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It's 4th Down, what should we do now?

Prompted by Quzybuk's most recent Fanshot, message board cries and most prominently David Romer's famous 2005 dynamic-programming analysis of football strategy as it pertains to 4th down and punting/kicking, I have put together this Wake Forest-centric article on why Jim Grobe's "conservative" strategy is not just frustrating to watch, but also hurting his team's chance of winning football games.

Streeter Lecka

As noted in the summary above, the following article was brought on by several things that I have read or heard recently surrounding Wake Forest football and football in general.

Last Thursday night against Clemson, Wake Forest was blown out 42-13. There was very little chance that the Demon Deacons were going to win the football game in the first place. While there were several aspects of the game that fans were upset about, the most anger that I heard at the game and read on message boards/BSD afterwards was the lack of "cajones" by the coaching staff when faced with two 4th down decisions in the football game.

The following by Dan Collins in one of his recent "My Take on Wake" articles explains the situation perfectly:

It’s come to my attention I’m not the only one who thought Jim Grobe should have had a little more Randall McMurphy in him on a couple of occasions in last night’s 42-13 loss to Clemson, and if you watched the game, you know which ones I’m talking about. Occasion A was when Wake, eight minutes into a scoreless game, faced a fourth-and-two at the Tigers’ 39. Occasion B arrived with 14 minutes left in the game when Wake, trailing 35-13, faced a fourth-and-seven from the Tigers’ 43.

In both cases the Deacs punted, and in both cases the Clemson Tigers scored a touchdown shortly after the punt because the Wake Forest defense could not stop Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, both of whom had career days in Groves Stadium.

As noted earlier, I do not believe that Wake Forest would have won the football game whether or not the Deacs had gone for it and converted these two 4th downs anyway. The fact of the matter is though that Wake Forest consistently relies on punting when their drives stall, especially (and maddeningly so) inside opponents territory.

A lot of coaches are known for their conservative thinking when it comes to going for it on 4th down at any point on the field, but I bet there are very few coaches out there that are as "conservative" as Jim Grobe. Note that I put "conservative" in quotation marks for a reason, as later in this "paper" of sorts will demonstrate.

I began to wonder if there were any studies or statistics out there that had already done the legwork in demonstrating the effectiveness of 4th down conversions, whether it be 4th and 15 from your own 13 yard line, or 4th and Goal from the opponents 1 yard-line. In the past I may have had to do all this legwork myself but in the great age of technology that we live in I simply had to google "4th down punting" into Google and it took me to just the article I was looking to test my hypothesis.

See I've been hearing recently that going for it on 4th down is actually the "smarter" thing to do on the football field. By that, I mean that it is actually better for your opponents if your team punts the ball to them instead of going for it. It seems "counter-intuitive" by football standards because we have all grown up with the "you punt on 4th down mentality".

With the spread of the "spread" and "no-huddle" and pass heavy offenses, all of which were considered gimmicky at one point or another, it is a wonder why there have been no major teams that have attempted to spice it up and use all 4 downs on every single drive to get the 10 yards required for a first down.

Fortunately, I found exactly what I was looking for in David Romer's article "Do Firms Maximize? Evidence From Professional Football". The article by Romer, a University of California-Berkeley economics professor, was written in 2005.


While it has served as all sorts of ammo for proponents of 4th down "enthusiasts" (as you will see why shortly), the original intent of the article for Romer's purpose was to serve as a "study of the standard view that competition in the goods, capital, and labor markets leads firms to maximizing good choices." In simple terms, people that do well usually do well because they have made good decisions.

What the article found is that "examination of of teams' actual decisions shows systematic, clear-cut, and overwhelmingly statistically significant departures from the decisions that would maximize a teams' chances of winning.


I spent a good chunk of last night reading the entire article that I linked above. What I will now do is lay out the basic stuff that you care about to make yourself smart and get the whole picture on 4th down decision-making. This is great talk for tailgates and dinners alike when discussing why your favorite coach didn't go for it on 4th down and short and inevitably cost your team the game.

I would encourage all of you to read this article in its entirety to get the full understanding of how he lays everything out and establishes his research.


First of all Professor Romer explains why he choose football to examine his thesis:

The predictions of simple models of optimization appear especially likely to hold in the

case of fourth-down decisions in professional football. There are three reasons. First, the market

for the coaches who make these decisions is intensively competitive. Salaries average roughly $3

million per year, and annual turnover exceeds 20 percent. Second, winning is valued enormously

(as shown by the very high salaries commanded by high-quality players). And third, the decisions

are unusually amenable to learning and imitation: the decisions arise repeatedly, and information

about others’ decisions is readily available. Thus a failure of maximization in this setting would be

particularly striking.

