From the New York Times:
Although some statistics show there are often better options on fourth down, teams continue to punt, punt and then punt some more. But what if they did not? What if the punt was punted?
Last week, San Diego State Coach Rocky Long said he might consider going for first downs when his team faced fourth downs past midfield this year. His intentions rekindled a debate about the value of the punt, a play some think is a product of coaches’ conservatism and resistance to change.
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 make 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 actual decisions shows systematic, clear-cut, and overwhelmingly statistically significant departures from the decisions that would maximize teams’ chances of winning. Possible reasons for the departures are considered.
A Moneyball-type analysis would look at, say, the salaries of punters relative to some measure of contribution to team revenue streams. If teams actually do punt too much, then I expect that teams would value punters too much and would pay them more than they “should”.
Punting on fourth down is part of the game, and until someone starts deviating from that strategy and noticeably wins because of it (“noticeably” being the primary word here), it’s use is not likely to diminish.