It’s one of the hardest decisions faced by an NFL coach: what to do on fourth down. Should the team play it safe and punt? Or go for it and risk turning the ball over? A few years ago, David Romer, an economist at UC-Berkeley, analyzed every fourth down during the first quarter of every NFL game between 1998 and 2000 so that he could figure out the optimal fourth-down strategy.
A dizzying number of variables were included in Romer’s calculations, from the value of a first down at various spots on the field to the probability of kicking a successful field goal at varying distances. So what did he find? According to Romer, teams would have been better off going for it — running or passing — on fourth down on 1,100 of the drives he looked at. However, the coaches decided to kick the ball 992 times. Although these professionals get paid millions of dollars a year to make the right call, they actually make the wrong one a disturbing amount of the time. Romer conservatively estimates that a more aggressive approach on fourth downs would make a team 5 percent more likely to win the game. This is a significant advantage: A coach willing to endure the risks of going for it would win, on average, almost one additional game per season.
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