Based upon irrefutable mathematics, football teams should be much more aggressive on 4th down – they punt and kick field goals far too often. As far back as 2002, University of California Berkeley economist David Romer expressed his hope that coaches would begin maximizing their odds of victory when the related data became more widely available.
Football Outsiders introduced an Aggressiveness Index back in Pro Football Prospectus 2006. Over the years, the index has consistently found that “no NFL coach is as aggressive as the data suggests he should be.” Simply put, teams and coaches “don’t maximize.”
Any serious attempt at “maximization” is only just beginning to happen. Last season, teams went for it on fourth and one a suboptimal 57 percent of the time, up from 44 percent the previous season. On fourth and two, they went for it a suboptimal 25 percent of the time, up from 20 percent in 2017. More broadly, NFL teams between 2000 and 2017 went for it 32 percent of the time on fourth and one or two. That rate skyrocketed to (a still suboptimal) 45 percent last year.
Coaches are getting better at making good fourth down decisions, but there is still a long way to go. On fourth-and-goal situations inside the opponent’s 3-yard-line, NFL coaches still usually send the field goal unit onto the field. Moreover, as the NFL’s director of data and analytics, Michael Lopez, (carefully) explained, “There are gaps in strategy between the teams.”
And these gaps are exploitable.
When the Arizona Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and drafted Kyler Murray to play quarterback earlier this year, the obvious goal was putting an aggressive, modern offense on the field. So far, that seems to be happening generally. Kingsbury has implemented a high-tempo offense that features empty sets, quick throws, and a pass-heavy attack. Thus, for example, when the Kingsbury Cardinals have passed the ball without using play-action, they have done so with at least three receivers on the field, which provides more efficiency. All of that suggests a clear reliance on what football analytics teaches.
The Cardinals don’t have a ton of talent (yet?). A talent-deprived roster has to take risks (needs high volatility) to win, and a recent study found the average team could add nearly half a win per year simply by being more aggressive on fourth down. A super-talented young quarterback and a forward-thinking coach can give an undermanned team like the Cardinals a fighting chance to pull an upset, and perhaps win more than an “extra” game per year.
But there seems to be a fly in the ointment. Kingsbury’s forward-thinking offense is being sabotaged by poor fourth down decision-making.
Three times last Sunday the Arizona offense stalled inside Baltimore’s five-yard line, while trailing, during the Cardinals’ 23-17 loss to the Ravens. All three times (and once in the first game too) Kingsbury followed “fossilized convention” and sent his field-goal unit out on to the field. That had never happened before. Zane Gonzalez converted each time, but Arizona’s win probability dropped. Kliff shouldn’t have kicked, and none of them was a close call.1 In sum, these decisions reduced the Cardinals’ chances of winning the game by 4.1 percent, per Edj Sports, which is a lot, and even more because “Arizona didn’t have a very good chance of winning the game in the first place” and was behind.
Kingsbury is not the only young, X’s and O’s wunderkind to have this problem. NFL coaches too often overvalue field position and undervalue possession. In the current high-octane environment for offenses, that reality has only grown starker. Last season, NFL teams kicked 55 field goals with the ball inside the five-yard line. As retired Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher explained the dilemma, “There’s so much more involved with the game than just sitting there, looking at the numbers and saying, ‘OK, these are my percentages, then I’m going to do it this way,’ because that one time it doesn’t work could cost your team a football game, and that’s the thing a head coach has to live with, not the professor.”