To examine the decision-making process he uses the play-by-play from every single regular season game in the 1998, 1999, and 2000 NFL season. This yields a significant amount of data to extract from, even though he only uses data from the first quarter. His reasoning for this is simple: the game is nearly always close in the first quarter, and are therefore implicitly "risk-neutral" over points scored (they aren't trailing by 2 with a second left, where 3 points is much more important than 7 points).

These 732 games in the NFL yield 11,112 first quarter situations. From this he establishes a TD to be worth 6.984 points (98.4% of XP's were successful during this span), and establishes a baseline value of a 1st and 10 and how many points a a team (or their opponent) is likely to score on average based on field position start.

For example: a 1st and 10 on your own 1 yard line is worth -1.6 points, or 1.6 points to your opponent, because obviously it is very difficult to go score a FG or TD from your own 1-yard line, and it is likely that your opponent will receive good field position on the ensuing punt.

The first important thing to note is that the value (V) rises "fairly steeply" from the one-yard line as Romer notes, reaching 0 at your own 15 yard line. This means that a team (theoretically) should be indifferent between a first and 10 on their own 15 and having an opponent in the same situation.

V increases "approximately linearly", rising about a point every 18 yards.

Another important thing to note for this study is that a kickoff is worth -0.6, so a field goal is really worth 2.4 and the net value of a TD is now 6.4.

To get the information as to how teams would fare if they did go for 4th down instead of punting/kicking a field goal, Romer extrapolates the knowledge that he has concerning the play-calls on 3rd down when put in the same situation. While he does note concerns about the variables between 3rd and 4th down playcalling, he comes to this conclusion:

The results suggest that fourth downs are virtually indistinguishable from third downs. The

mean of the difference between the realized value of the fourth-down attempts and what is

predicted by the analysis of third downs is 0.006 (with a standard error of 0.7), which is essentially

zero. When controls for the prior point spread and the current point differential are included, the

coefficient falls to -0.042 and remains highly insignificant. The point estimate corresponds to the

probability of success being one percentage point lower on fourth downs than on third downs,

which would have almost no impact on the analysis.

Now that the majority (as far as we will be concerned) of the baselines have been planted it is time to look at hypothetical situations and examine when exactly it is a good idea (statistically) to punt the ball, kick a field goal, or go for it on 4th down.

I will note that in the case of determining the values of field goals is a little off because college kickers are much worse on average than NFL kickers. In the end this actually helps the case that you should go for it on 4th down more in college football, but it is worth noting.

Romer also discredits several issues that critics were bound to bring up and that includes: momentum, selection bias, third vs. fourth down, rational risk aversion. If you wish to read more about this then read the entire work (Section IV.Complications).


Whether or not you read anything else in this article, this is the part that most people will scroll down to because it has gotten quite lengthy up to this point. I'll let the actual words of Professor Romer do the talking for this point:

On the team’s own half of the field, going for it is better on average as long as there are less than about 4

yards to go. After midfield, the gain from kicking falls, and so the critical value rises. It is 6.5 yards at the

opponent’s 45 and peaks at 9.8 on the opponent’s 33. As the team gets into field-goal range, the critical value

falls rapidly; its lowest point is 4.0 yards on the 21. Thereafter, the value of kicking changes little while the

value of going for it rises. As a result, the critical value rises again. The analysis implies that once a team

reaches its opponent’s 5, it is always better off on average going for it.

This is simple: It is ALWAYS better to go for it even on YOUR SIDE OF THE FIELD if there are UNDER 4 YARDS TO GO.

If you want some more numbers that will switch you from a 4th down goer neutral to a 4th down goer supporter here it is:

This evidence suggests that a rough estimate of the potential gains from going for it more

often on fourth downs over the whole game is four times the gains from the first quarter, or an

increase of about 2.1 percentage points in the probability of winning. Since an NFL season is 16

games long, this corresponds to slightly more than one additional win every three seasons. This is

a modest (though not trivial) effect. Thus, one cannot rule out the possibility that I have merely

identified a clear-cut but modest and isolated departure from maximization. Because I have

examined one particular type of decision in detail, there is simply no evidence either for or against

this hypothesis.

The following is a chart that Romer included in his appendix:



As Romer notes in his next paragraph:

Although these findings contradict the conventional wisdom, they are quite intuitive.

