August 9, 2015
Nick Elam

Football season is fast approaching! Saturdays and Sundays will be spent tailgating with friends. Leaves will change colors and an autumn chill will fill the air. And far too often, some fan will misguidedly encourage his or her favorite team to “play it safe” by aborting their mission to score a touchdown in favor of a punt or field goal attempt on 4th down.

Don’t be that fan.

Football’s 4th down serves as the battleground for one of sports’ most heated ongoing debates between theorists and practitioners. Statheads continue to cite data suggesting that teams could benefit from more aggressive 4th-down play-calling – that “playing it safe” means not willfully giving the ball to the other team, as we see so often when a team opts to punt. Conversely, old-school coaches continue to punt the day away, placing a higher priority on their opponent’s field position than their own team’s total number of points scored.

But even if the field position rationale is sound (which is true to an extent, but not to that extent), old-school coaches seem sloppily and inexplicably less concerned about field position in at least three common scenarios:

  • When attempting a long field goal (instead of going for a first down), when a miss can directly lead to favorable field position for one’s opponent
  • When attempting a short, “pin-‘em-deep” punt (instead of going for a first down), intending to hinder one’s opponent with unfavorable field position…by trading in one’s own favorable field position!
  • When attempting a short field goal (instead of going for a touchdown) when oh-so-close to one’s opponent’s goal line, when going for it would – at worst – directly lead to extremely unfavorable field position for one’s opponent

For better or worse, like in so many other realms in life, the coach-practitioners in this case hesitate to accept the advice of outsider-theorists. And though most reasonable theorists would agree with old-school coaches that some circumstances are difficult to anticipate and some factors are difficult to appropriately weigh, the two parties disagree on the usefulness of theorists’ best attempts to date.

But as I see it, even if one views a 4th-down decision through a less quantified lens – opting instead for a from-the-gut lens – more aggressive 4th-down play-calling would still seem to be the best approach, as it represents the opposite of what one’s opponent would want. After all, when a punt squad or field goal squad trots out from the sideline, one’s opponent invariably breathes a sigh of relief, reservedly celebrates a successful defensive stop, and says a silent “thank you” for receiving possession of the ball on a platter. On the other hand, when an offense stays on the field (indicating a team will attempt to convert a 4th down), one’s opponent’s worried heart pounds.

So march the streets, write your Congressman, do whatever you have to do – but don’t stand by and watch your favorite team punt a win away!

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. Number crunchers have been calling for more aggressive 4th-down play-calling for years…

…and if you’d like to know the optimal 4th-down strategy for a situation in a game in progress, check out:



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