should a football team go for it on fourth down?

With the Superbowl coming up, I created three sports analytics slidecasts for analyzing football strategies. I will post one per day here on the blog.

The first slidecast deals with the decision of whether a football team should go for it on fourth down (or should they punt). The presentation is adapted from the book Scorecasting by Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Werthem. Wayne Winston blogged about this, and his blog post went viral. Here is another look at this issue.

5 responses to “should a football team go for it on fourth down?

  • Larry - IEOR Tools

    I love it when you talk sports Laura. Keep it up. I would like to put it another way. “Should the New England Patriots go for it on fourth down”? Teams are not all built the same and I assume their metrics for success are quite different. I’m wondering if the Baltmore Ravens in 2001 Superbowl would have come to the same conclusion. While Baltimore probably could convert a 4th down and 2 with reasonably good probability they did have a much stronger defense. So my point is one should look at marginal improvements or decreases in probable outcomes depending on certain teams history. A strong defense may decrease, in your slides instance, the Colt’s chance of success. Just another thought to help along your model.

  • Dan Black

    Cool. This has inspired me to order Scorecasting. I love maths/sports books.

    I dare say that this short example could be expanded out into a whole lecture (50 mins in the UK). As mentioned in the previous comment an extra factor could be included to examine uncertainty in the historical data. I kind of touch on this in my own class on Decision Analysis. Unfortunately I can’t use this example as most people in the UK don’t know the rules for American football (the same rationale doesn’t apply to Association football).

    I do remember reading a paper on Dynamic Programming and curling (popular in Scotland) though…

  • Jeffrey W. Herrmann

    The following article analyzed the 4th and goal decision: Hurley, W.J., “Optimal Sequential Decisions and the Content of the Fourth-and-Goal Conference,” Interfaces, Volume 28, Number 6, pages 19-22, 1998.

  • Jeffrey W. Herrmann

    Speaking of curling, there was article in Computers and Operations Research by Kostuk and Willoughby on a long-running dispute in curling; see “Curling’s paradox” at

  • Laura McLay

    Thank you Jeffrey!

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