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By Melissa Jacobs and Ben Eagle
September 11, 2015

Fourth quarter, up by three, facing a fourth-and-two in opponent's territory. Do you roll the dice and go for it, or do you play the field position game?

Melissa Jacobs and Ben Eagle debate the conventional wisdom surrounding one of the toughest decisions in coaching.

Yes, yes, yes

Ben Eagle: NFL coaches are a conservative lot, and conventional football wisdom says to take the points or play the field position game on fourth down. The numbers, though, tell a very different story.

Study after study has analyzed the risk/reward of going for it on fourth-and-short, and study after study has found that it pays to be aggressive on your final down. Andy Staples summed up the calculus nicely in a recent article on The Power Of Not Punting. “Each yard line has an expected point value. Each down-and-distance has an expected rate of success. Punting average is easily calculated, as is punt return average. … It’s fairly easy to use these numbers to create a do-I-go-for-it-on-fourth-down formula similar to the do-I-hit probability combinations in blackjack.” And with the ball in opponent’s territory and less than four yards to go, the formula says you’re better off going for it every time.

A testament to the formula? Try Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley, the high school coach who never punts. He’s 138-24-1 with four state titles to his name. And while Staples notes that passing on punting isn’t the only key to Kelley’s success, the old-school thinkers on NFL sidelines could certainly learn a thing or two from his playcalling.


Melissa Jacobs: Yes, from human data analysts to New York Times-generated bots, the probability of success all skews in favor of going for it.  But perhaps more economists need to enter this long-standing debate because opportunity cost is the overwhelming reason to remain conservative.

Situations vary, and in some cases fear of kicking it back to a red-hot offense is the prevailing factor. See Bill Belichick’s controversial (and failed) decision in 2009 against the rival Colts to go for it on fourth-and-two from his own 28 with 2:08 left in the game in an attempt to seal the game and prevent Peyton Manning from taking the field. Belichick’s roll of the dice led to a short field for a red-hot Manning who was able to find Reggie Wayne in the end zone for a Colts win.

Field position remains the most crucial aspect of the game, the steady backbone to controlling momentum. Assuming a team has an adequate defense, is not facing Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers and isn’t trailing by double-digits, why potentially give away the upper hand?

The ways a team could fail to convert are important. A botched snap. A fumble. A botched snap fumble that the other team recovers and takes in for six. Or a team could simply get stuffed. None of these are uncommon occurrences and all of them would serve to silence a rowdy home crowd or light up an opponent’s stadium, not to mention the actual opponent.

Going for it on fourth-and-short may seem harmless on the surface but failing to advance those few inches can be a karma changer and eventually lead to a loss. Tune out the “GO FOR IT” monkey gallery.

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