My Pre-Emptive apologies for how ridiculously long this post is. I started and things escalated quickly.
To anyone even tangentially following Penn State football (and to further extent, new head coach Bill O'Brien), which I'm assuming is all of you considering the location of this post, you are probably now well aware of BOB's propensity to throw conventional "wisdom" out the highest window he can find and go for it on 4th down. And I'm not just talking about 4th and Goal from the 2, but rolling the dice from about anywhere on the football field. The fans have noticed, social media has noticed (shoutout to @evilbillobrien), our BSD Overlords have noticed, and color commentators and the national media have noticed as well. Hell, Brian Griese giggles like a 12 year old teenage girl who just saw one of the Jonas Brothers getting some froyo at the food court in the mall every time the Penn State offense made an attempt to convert on 4th down.
For some of you out there, this idea of not punting on 4th down seems an entirely alien concept when compared to the tried and true methods of special teams and defense we've all known for so many years. Now, this is the point where I could throw in a cheap comment about the old coaching staff and the "Punting is Winning" mindset they had (if I still bring it up despite doing so in a completely condescending tone, do I seem even more like a Cook-ian style douche? If not, I think this little sidebar certainly does, right?) , however, this is the mindset held by probably 90% of the NCAA and 98% of the NFL. We may joke about caveman football, but the idea of punting on 4th down is one of the tenants of what is deemed "sound football". So its really no surprise that your heart skips a beat when Matt McGloin takes the snap and drops back on 4th and 4 on the 40 yard line. At this point it's a completely natural stimuli and reaction that has been ingrained into your consciousness since day 1 of your football experience. Its why the pundits and Monday morning arm chair coaches all sit back and question the guy that passes instead punts on 4th down, or wonders aloud multiple times every post game thread if the lack of a solid kicking game is why we need to keep going for it. For the bold few out there, you laugh and point out the set of giant, Adamantium-reinforced testicles BOB is sporting (I'd imagine that's what his super power would be if he were a member of the X-Men) or comment that he's a genius, or madman, or perhaps some beautiful combination of both. But maybe none of that is true (except for the testicle thing). Maybe he's just right. Mathematically that is.
So enough of this bullshitting, lets get to the brass tacks of this whole shindig. The purpose of this whole mess of a post is to take a look at BOB's penchant to pass on punting and place-kicking, and instead man up and try for a first down. We'll look at two little slices of evidence (or circumstance, or whatever. I'm no lawyer.) that would explain BOB going against the conventional grain; statistics and personal history. Wait wait wait! Don't click on that link back to the main page just yet! I promise this will be fun*. And maybe, just maybe, you'll learn something too**.
*I cannot promise that this will in any way be fun
**I definitely cannot promise that you cretins will actually learn anything
So first off, lets look at the math. Now I'll be the first to admit I'm no statistician magician, so I'll dumb it all down for everyone involved and not throw out any crazy formulas or anything. For all that, check out this link. No really, check it out and come back. If you want to skip the boring math parts (NERDS!), here's a summation from the paper:
On the team’s own half of the field, going for it is better on average if there is less than about 4 yards to go. After midfield, the gain from kicking falls, and so the critical value rises. It is 6.5 yards at the opponent’s 45 and peaks at 9.8 on the opponent’s 33. As the team gets into field goal range, the critical value falls rapidly; its lowest point is 4.0 yards on the 21. Thereafter, the value of kicking changes little while the value of going for it rises. As a result, the critical value rises again. The analysis implies that once a team reaches its opponent’s 5, it is always better off on average going for it.
Although these findings contradict the conventional wisdom, they are quite intuitive. As described in Section I, one case for which the intuition is clear is fourth and goal on the 2. The expected payoffs in terms of immediate points to the two choices are very similar, but trying for a touchdown on average leaves the other team in considerably worse field position. Another fairly intuitive case is fourth and 3 or 4 on the 50. If the team goes for a first down, it has about a 50-50 chance of success; thus both the team and its opponent have about a 50 percent chance of a first and 10. But the team will gain an average of about 6 yards on the fourth-down play; thus on average it is better off than its opponent if it goes for it. If the team punts, its opponent on average will end up with a first and 10 around its 14. Both standard views about football and the analysis in Section II suggest that the team and its opponent are about equally well off in this situation. Thus, on average the team is better off than its opponent if it goes for a first down, but not if it punts. Going for the first down is therefore preferable on average.
