Should Football Teams Go For it On 4th Down? This Chart Tells You


Have you been waiting for definitive proof that coaches in the National Football League are a bunch of wussies? Well, the New York Times has your answer: meet the NYT 4th Down Bot

Using a model developed by Founder Brian Burke, the NYT 4th Down Bot calculates exactly what a coach should do if his team finds itself facing fourth down. Compare the bot’s recommendations to an aggregation of what coaches have actually done since 2002, and you’ll see coaches are far too conservative.

Source: The New York Times

OK, let’s back up a bit. So, a team faced with a fourth down has three options. It can a) punt the ball away, ceding possession to the other team; b) kick a field goal attempt for a potential 3 points; or c) go for it on fourth down, trying to reach the first-down marker.

Most coaches either punt or attempt a field goal, if they’re in range. Rarely ever do they go for it on fourth down. But the NYT 4th Down Bot says that’s a mistake. The bot “uses thousands of N.F.L. plays since 2000 to calculate the average number of points each situation is worth.” So the bot figures out the potential payoff for each situation, evaluating the risk versus reward for a team’s decision. The payoff is based on “expected points,” which “assigns a single point value to any game situation, based on how likely a team is to score from that field position.” And what the NYT 4th Down Bot found was that coaches overrated the risk for situations and underrated the rewards. In other words: they’re cowards.

Far too often, coaches opt to punt or kick a field goal when they should be going for the first down. The bot even suggests going for it on fourth down with 11 yards to go on the opponent’s 38-yard-line. Even starker: the bot recommends going for it every time on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2, no matter where the team is on the field. That’s quite the departure from reality, where teams go for it less than half the time on fourth-and-1, and far less often on fourth-and-2.

Note that the NYT 4th Down Bot doesn’t account for team strength, so yes, there is some strategizing still left up to the coaches. But this model proves how often teams make the wrong decision when they follow emotion (fear?) rather than the math. There’s a huge opportunity in the NFL to maximize payoff for potential game situations. Baseball saw a revolution with sabermetrics. Perhaps football is on the way to one of its own.