Nate’s Notebook: 4th Down, Analytics vs. Tradition
What’s the most boring play in all of football? I’d wager for most football fans, watching the punt team stroll out to boot the ball back to the opponent is the least exciting part of the greatest sport. It’s almost deflating. You give up your chance to score to give the other team a chance to score. Yet, the punt has become a regular part of the game.
An NFL game features an average of 10.3 punts per game, compared to only 4.1 field goal attempts. Since an NFL game has an average of 24 possessions (12 per team), it figures that nearly half of those possessions end with no chance to score points as one team voluntarily kicks the ball back to the other team. But what if I told you that the punt is not only boring but also highly unnecessary much of the time.
Then a Hero Comes Along …
Meet Kevin Kelly. He’s the head coach of Pulaski Academy High School in Arkansas. And he’s either crazy or a genius. Or maybe a bit of both. You see, Kelly never punts. Ever. 4th and 10 from your own 7-yard line? Yup, we’re going for it. It doesn’t stop there. He also always goes for two, always kicks onside kicks and runs an abundance of trick plays. He’s also won five state titles and has been wildly successful. Maybe he’s on to something.
The NFL is a different animal than high school. Your mistakes are magnified, your specialists are far more talented, and the talent level is far more even than you’ll find at the high school level. I’m not advocating for 2-point conversions after every score or always kicking onside. But this never punting strategy has some merit and it’s time the NFL catches up.
Tradition Becomes Accepted Practice
NFL teams punt all the time. Why? Well, because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s ingrained into every NFL coach to send out the punt team as soon as the down marker flips to “4.” 4th and goal from the one yard line leaves coaches with “a decision to make.” 4th and inches from your own 30? Forget about it. Punt the ball away and play defense. 4th and 3 from your opponents 38? The difficult choice between trying to pin the other team inside their own 10 or attempting a 55-yard field goal.
Teams punt all the time in the NFL and they don’t even think about it. They do it because that’s what you always do. You go to Grandma Nancy’s house for Thanksgiving every year. You watch fireworks from the park in town on the 4th of July. You go to the same restaurant every Saturday night for the last 10 years. Why? I don’t know, that’s just how we’ve always done it. We love our traditions and we love predictability. To think outside of the box is scary. Safe is comfortable. Imaginative is dangerous.
It has been said that complacency is the enemy of progress.
Analytics Tell a Story
Sports are becoming more analytical by the day. Every major sport has evolved due to the analytics game. Major League Baseball executives realized batting average was overrated and hitting home runs was important. A player that hits .250 with 40 home runs is more valuable than the player who hits .330 with 10 home runs and leads the league in singles. You don’t win baseball games by getting on base. You win by scoring runs.
NBA GMs have begun constructing teams around 3-point shooting. Three pointers are worth 50% more points than shots inside the arc and hoisting a lot of three pointers spaces the floor to allow for higher percentage shots from two. Gone are the bruising days of the 90s. You don’t win by being tough. You win by scoring points.
But the NFL, and football in general, has failed to catch up with the times and the math. NFL GMs think they’re revolutionaries when they draft a six-foot quarterback or use a running back by committee approach. In regards to punting, games are not won by field position. They’re won by scoring points, and every time you punt, you forfeit 8% of your opportunities to score points.
As much as I admire Kelly’s no punts strategy, I think small tweaks are necessary for the NFL game, which requires far more precision. However, there’s no denying the numbers indicate NFL coaches should be going for it on 4th down far more than they currently do.
A study done by Yale University researchers discovered that 65.7% of all 4th and 1 tries were successful. The preferred play in this situation is a QB sneak (apologies to Patrick Mahomes’ knee cap), which converts nearly 83% of the time. Given the astronomical statistical advantage, it makes sense to go for it on every single 4th and 1 or less regardless of field position. It’s rare to see an NFL team go for it unless they’ve at least crossed their own 40 yard line. Some coaches won’t consider it unless they’ve crossed midfield.
This is foolishness. Consider a 4th and 1 or less from your own 18 yard line. A QB sneak will result in first down 83% of the time. The average punt nets 41.5 yds, therefore punting in this situation would likely put your opponent at their own 40 yard line, putting them in a prime position to come away with points on their ensuing possession.
Fourth and short situations (3 yards or less to go) are also plays in which the offense should consider going for it a majority of the time. 4th and 3 plays convert 55% of the time, and, again, leaving the offense with the advantage. Field position should be more of a consideration in these circumstances, but once your offense has crossed its own 35 yard line, the reward outweighs the risk.
The real mental battle for NFL coaches would be choosing to go for 4th and short situations when in field goal position. NFL kickers are accurate and it’s hard for a coach to pass up what seems like a sure 3 points. But it takes three field goals to surpass the value of one touchdown and extra point. The goal should always be to seek out touchdowns until the situation deems it mathematically unfavorable (less than 50% conversion rate).
…Or Not to Go
There are times that NFL coaches are wise to punt. When the conversion rate dips below 50% likely, punting is acceptable. 4th and 5 is about a 50/50 toss up. At 4th and 6, you have a less than 50% of converting, and punting can be considered when examining field position, time remaining, score, etc.
4th and long situations decidedly favor the defense. If you’ve cross midfield but are not yet in reasonable field goal range, going for it is more advantageous than the modest field position gain. On your own side of the field, you’re better off kicking it away.
Game situations should dictate when coaches go for it on 4th and manageable situations. When it’s late in the game, punting may be your best mathematical chance at winning. If you’re trailing by 2 points and facing a 4th and 1 with under a minute left, then kick the field goal. The point of an aggressive fourth-down strategy isn’t to be stupid in late-game situations but rather to increase your chances of entering the late game stages with more points than you would have otherwise scored.
The Final Word
When it comes to fourth down situations, the math is clear. With less than 5 yards to go, you should go for it a majority of the time. It increases your chances of scoring points, thus increasing your chances of winning. 4th and 1 or fewer situations should be automatic, going for it every time save for certain late-game situations.
It may seem like radical thinking, but it isn’t when you consider the analytics are firmly on your side. Other sports have figured out how to trust the analytics, even when it seems foolish by traditional standards. Thirty years ago, no baseball manager would have thought it wise to completely abandon one half of the field to play a shift against a dead pull hitter. It happens with frequency now because it’s the right move and the numbers back it up. Thirty years ago, no NBA coach would have imagined hoisting 40 three point attempts in a game and abandoning a traditional center in exchange for a 6’7 guy that can jack threes. Now, it’s winning titles every year.
Thirty years ago, NFL coaches…well, they did the same thing coaches do today. The evolution of the coaching game hasn’t occurred. But sure, pat yourself on the back because you drafted a six-foot tall quarterback. I know that box is comfortable but it’s time to change. Be radical, go a little crazy, and trust the numbers.
And fergodsakes, someone hire Kevin Kelly!