Why Are More Football Teams Going For It on Fourth Down? Behavioral Economics Has the Answer

April 20, 2022  |  By: Irrational Labs
football teams

It was five minutes into Super Bowl 56 when Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach Zac Taylor made the call to go for it on 4th and 1 from the Los Angeles Rams’ 49-yard line. The Bengals failed to convert the 4th down and gave the ball to the Rams–who ended up scoring a touchdown moments later.

Social media immediately buzzed with questions and comments, which amounted to: “Why would the Bengals do that?”

Source: Twitter

It turns out–it’s a behavioral economics question, not a football one.

To understand why we need to first take a trip through sports history–starting with the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball team.

Predicting Wins in Baseball

It used to be that baseball coaches measured players based on performance metrics, kind of like the numbers you see on the backs of baseball cards. Most players were evaluated based on RBIs and batting averages, while pitchers were measured by the number of runs they gave up. It made sense–after all, runs were what won a baseball game.

Then 2002, Billy Beane took over as the A’s General Manager. Shortly into his tenure, the A’s lost three of their biggest stars to larger market teams and Beane realized that the A’s would need a different approach to win baseball games. He looked at the data and realized that he could predict success by looking for players who got on base more and hit the ball harder.

It wasn’t intuitive, and at first, people didn’t believe it. But then–the A’s had one of the best records in baseball and made the 2002 playoffs. Beane’s approach changed the game of baseball, and soon after other sports leagues took notice.

(Want to learn more about the economic principles behind Beane’s strategy? We recommend reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis.)

Data began to change basketball strategy shortly after–most notably in a shift to more three-point attempts because it’s a more efficient offensive strategy. The NBA is even calling this era of basketball the “3-Point Revolution.”

This left the last of America’s big three sports: football.


Data Makes Its Way to the Gridiron

The adoption of data into the world of football wasn’t easy–it took the help of Pro Football Focus, or PFF, a sports analytics company to help make it work. PFF specializes in synthesizing the data of hundreds of football games each season and making that data available to its clients: NFL teams.

And there’s a lot of information to process. According to Eric Eager, VP of Research and Development at PFF, the company looks at 250 points of data for each play during a game. That’s a lot.

“We then analyze how well players are playing, how well teams are using their players, and information for how teams can make decisions about the players they currently have,” according to Eager.

One thing that the data shows? Football teams should go for it more on fourth down.

Football teams tweet Eric Eager

Source: Twitter

Imagine for a moment that you are an NFL coach and you are facing a fourth down in your opponent’s territory. You have two options: go for it, or punt the ball away. What do you do?

Traditionally, coaches would punt the ball away–it feels less risky. But according to PFF’s data, that’s the wrong decision and more teams should attempt to go for the fourth-down conversion. “The math says is actually the right play. We’ve seen that a lot more the last few years,” Eager explained.

The reason why football coaches have traditionally favored punting the ball on fourth down is because of something called omission bias. Essentially, omission bias is when we judge an action causes damage as worse than inaction that causes the same damage. Because of omission bias, we tend to make conservative decisions in the face of uncertainty.


Omission Bias in Sports

Imagine this scenario: you’re an NBA referee and a tie game is on the line. Time is ticking down, and a player gets aggressive on a rebound. If you call a foul, the other team will get a chance to win through a free throw. If you don’t call the foul, play continues and the other team doesn’t get a clear chance to win.

What do you do?

Chances are, you wouldn’t make a call. A study featured in Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim’s book Scorecasting found that at the end of basketball games with close scores, referees tend to not make as many calls that result in the ball changing possession as they do earlier in the game. (Moskowitz and Wertheim even found that offensive fouls were 40% less likely to be called in overtime than during regulation of basketball games.)

Ultimately, this happens because referees are determining that not doing anything is a better option than not making any call at all.


How Is PFF Changing the Game of Football?

Historically, in football, coaches have been guilty of omission bias in two main places–deciding between punting or going for it on 4th down. And, when deciding between kicking the field goal after a touchdown instead of taking the more difficult two-point option.  

Why? Negative outcomes (losing) are perceived as worse when people can easily imagine doing something different. And, if your action is unsuccessful, you constantly replay what would have happened if you hadn’t gone for it. 

Because of this fear of negative outcomes, options like punting have become conventional wisdom in football over time. PFF’s analysis shows that this may be changing. In fact, 2021 saw a record number of 4th-down attempts.


Learn More & Apply It

There can be rewards in risky situations–but to reap them, you must challenge your own omission bias.  

After all, omission bias isn’t unique to the football field–it can appear in your own work. You may find yourself making decisions where you choose to do nothing over another solution because you’re more worried about consequences than inaction. 

To practice challenging your own omission bias, analyze your decisions to ensure you’r basing them on data, rather than a fear of taking action. Accept that you will be wrong sometimes and that it’s okay when you are. (After all happens to everyone, even Google.)

Listen to the Science of Change episode featuring Eric Eager to learn more about the science behind PFF’s strategies.

Inspired by these insights from PFF and want to explore more strategies like this? 

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