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Study Says Coaches Should Go for It

September 21, 2002|Sam Farmer

Imagine you're a football coach. It's early in the first half, and your offense has fourth and two at the opponent's 10-yard line. What do you do? You kick the field goal, of course.

But not if David Romer has anything to say about it.

Romer, a University of California economics professor, has devised a statistical formula that suggests it makes more sense to go for it on fourth down--from nearly any spot on the field--than it does to punt or kick a field goal.

He and five research assistants examined 20,000 first-quarter plays from 732 NFL games from 1998 through 2000, laying the groundwork for a 33-page working paper titled "It's Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say? A Dynamic Programming Analysis of Football Strategy."

Romer concludes that teams should gamble more often, even take risks that traditional football thinkers would consider insane. But, of the 1,100 fourth downs on which Romer thought it best to go for it, teams kicked 992 times.

"Risks have upsides and downsides," Romer said. "For some reason, coaches seem to emphasize the downside."

Through two weeks, NFL teams are 27 for 49 when going for it on fourth down. Seattle has tried it the most, having converted two of five. Jacksonville is four for four; Minnesota three for three, and St. Louis 0 for 2, having failed on pivotal fourth-down attempts in losses to Denver and the New York Giants.

Last season, teams gambled on fourth down roughly once a game. Detroit did it the most, 25 times, whereas San Diego logged a league-low four attempts--all of which the Chargers converted.

According to the study, teams going for it on fourth-and-short near the goal line are successful only 43% of the time. Romer has determined, though, that the difference between a touchdown and a field goal makes it worth the risk.

He's still looking for an NFL coach who agrees.

"I appreciate those kinds of studies by people who are really interested and have incredible intellect," said Bill Walsh, who coached the 49ers to three Super Bowl victories. "But they're in a 'Star Wars' mode, and we're down to the practicality of performing under tremendous stress.

"If you tried to transfer that [fourth-down theory] to warfare, an entire army would be annihilated in a matter of three to four months."

Walsh said there are factors that the numbers simply don't take into account, such as injuries, crowd noise and momentum.

"Another factor is your defense," he said. "If you have the Steeler defense of the '70s, or the 49er defense of the '80s, you feel a lot better when you go for it and don't make it."

Romer's paper first attracted attention this summer, when he submitted it to the National Bureau of Economic Strategy, and he's delighted NFL luminaries such as Walsh have taken a look. Still, the professor has grown weary of the response he has heard from coaches time and again: You're tenured, I'm not.

*

Funny that tight end Christian Fauria now plays for the Patriots. Last season, in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, he didn't think New England had a prayer against the Rams.

"I was in Hawaii with my wife's family and my father-in-law was taking bets on the game," said Fauria, the Encino Crespi High graduate who spent his first seven seasons with the Seahawks. "He thought the Patriots were going to win, straight up. I was thinking, 'You're a fool. They're going to get killed. You're a sucker.'

"But I changed my mind when the Patriots came out and they were introduced as a team, not as individuals. At that minute, right then and there, I was like, 'They're going to win the game.' They showed so much unity and brotherhood, they were going to win on heart alone."

As we all know, the Patriots won, 20-17.

*

"Tailgate Russ" wanted a party. He got only the hangover.

Russell Stevenson, a devoted Eagle fan, planned a 1,000-person tailgate party before Sunday's game against Dallas, a bash complete with six chefs, a rock band, a disc jockey, 35 kegs of beer, a clown, jugglers, even a world-champion sand sculptor. He rented a 60-inch TV and furniture to set up an impromptu living room.

Well, the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections nixed the party after Stevenson--who planned to charge admission--talked about his plans on the radio.

"I'm just shellshocked," Stevenson told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Michael Vitez. "I haven't slept. My stomach's in knots."

Sounds as if he could use a back rub. Good thing he retained Trisa the masseuse and her four girlfriend masseuses for the party too.

*

The expansion Houston Texans are 1-1, meaning they have a better record than the Rams, Seahawks, Steelers and Ravens--all playoff teams last season.

*

In a conference call with Houston writers this week, Colt quarterback Peyton Manning asked them to remind Texan center Steve McKinney about "stamps."

After some cajoling, an embarrassed McKinney confessed he used to "stamp" his former Indianapolis teammates by emerging from the showers and startling them by pressing his wet bottom against their dry skin. He has continued the practice in Houston, and one of his recent victims was reserve quarterback Mike Quinn.

"That dude has got some serious issues," a flustered Quinn told reporters. "That says a lot about a guy, doing that sort of thing. I just try to stay away from him and keep my eyes open when he's around."

Kind of makes you wonder about stamp collectors.

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