Your verification ID is: guDlT7MCuIOFFHSbB3jPFN5QLaQ Big Computing: Why NFL teams punt on fourth down instead of going for it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why NFL teams punt on fourth down instead of going for it.

I must admit the reasons why NFL teams punt on fourth down as opposed to going for it is not a question I have ever look at analytically. For football I become emotional in my desires and decision making. I am an old, and never very good, lineman I want to always go for it on fourth down, and I want to run the ball so I can tee up on somebody. Oddly it appears that coaches make the decision on weather to punt based on their own rules which do not have a relation to an analysis of what options have the best expected outcome.

Dr. Rangaraj Ramanuja talked about this on the radio this morning on Here is a text of the Radio spot:

We all know that fourth-down plays in football games can make for drama. They are also great occasions for observing organizational decision making. This was the premise that got David Lehman at National University of Singapore, other colleagues, and I interested in the question when are NFL teams more likely to go for it on a fourth-down?

To answer this, we analyzed over 22,000 fourth-down plays from regular season NFL games. Our basic findings: teams rarely go for it. In fact, they went for it in just under 12% of the plays. They were more likely to go for it when they were trailing. Trailing teams were much more likely to go for it later rather than earlier in the game.

As observations about football, none of this is surprising. But as statements about decisions in business organizations, they are quite revealing. The finding that teams chose to punt the ball 88% of the time is significant because as several studies of NFL teams have indicated, purely from a risk-benefit viewpoint, teams should be going for it much more frequently. That they don't supports an important idea in organizational sociology that decisions in organizations are often rule-based actions.

In other words, people make choices not by calculating costs and benefits but by choosing appropriate rules to follow. So, for football teams, the rule seems to be that if it is a fourth-down, punt. This also means that the willingness to go for it is essentially the willingness to deviate from a rule or experiment with non-routine actions. Applied to business organizations that pursue the goal of meeting or beating analysts' expectations at the end of each quarter, our findings suggest that such organizations may be more willing to try something different when they are underperforming and when they are close to an important deadline such as the end of the quarter.
(from WAMC)

There is a lot here from an analytics and human perspective.

First, it shows me that humans and the organizations they build are risk averse. They choose to protect against the downside (punt) rather than try for the upside (go for it). Most of the people I work with fall out of that spectrum because in order to do startups  one simply can not be risk averse. These guys would go for it on fourthand goal from their own one yard line. 

From an analytics prospective the are two areas of great concern. First, people often choose to ignore the finding and recommendation of the Data Scientist. I am all for questioning of an analytical study to determine if it is in fact valid, but after that has been done let the data and analytics speak for themselves and respect their findings. Second organizations usually question what they are doing only when they are doing poorly, and only then do they accept change. Imagine what we could achieve if we were willing to constantly look at better ways to do things, and adopt those things that really were. We could be so much better than we are today.


  1. One thing I've noticed in the NFL is coaches may in fact be more willing to make "risky" or non-traditional strategy decisions after they've had some measure of success. As a result of the success they've had (be it that season or in their career), they have more job security and are less likely to be second-guessed. Two examples of this would be Bill Belichick's tendency to go for it on 4th and short more often than most coaches (the most famous example being the 4th and 2 play at Indy in 2009, which failed, but had a slightly higher win probability than punting) and Sean Payton's decision to do an onside kick relatively early in the 2009 Super Bowl. As coaches who had several Super Bowl rings (Belichick) or who had improbably led their team to the Super Bowl (Payton), these coaches were able to make what they felt were optimal decisions with less fear of the consequences.

    The majority of NFL coaches most often opt for the conservative route, the one which will leave them less open to criticism. It doesn't help that announcers almost always question the more aggressive coaching decisions as unduly risky, and tend to evaluate the decisions in a results-oriented way (failed to convert on 4th down -- which is often on the players, not the coach -- therefore bad decision). Countless times I've heard commentators, often former players, say that the coach should have gone with the "percentage play" meaning to punt, when in fact the higher win expectancy play was probably going for it.

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