The very high critical values in the dead zone also have an intuitive explanation. The chances of making a first down decline only moderately as the number of yards to go increases. For example, away from the opponent’s end zone, the chance of making a first down or touchdown on third down is 64 percent with 1 yard to go, 44 percent with 5 yards to go, and 34 percent with 10 yards to go. As a result, the large decrease in the gain from kicking in the dead zone causes a large increase in the critical value.
Note that the term "Critical Value" refers to the potential value of going for it on 4th down (ie potential points). To sum up even further for the TL;DR crowd, going for it on 4th down makes sense, particularly when inside the opponent's territory, and definitively around the 33 yard line. That is the point where a long field goal is most unlikely and a punt nets you little to no gain, respectively. Also, going for a touchdown instead of kicking as you move closer to the endzone yields a better return, as you have a potential for more points if you succeed, and place the opposing team in a tough situation if you fail to convert. A few other interesting notes; going for it on 4th on the 50 presents basically a 50-50 shot at success, but on average a team gains about 6 yards, so it works in favor of the offense, 4th and long from around the 20 seems to be the best time to concede and kick the FG (which BOB has allowed Ficken to do most often), and finally, starting at 1st and 10 on your own 27 yard line is equivalent in value to returning a regular kickoff. Extrapolating, that means that downing a kickoff and starting at the 20 is a worse idea than returning a kick, regardless of the situation. Now that the NCAA has moved touchbacks to the 25, the difference is negligible, but interesting none the less.
(If you want to see the whole trend of values for all field positions, look at Fig 4 in that document.)
Now hold on to your statistical pants kiddos, cause we aren't done with numbers yet! All that analysis provided us was a binary do-or-don't look at going for it, based on field position. We didn't take the clock, the skill level of the team, or even the current score into account when making that analysis. But guess what? Two dudes already did! Chuck Bower and Frank Frigo developed a program that takes all those different metrics and plugs them into some statistical formula and churns out an answer for each and every playcall, from extra points to onside kicks using historical data and customized characteristics for both teams. Basically they've determined the %GWC (Game Winning Chance) each decision in critical situations can cost a team. It turns out that kicking that field goal or punting the ball away can cost a team anywhere from a 3-5% chance to win the game each time the wrong call is made. Each time. You may be sitting there and saying "3-5% is nothing Ska", and if so, you're probably not very good with numbers/seeing the big picture. 4 bad decisions in one game can bring you to a 20% chance of blowing it. That's 1 in 5, dude who can't add very well. Multiply that over a season and now you're looking at a potential lost game (100%) at 20 missed calls. And that's before the refs screw you over and add 2 seconds to the clock. To get a better understanding of how it works in a game, see this link.
Now to clarify, the models don't say "eff kicking, GO FOR IT EVERYTIME!" even if that's what all of us who hate kickers wishes it says. No, it says that in certain situations, making the unconventional call is actually the correct call. Now if its 4th and goal from the 2 with 20 seconds left in the game and you're down by 2, you better kick that field goal or get run out of town with torches and pitchforks (or flaming pitchforks. Have they come up with those yet?). But in the 1st quarter and a 0-0 game, ball out big man. Roll those dice, because chances are, you're gonna win in the long run.
Now here's the point where some stodgy stick-in-the-mud type folks are going to say "This all sounds dumb and I hate math. San Dimas High School Football Rules!", which is why I want to stop and address a few things in this section called;
HATERS GONNA HATE
First off, let's point out what we're trying to do here, overall. Its easy to get lost in the pure thrill of making 4th down attempt after 4th down attempt, but that's not the point. I'm in no way trying to advocate that you go for it every single time, like some asshole 12 year old you play online in Madden. That, in the end, would probably put you at just as much a disadvantage as playing things uber-conservatively. In fact, we're not even trying to say going for it on 4th down will even work. The statistical model just presents us with the best opportunity to win the game.
Now detractors of this idea will probably come up with their original refute of this concept by saying "Well what about momentum, asshole?" to whit I say "There is no need for name calling here, sir." Also, I think its safe to say that any change in the nebulous idea of momentum that might occur from failing to convert would be equal and opposite in magnitude and effect for the converting team if indeed the down is converted. A defense that thinks it has you stopped and then has to stay out on the field for another set of downs will be as equally dejected as an offense that leaves the field due to failure. In fact, one could posit that the potential momentum change (the delta of momentum, for you engineers out there) would benefit the team on offense more, as failing would leave only the offense dejected (would the D be upset that the offense failed?), while succeeding would leave the opposing D dejected and give a positive boost to your offense for converting in a key moment. However, that's purely argumentative and circumstantial (for the lawyer bros out there).
