FanPost

There is a board and more points need to be on it.

This is therapy, but it is not a "What if" exercise, because the plural of anecdote is not data, and, frankly, I don't want to dwell on the result.  I listened to this entire game intently because Gus Johnson was calling it, and he's incredible.  I think he should call every Texas Tech game.  I would pay my cable provider a service fee to make sure that happens.  I wish he called my life.  His boothmate was forgettable, and indeed I forgot him.  I wish he was more forgettable, because I do recall two thing he said:

1) On one of what felt like a dozen field goals we kicked tonight, Gus asked him about going for it on fourth in scoring territory, and Forgettable repeated agreed with the move, stating something like the conventional wisdom of "You never leave points on the board."

2) After we kicked our extra point, Forgettable asserted that "this" ("this" being that we were losing a football game 45-40 with 33 seconds left on the clock) was the reason you kick field goals, I guess referencing our field goal on 4th and 9 in scoring territory early in the fourth quarter, although he might have been talking about the other five that we attempted.  I assume his point is that kicking field goals puts you in a position to win games, so long as you successfully onside kick the ball with 33 seconds left and score a touchdown.

To his first comment; he's right, which is precisely why you shouldn't kick field goals.  To his second point, he's wrong, one reason we were losing 45-40 with 33 seconds left was because we kicked field goals.  Maybe.  I fundamentally disagree with him that kicking field goals is a wise decision, in most situations that we and other teams kick (or punt for that matter, which we shouldn't have done on 4th and 1 at our own 15).  Exactly one of us is right about that.  Jump.

The question is whether there is something systematically broken with the way coaches approach scoring points.  I have taken the radical position that in many, or even most, situations when a field goal is the assumed play, everyone else is wrong.  Tonight wasn't even a very good example of that, as the only uncontroversially stupid field goal was 4th and 2 down 17-10 at the beginning of the 2nd quarter.  (I probably would have gone for it on one of the three times we kicked the FG on 4th and 8-9, one of which resulted in 7 points for the Aggies.)

Back in 2008 I was impressed by David Romer's paper:  Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Professional Football. Professor Romer (of Berkley) set out to analyze the "assumption that firms maximize profits" which maybe they don't, I'm not an economist.  The interesting thing about Professor Romer's paper is that he analyzed it through the lens of professional football.  At the risk of butchering his conclusions, the concern is that humans aren't perfectly rational, and because humans run "Firms" like Professional Football teams (and college ones), maybe coaching decisions aren't rational, either.  From his abstract:

This paper examines a single, narrow decision--the choice on fourth down in the National Football League between kicking and trying for a first down--as a case study of the standard view that competition in the goods, capital, and labor markets leads firms to maximizing choices.  Play-by-play data and dynamic programming are used to estimate the average payoffs to kicking and trying for a first down under different circumstances.  Examination of teams' actual decisions show systematic, clear-cut, and overwhelmingly statistically significant departures from the decisions that would maximize teams' chance of winning."

(Author Michael Lewis thought he was right.)  You can argue with his data--others have, smart people, too, although I cannot find it now, I know that there were academic responses to his paper--but I won't recount it here.  Advanced NFL Statistics had a similar approach.  (Before continuing, an important point is "expected value," which you can read more about here.  In brief, it is critical to keep in mind that kicking field goals and punting is evil not only because it leaves points on the board, but because it gives your opponent an opportunity to score, in the case of punts because they get the ball, in the case of field goals because they get to return a kick, or may block it.)  Advanced NFL Statistics also created several helpful graphs, one of which looks like this:

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via farm3.static.flickr.com

This is the result of synthesizing "Expected Points" for punts (see also Jason Scheib's guest column in Football Outsiders, concluding that punting is idiotic) and field goals using NFL conversion rates.  This is a decision-chart, the Y axis is yards to go, the X axis is your field position, devised by analyzing thousands of data points for NFL teams' conversion rates, and the expected value of decisions like punting or kicking field goals.  If you are below the line, say 4th and 1 on on your own 40, you should go for it.  Plugging that into tonight's results, if Texas Tech were an average NFL team, it should have attempted two field goals, not five.  And we shouldn't have punted on 4th and 1 on our own 15 yard line.

Does going for it make less sense for Texas Tech?  I am going to suggest not, because we actually have a pretty good 4th down conversion rate.  More importantly, though, is that all the data I've ever found on how often teams kick field goals, or punt, suggests that football coaches are more conservative than the data informs.  If anyone has evidence--not anecdotes, but data--to the contrary, I'm begging you for it.  I'm also interested in your arguments.

One argument, for example, is that going for it on 4th down, but failing, affects a game's "momentum."  Here's what a former NFL coach had to say about it back in 2008:

"If I don't get the first down, what are the repercussions?" . . .  "Are they moving the football? If you're on the road and don't get that fourth down the momentum is going to change over to the other team."

The speaker is current Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman.  Last week he took his team to Arlington, Texas, and in the 4th quarter, sitting on an 8-point lead, he punted on 4th and 1 at midfield.  Arkansas took the ball, scored a touchdown, and successfully converted for two points.  About ten minutes later Sherman kicked a field goal on 4th and 2, from 6 yards away.  Plug those decisions into the above chart.  Just an anecdote.

Scoring more points than your opponent is the only way to win.  When Forgettable says "You never leave points on the board" I agree; so why are we kicking and punting so much?  I'm not a smart man, so pan me in the comments.

PS:  I think Carona played great tonight, and this is not a criticism of him.

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Viva The Matadors' writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Viva The Matadors' writers or editors.</em>

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