Brian Burke (admin of Advanced NFL Stats) posted a very insightful piece on Deadspin (and also Slate) regarding the slow evolution in the punt/go-for-it decision on 4th down. Readers might recall the outcry two season back across media-dom from Bill Simmons, Teddy Bruschi and others when the Patriots shunned punting from their own 30 late in a game against the Colts. (Belichick Understands Probability). Sacrilege. Insulting to the defense, *&%^& statheads, yada, yada, yada. Burke offers a very persuasive thought experiment:
There are many doubters when it comes to four-down football. If you're in that camp, indulge me in a quick thought experiment. Let's imagine a football world where the punt and field goal had never been invented. (Sorry, Ray Guy and Jan Stenerud.) In this universe, there would be no second-guessing: Teams would go for it on every fourth down. Then one day, some smart guy invents the punt and approaches a head coach with his new idea. "Hey coach," he'd say, "instead of trying for a first down every time, let's voluntarily give the ball to the other team." Our coach would be incredulous at this suggestion. "You want me to give up 25 percent of our precious downs for just 35 yards of field position? Do you have any idea how difficult it would be for us to score?" And the coach would be right.
His experiment amplifies the critical cost of punting -- voluntarily giving up valuable possession of the ball. Yes, going-for-it on 4th down and failing hurts, but so does handing over the football to a high-powered offense. The story is couched so that the typically explicit and implicit costs switch places, thereby highlighting the silliness of coaches who treat the 35 yard change of in expected field position as the only real cost while discounting the implicit cost of the lost possession. Moreover, this discounting of the implicit cost of possession seems closely tied to what is generally accepted practice that made more sense in an era of defensive dominance and low scoring. The 1974 Steelers gaining 35 yards in field position for their defense against almost anybody is much different than a than handing over possession to Brady, Manning, Brees, or Rodgers with time on the clock where they have already racked up 400 yards of offense or more.