Why the F*ck are you Punting on Fourth and Two!

Football has always been the ultimate man’s man, chain of command, defeat your enemy, and follow the leader kinda sport.   Violent imagery – shotguns, throwing bombs, and scrimmages  abound and hearken to our most warlike tendencies.

I myself, as a lil’ pup, suffered my fair share of brain trauma as the power’s that be(‘d) in my life tried to steer my indomitable waywardness into healthy outlets.

I have often wondered if I could’a been a physicist if not for the repeated concussions I suffered as my character and discipline were being molded.   But I digress….

The NFL is a copycat league ( everyone is still trying to copy that nearly undefeated New England Patriots team’s offense ) innovation, as it is, comes slowly and is quickly co-opted by all of the other teams.  The Dolphin’s Wildcat and even the RG3 Redskins read option worked for a season or two until defenses caught up. ( aside: don’t even get me started about The John Fox / Tim Tebow Broncos… )  This only reinforced the idea the football grown-ups knew better and everyone still wants a slot receiver to throw 3 yard dinks to from the shotgun…  Which is fine, but for the love of all that is Red, White, and Blue will somebody please stop punting on fourth and short?

Ask a handful of football coaches what the most important aspects of the game are and I would be surprised if possessing the ball was not a popular theme.  Yet, even when the statistics are heavily in their favor, they still decide to un-posess the ball in favor of field position, illustrating that contrary to what they say, football coaches actually value field position more than ball possession.   In economics they have this idea called Prospect Theory that postulates that we ( the royal we ) fear losses more than we value gains, if this is true then it stands to reason that coaches will choose to punt.  Additionally no NFL coach has ever been fired for thinking too far in the box…

History also plays a large part in the thinking behind punting – back when teams were only likely to score once a game – a punt virtually insured that your opponent would not score on it’s next drive.  In the days of 9-7 games, SEC teams used to punt on 3rd down, which in some situations is still the right call, it’s just that it is .0001% of 3rd downs….  High school and college football teams are much more open to the non-traditional approaches – if you were Florida Atlantic and had to play Alabama I am sure that you would be looking for alternatives as well.    Similarly there are a percentage of 4th downs where you should punt, it’s just that ALL NFL coaches and most college coaches punt way too often.

To understand how stat nerds have figured out what professional football people cannot figure, you have to understand some fancy metrics like Expected Points (EP) and Expected Outcome (EO).  Basically these stats measure the percentage of time an outcome will happen based on the situation.

For example, a 4th down and 3 at the 50 yd line could be converted 56% of the time. A successful conversion would (at worst) give the offense a 1st down at the opponent’s 47, worth 1.8 EP. And an unsuccessful conversion would give the opponent a first down at the 50, worth 1.9 EP to them and -1.9 EP to the current offense. The value of going for it is therefore:

(0.56 * 1.9) + ((1-0.56) * -1.8) = 0.3 EP

That’s a fancy way of saying ( and the math explaining ) that on average you are better going for it than punting in that situation. If it was 4th and 2 on the opponents 45 that number gets better and it is is 4th and 10 from your own 35 then obviously it is significantly worse. There are many other variables ( score, time of the game, etc. ) but all that works itself out towards the mean (median?, i went to government schools…) average. The bottom line is that math and big data have proven that NFL coaches are hurting their careers and the fortunes of their teams by punting the ball on average 2 and a half times too many each game.

Big data and football both interest me, I’ve been working a related football project here.  Expect this to become a re-occurring theme on this blog, stay tuned…


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