Art Carden  

What Would Happen if Teams Went For it on Fourth Down More Often?

What Every High School Junior ... Joan Rivers: More than a Comed...

The Upshot at the New York Times introduces us to the NYT 4th Down Bot, which will tell us in real time whether a team should or shouldn't go for it on 4th down. There's a fairly well-known argument that teams are way too conservative on 4th down. As the 4th Down Bot puts it,

Every week, N.F.L. coaches leave points on the table -- and hurt their teams' chances of victory -- by being too timid on fourth down.

I'm sure this extends to other levels, as well. If teams recognized that the expected value of more fourth-and-short plays is positive and that "four down territory" is larger than they think, we would probably see more conservative play-calling on downs 1-3.

What, therefore, would this do to overall strategy and the value of different position players? It goes without saying that punters and kickers would decline in value as they would be used less frequently. Teams realizing they only need to average 2.5 yards per non-kicking play rather than 3 yards and a cloud of dust would rely more heavily on the run, and we would see more running plays on third-and-long. On offense, running backs and good run-blockers would become more important; wide receivers and quarterbacks would become less important. Defenses would have to focus on the run.

This brings to mind an idea my Dean suggested a few years ago, and it's an idea I'd love to see studied. He suggested putting 3 punt returners back and fair-catching every kick. The probability of an injury is higher on kicking plays than others, as is the probability of a penalty. He wonders--and I wonder--if the expected field position from fair catching every punt is superior to the expected field position from trying to return every punt.

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CATEGORIES: Microeconomics

COMMENTS (7 to date)
John Thacker writes:

Perhaps a good idea of what might happen could be obtained by comparing NFL offenses to the CFL, since the CFL has one fewer down to obtain the same 10 yards.

tom writes:

Putting 3 players back to receive on punts would lead to a lot of fake punts.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

A successful high school coach that doesn't punt or return punts, and almost always onside kicks.

Joe in Morgantown writes:

There are two problems with the fair catch idea. First, if you have 3 men back, you are outnumbered at the line and a fake is easier. Second, punters currently focus on hang time--- a high kick to prevent returns. If they know you will fair catch, they can focus on distance.

Here's a story
claiming an example of kicker who can kick 70+ yards, but is settling for 30 yard shorter kicks to avoid returns.

brendan writes:

Your Dean is clueless.

A solo punt returner is able to catch ~90% of punts, so to execute the 'fair catch everything' idea two punt returners would be adequate to catch virtually everything.

Secondly, punters intentionally sacrifice distance for hangtime to protect against the threat of a long return. The threat increases if the returner catches the ball long before the coverage team is near him.

So if you committed to fair catching everything you'd see punts averaging 55-60 yards rather than 45.

Since punt returners average ~5 yards of return per punt, your Dean's idea would probably hurt average field position by 15-20 yards per punt.

brendan writes:

Speedy, agile quarterbacks would be the greatest beneficiary of more 4th down attempts for several reasons.

It's well documented that the yards per carry of running backs playing alongside rushing QB's is abnormally high, because the D has to dedicate resources to the threat of QB rush.

Teams with rushing QB's naturally run more, because they're good at it, and because the QB tucks and runs on passing plays ~5 times per game.

Rushing QB's are a beast to defend against short yardage- 4th and 2.

It's already happening to some extent, but you'd likely see a proliferation of college style option type offenses in the NFL.

Tim Tebow might have a job. Terrelle Pryor certainly would.

Dave Tufte writes:

Fair catching every punt was one of the strategies followed by the Bills in Super Bowl XXV (the one they were favored in, but didn't win when a last second field goal went wide right).

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