Thanksgiving and Football: Why you should always go for it on 4th and short

[I]f teams that decide to kick when they are on their opponents’ 30 yard line make the field goal an average of 33% of the time, then the benefit of kicking is assigned a point value of 1 (since a field goal is worth 3 points, and 33 percent of 3 points is 1 point). Since teams that only have one yard to go when they are on the 30 yard line convert for a first down 64% of the time, and teams that are inside the 30 yard line score a touchdown about 40% of the time, the benefit of going for a first down is assigned a value of 1.8 (0.64 x 0.40 = 0.24, or a 24% chance of scoring a touchdown by going for it on 4th and 1, and 0.24 x 7 points = 1.8 points). This means that “going for it” should result in scoring almost twice as many points than kicking

One problem is that the chance of making a 47-yard field goal is about twice the value used here. It varies from year to year, of course, but field goals from 50+ yards are made at about a 50-50 clip (almost 53% last year), and 40-49 yards is north of 60% (73% last year). Which makes the expected gain from a field goal attempt from that distance about the same as from going for the first down, and perhaps slightly higher.

Also, the distribution of the abilities of offenses and defenses play a role. The average chance of scoring might be 40%, but I’ll bet that the e.g. Colts, Patriots and Saints are higher than that, and teams trying this against the Ravens are lower. And add to that situational details, such as whether a field goal increases your lead to more than one score, or it gives you a lead or ties the game.

Statistics are all well and good, but there’s a problem with looking at them without context, and not understanding what they mean. It’s also not a good idea to just retrieve a number from a dark place in order to make your conclusion look good, when the correct numbers are available.

I would bet that a much more salient fact for coaches deciding whether to go for it or not is “Probability that the fans will be mad at him for turning over the ball on downs when we could have had 3 points.” Going for it on 4th is much more likely to get criticized later, even if it is more likely to result in more points.