Touchdown Decisions

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Pro football coaches make a lot of money, but they get fired quickly if their teams don’t win. So you’d think they would make choices that make winning more likely. But a recent study suggests that’s not always the case.


Playing it safe at fourth and goal. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

You don’t think of pro football coaches as timid or overly cautious. But according to economist David Romer of the University of California at Berkeley, some of their decisions aren’t gutsy enough.

He found that on fourth downs, professional coaches tend to go for field goals or punt, even when their actual odds of winning the game would be higher if they went for a touchdown. He suspects a similar cautiousness may keep businesses from maximizing their profits.


What I take from this is that rules of thumb, the conventional wisdom that’s been handed down from one generation of managers to the next, is often way off the mark…

And in some cases, what seems like a reckless gamble may be the more reliable option. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

As Romer says, the lesson of this study is that it’s important to challenge assumptions. This study actually does that on two levels. First, it shows that the assumptions that coaches make at fourth down aren’t necessarily correct. And second, it challenges the common public assumption that successful football coaches know which decisions are best for the team.

Let’s look more closely at the situation Romer studied. An offensive team is at fourth and goal (in other words, within 10 yards of the other team’s goal line). The coach basically has two choices. 1) The team can try for the touchdown: if they succeed, they get 6 points (and probably a seventh with the extra-point kick). If they fail, they get nothing, and the other team gets the ball right there. 2) The team can try to kick a field goal. That’s easier than scoring a touchdown, but if they succeed, they get only 3 points. If they miss a field goal at fourth and goal, the other team gets the ball at its own 20-yard line.

Romer found that from a purely mathematical point of view, the coaches chose to kick a field goal way more often than they should have, especially early in the game. For example, at fourth and goal on the 2 yard line, an offensive team has about a 3 percent better chance of winning if they go for a touchdown than if they try a field goal. That may not sound like much, but mathematically, it’s a big difference for a single play to make. In fact, he found that even when the offensive team is at fourth down but farther away from the goal, coaches call for a field goal or even punt when they’d be better off going for it.

So what’s going on? We can’t get inside the coaches’ heads, but Romer suspects that they’re probably thinking more about the risks than the potential rewards. In other words, they focus on the fact that going for a touchdown, rather than a field goal, has a higher probability of failure. And it does. Why risk that, especially early in a game, when you have plenty of time to score a touchdown later?

According to Romer, that thinking may sound perfectly logical, but it doesn’t add up. His analysis shows that even though a touchdown attempt is more likely to fail than a field goal attempt, your overall chance of winning the game is better if you give it a try. Think of it this way: If it’s early in the game, and you’re not too worried about the score yet, why not go for it? If you miss, you still have plenty of time to make up for it, and the other team gets the ball in a horrible position (unless they intercept it). But if you succeed, you’re out of the gate with a bang, and you’ve dealt a big psychological blow to your opponents.

Romer suspects that it’s only human to overemphasize and distort risks. We do it all the time. Some people are afraid to travel by airplane, but not by car, which statistically, is much more dangerous. Others worry about getting bird flu, but smoke cigarettes, which cause lung cancer. On the other hand, many of us don’t take opportunities because we’re afraid of failing—taking a difficult class, trying out for a sports team, performing on stage—even though the potential rewards of success might outweigh the possible consequences of failure.

Romer is an economist, and he did this study to understand business, not sports. He believes that businesses, too, may be too conservative in their decision-making, retreating from big ideas and innovations because they focus on the possibility of failure. By studying a situation (football) in which success and failure are clearly measurable (either you win or you lose), and a decision-maker (the coach) who has a strong personal and financial incentive to succeed, he shows that you can’t expect drive, ambition, and motivation alone to force people into the best decision-making patterns. Instead, it’s important for all leaders and decision-makers to step back and ask if their instincts are really in sync with reality.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why did Romer study football to understand business decisions? Do you think this study applies to businesses? Why or why not?
  2. What is the difference between the coaches’ perception of the risks and rewards at fourth and goal and the mathematical reality?
  3. Do you agree that people tend to exaggerate certain kinds of risks? Why or why not? Can you think of other common situations in which people overestimate the cost of failure?
  4. Is it ever useful to overestimate the risk of failure? Why or why not? If you answered “yes,” can you think of an example?

For Educators

For more on weighing risks and rewards from a statistical point of view, explore It’s a Matter of Power, from EconEdLink, where students examine trade-offs and profit-maximization decisions in the case study of Kaiser Aluminum, which decided to shut down aluminum production in favor of reselling electricity.

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