 11) and Philadelphia (9 of 13), while Tennessee (2 of 15) was the worst.

Another potential stumbling block with the research is, because so few teams gambled on fourth down in their own territory early in a game, Romer based his conclusions primarily on what they did on third down.

The Steelers' coaches said that's an unfair comparison because the play-calling, the defensive adjustments, the crowd noise and numerous other intangibles change appreciably from third to fourth down.

"Fourth-and-1 from your 40?" Cowher said. "Even if the odds are with you, one or two of those you don't make and you've pinned your football team back, you've put them in a situation sometimes they can't overcome."

One NFL mind perhaps more sympathetic to Romer's findings is new Washington Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier, who never went by the traditional play-calling book during his successful run at Florida.

Spurrier showed his willingness to gamble during the Redskins' first exhibition game against the 49ers, disdaining a long field-goal attempt on a fourth-and-1 play on which Danny Wuerffel threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Derrius Thompson.

Given the options -- a field goal, a punt or a chance to score seven points -- Spurrier's choice was easy.

"Very few coaches throw it in the end zone a lot [on fourth-and-short]," Spurrier said. "We believe in giving it a chance."

Cowher wants to see the report, but doesn't expect a sudden swing in play-calling tendencies even if it is widely circulated in the league.

Asked what would happen if more coaches follow the economist's suggestions, Cowher smiled and said, "There will be a lot more unemployed coaches looking for professors' jobs."

David Romer's paper 

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