The next argument that will probably be made is the "Well what if you don't convert?" one, in which I offer the riposte, "You aren't converting it if you punt either." Seriously, take a second and think about it that way. You're still giving the ball back to the other team if you punt it. Granted, it might be in a more favorable field position, but now they have the ball. There's no guarantee that you'll stop them. Hell, they could return that punt all the way for a TD, and you're in a worse situation.
Remember, a kickoff is equal in value to starting with a fresh set of downs at the 27 yard line and your average punt goes for about 38 yards (or less if your special teams suck), so unless you can boot it inside the 20, you're return on value doesn't really favor kicking it away. Going back to the first link, basically between the 30 yard lines the value skews towards going for it on 4th as opposed to punting it away, given the distance you need to travel to convert is less than 5 or so yards.
Now realistically, you won't convert every time (damn you probability!). Basically, it's an expectation of success, not a guarantee. But we're looking at the benefits of making this call not just on a singular situation-by-situation basis, but over the long term. Again (to borrow a BOBism), the ever so delightful Herm Edwards once opined "You play to win the game", so you pick the play-calls that provide the best opportunity to win you the game. A statistical model doesn't always fit a singular situation, but as you encounter more and more of these situations, the resulting data points will begin to fit the statistical model. This is basically an explanation of how Chip Kelly coaches the Oregon Ducks and takes us to our next segment (EXTREME SEGUE!!)
THE (ABRIDGED) HISTORY OF BOB
As mentioned, Chip Kelly follows the math very closely, often going for it on 4th down, trying onside kicks, and going for 2 when generally, the rest of the football world thinks he has no right to. But again, the math is with him on these decisions. And the more situations he applies the math to, the more he fits the statistical model, which means the better shot he has at winning, which is why he has the Duck offense running 90+ plays every game. And guess what, him and BOB are best buds!
During Kelly's initial coaching gig at the University of New Hampshire (live free or die, bitches!), he would occasionally travel over to Brown University and talk shop with a strapping young Bill O'Brien. The two stayed friends and kept in touch even when Chip went to Oregon and O'Brien began working with the New England Patriots. It's reasonable to assume that Chip heavily influenced BOB's playstyle, seeing as how the Pats adopted Kelly's no-huddle up-tempo offensive style and the mechanics behind it after the Oregon coach visited New England, as we now see some tenants of that same system in the Patriot offense, and now the PSU NASCAR offensive package. It's probably also safe to assume that some of Kelly's use of statistics rubbed off on BOB as well. But I'm sure he wasn't the only influence, as O'Brien had one of the most influential, non-conformist, forward thinking coaches in the NFL as his mentor.
While most people outside of New England probably hate Bill Belichik, you can't deny he's an innovator in today's copycat NFL, often going outside of the box while most head coaches curl up into a cozy little corner of the box with a snuggie and a good book. So of course it was Belichik who spoke to the two dudes I mentioned earlier (Chuck Bower and Frank Frigo) about their Zeus statistical modeling software that tells us to grab our junk and go for it like real men on 4th down instead of punting, even though it's actually the smarter of the two options. And Belichik employs some of their mathematical goodness on a regular basis, the most notable example coming against the Peyton Manning led Colts several years ago, where the Pats failed to convert on 4th down on its own 28 yard line. It was a move that was panned by almost every critic, but in reality was the call to make to provide the best chance of winning. Now we've all seen the Belichik influence in BOB in other aspects of his coaching style already, so going for it on 4th down is just part of his nature as a coach at this point.
So now, lets wrap this bitch up. The point is, BOB going for it on 4th down isn't the result of a shaky kicker or some hoodoo voodoo, football cult ritual sacrifice. Its just a fundamental belief in statistics and learning from a couple of bros who have the balls to make some calls that might make them seem crazy, but give the team a better chance to win. So don't think for one second that O'Brien is going to give up going for it on 4th down once Ficken gets his groove back, and just know that you shouldn't fear too much when McGloin trots back out onto the field instead of the special teams. Cause BOB has math on his side.
Link Dump for the Post:
Also, if someone wants to dive further into the actual math involved to show it to the kids, please feel free. I'd love to read some more on it.