On Fourth Down, Only Go For It If You’re Gonna Make It

It’s the second quarter, the Giants are down 2-0 (yes, that’s a baseball score in a football game, the first sign of trouble), and Big Blue has the ball in the red zone, fourth and inches.

“Kick the field goal,” I say.  “It’s a low scoring game, the Giants offense is nowhere, why squander the opportunity to score?”

“You have to go for it,” my friend Sean says.  “Show some faith in your offensive line.”

Tom Coughlin, Giants coach, didn’t hear either of our opinions, but he listened to Sean and went for it. Atlanta got good penetration, met Giants running back behind the line of scrimmage, but Jacobs spun free and forward and gained the first down.  Big Blue scored a touchdown shortly thereafter, and the team caught fire. Final score, 24-2.

Driving home after the game, the post-game chatter was all about the Falcons coach Mike Smith and what a turkey he was for going for it twice on fourth and inches from around the Giants 25. Smith was a turkey because his team failed to convert both times. Coughlin’s decision was lost amid the dominant play by his team after they converted; Smith’s decisions were highlighted as the reason his team lost.

Smith, apparently, is a big reader of all the analysis dedicated to whether to go for it or not.  It seams that almost every year the New York Times sports section comes up with an analysis on why you should always go for it. He went for it in the regular season, against the division rival Saints, and failed. He went for it twice in this game, ostensibly for the same reasons that Coughlin did–showing some faith in his team, providing the opportunity to spark some momentum, a naive belief that it would work?–but only one coach wears the dunce cap.

My own analysis, done without the benefit of a degree in statistics or eager graduate students at my disposal, is that you should go for it unless failing at it will hurt more than kicking the field goal or punting.  In today’s game, the Falcons had just marched down the field, failed the conversion, and forced QB Eli Manning to throw the ball away in the end zone, earning a safety for intentionally grounding the ball.  The Giants then forced an Atlanta punt, and finally moved the ball downfield–failing on the fourth down play would mean squandering the little momentum that had been built up be a long drive by coming away with zero points. “Kick the field goal,” I said.

In the end, Tom Coughlin is the genius that fired his team up, while Mike Smith is the coach that went down with his ship. Perhaps the right decision was made only because it worked.

But how would you factor that into a statistical analysis?




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