During his last game as coach of the Buffalo Bills in late 2016, not-a-professor Rex Ryan needed a win to stay in playoff contention. With the Bills facing a fourth-and-2 on their own 41 with 4:09 left in overtime, Ryan elected to punt even though his offense had set a team record with 589 net yards that day and the math said he should go for it. “I thought I’d pin them deep and then get the ball back,” Ryan said after the game. “But every coach in America would have done the same thing.” Ryan was surely wrong about the “every coach” thing (not that he was alone). The Bills never got the ball back and lost. Ryan was fired shortly after making those ill-considered comments.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Cade Massey explains (and he’s not alone) that coaches habitually choose to postpone the certainty of losing in football for as long as possible, even if doing so lowers the likelihood of winning. For example, in last Saturday’s college action, Pittsburgh travelled to Penn State as a big underdog. Pitt faced fourth-and-goal at the one while behind 17-10 with 4:54 remaining in the fourth quarter. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi sent his kicker onto the field (who made things worse by missing). Former Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase admitted to path dependence, that he would have liked to go for it more on fourth down but was too concerned about being blamed for a failure. Trying a new approach and failing is much riskier from a career risk perspective than following conventional wisdom and losing.
“One my favorite sayings is ‘fortune favors the bold,’” Pro Football Focus head data scientist (that’s a real thing) George Chahrouri said. “I feel like really in this situation, it’s fortune favors the logical. It would be a risk not to go for it. The idea it’s not a risk to be giving the ball to an opponent is hilarious to me.” That’s especially so because there has been an immense amount of research done on this subject and NFL teams have vast resources to implement that research in an environment that would give them a clear advantage if they did. This parade of bad decision-making comes courtesy of a cascade of behavioral biases – it’s status quo bias, motivated reasoning, loss aversion,2 path dependence, sunk cost thinking, regret avoidance, and career risk fear all rolled into one.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson has had great success on fourth down. With the full support of his bosses, he goes for it more than any other NFL coach and won a championship that way. He converted two fourth downs against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, one of which was the now famous “Philly Special”3 for a TD. This success has, in analyst Adam Kilgore’s words, “enabled coaches to start going for it with less professional risk. …Job preservation is a powerful, unspoken and maybe unconscious factor. Whatever decision a coach makes on fourth down, whether it’s supported by the odds or not, it could backfire. It’s safer for coaches to be on the wrong side of a choice if they align themselves with convention.” But, of course, safety entails great risks of its own, as Kliff Kingsbury demonstrates.
These ready-made opportunities for a competitive advantage in football don’t have clear counterparts in the investing world. In fact, the most common advantage claims – like stock-picking, hedge funds, big returns without risk, or “single-stock retirements” – are typically wildly overstated or illusory. Investing offers only a few consistent advantages. Most prominently, these include time (which offers the power of compounding, lower volatility, tax advantages, and less friction), patience (because emotional trading comes with enormous costs), and diversification (investing’s only “free lunch”).
Somehow, these great advantages don’t feel like “going for it.” In fact, they seem like the opposite of going for it, which is both the challenge and the opportunity.
“Last season, the average starting field position after a kickoff was the 26-yard line. And on those drives, teams averaged 2.0 points per drive … after a kickoff, you can expect the average team to score two points, and the Ravens at home are at least that good. … On average, possession following a kickoff at the 26-yard line is worth about 1.2 expected points…[and, as it turned out, the Ravens responded with 60, 85, and 70 yard drives for 3, 7, and 3 points, for 4.33 actual points per possession, leaving Arizona four points worse after the field goals than they were before].
“This means after kicking a field goal, the Cardinals should have expected Baltimore to take back 1.2 of the 3 points they just put on the board, netting Arizona 1.8 points. After a touchdown, you would expect the Ravens to take back 1.2 of the 7 points you put on the scoreboard, so you net 5.8 points. At a minimum, this makes a touchdown well more than 3 times as valuable as a field goal… and even more so in a game where you are a heavy underdog [as Arizona was]. And don’t forget, in the bad case scenario, a missed 4th down attempt pins the opponent back in a situation where you are still the more likely team to score next [the extra 20+ yards of field position is worth 1.5-2 points each time].”
2 As the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has stated, “the concept of loss aversion is certainly the most significant contribution of psychology to behavioral economics.”
3 According to Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, Pederson “listened to the analytics people when they told us what gave us the best chance to win.”