This in itself is part of the problem. Most coaches are so scared of what will happen if they don't get the first down on a fourth down attempt that they will through out this statistical evidence and punt the ball away. It doesn't make any sense at all though, because as noted in the abstract of Romer's paper, this decision-making actually hurts the coaches teams chance to win the ballgame.

If a coach was ever going to switch and become the first coach to go for 4th down all over the field then it would be right now. Once other coaches catch on, or you play a coach that also goes for 4th downs, the statistical advantage is lost.

For a sport that coaches spend 90 hour weeks+ game-planning, scouting on film, preparing their own players, and researching any little thing they can do to get an advantage over their opponent, it is absolutely MIND-BOGGLING that no coach on a collegiate or professional level has attempted this.

Rocky Long of San Diego State said before the year that he might consider not punting at all once he crosses midfield, but it seems that he has thrown this by the wayside as well, as the Aztecs have only attempted 14 4th downs all year (they've converted 9 of them). The Aztecs have punted 32 times this year and have a record of 6-3.


Once again, as Romer states in the article:

Teams’ actual choices are dramatically more conservative than the

choices recommended by the dynamic-programming analysis. On the 1604 fourth downs in the

sample where the analysis implies that teams are on average better off kicking, they went for it

only 9 times. But on the 1068 fourth downs where the analysis implies that teams are on average

better off going for it, they kicked 959 times.

Wake Forest is absolutely no different than other coaches in this realm. The Deacs have punted the ball 63 times in 8 games this year (7.9 a game). That's the most in the NCAA by 7 points and by nearly a full punt a game.

Through 8 games this season, Wake Forest has faced 79 4th downs. As the charts below show, they have punted the ball 63 times, attempted a field goal 7 times, and gone for it 9 times.

Wake Forest 4th Down Chart


  • Overall on 4th down Wake Forest punts 80% of the time, kicks a field goal 9% of the time, and goes for it 11% of the time. This is as much of an indictment on our kicking game as it is anything with Newman and Hedlund.
  • Wake Forest has faced 27 4th downs on their opponents side of the field. They have gone for it 5/28 times (21%)
  • The Deacs have had 11 chances to go for a 4th down and under 5 yards. They have chosen to do this 4 times (46%).
  • That's a little surprising to me because I feel like we've punted more than 3 times in opponents territory.
  • Out of the 5 times they have gone for it on their opponents side, they have converted them 4/5 times. The Josh Harris failed "run" against Maryland from the 1-yard line was the only failed. It could easily be 5/5 at this point.

What this research proves to me is that Coach Grobe absolutely needs to be more aggressive going for it on 4th down. The research overwhelmingly shows that going for 4th down in a lot of situations is the statistically "correct" call, yet very few coaches, and not single one in the FCS and NFL use this knowledge to their advantage.

For a school like Wake Forest and a coach like Jim Grobe that uses every little thing that they can do to level the playing field against bigger and better opponents it seems like this would be a no-brainer.

Not only does it give our guys four downs in most cases to go for it where the other team has three, it creates a unique brand of football that caters to, and is appealing to offensive football players in the high school ranks.

Also, since the Deacs would be the first team to use this method, they would be guaranteed of the numbers that Professor Romer's are completely correct because they wouldn't be going up against teams that were going for 4th down in "like" scenarios.

People say that this method is too aggressive, but we have it right here in numbers that this is the "correct" thing to do. In that respect, the aggressive thing to do is to continue to punt and kick the football when the statistics tell you that going for it is the right decision.

That's why it always strikes me as humorous when Coach Grobe says that he likes playing conservatively. That's not the case at all with not going for it on 4th down. It's just plain dumb not to use these numbers to our advantage at this juncture in the game.

I don't really blame Coach Grobe for not being the first person to utilize this method, but it would seemingly go along with things that he does to try to get an advantage. The red-shirting program, the unique pipelines, the way that Wake Forest does things here in foootball...this could be another notch in his belt and if it is successful would not only help the Deacs win more football games, but elevate his status as a head football coach in the eyes of the college football world.

As soon as the first football coach on a high level begins doing this I expect nearly every other coach to follow suit. Why not be the first team to do this Coach Grobe? For a coach that has as much leeway with the fan base and the athletic administration it is even more of a reason to do so.

Anyways, if you read this far then I am impressed. I hope that some people make it all the way to this juncture, but more importantly that Wake Forest fans learned something about our 4th down tendencies, as well as the statistics that go behind making the 4th down decision.

Comments, criticisms and questions are always welcome. I'm sure I made an error somewhere in that table for Wake Forest 4th Down Attempts because I had to go back and revise it several times. If you find it just let me know and I'll fix it ASAP.

Go Deacs!!!