The “4th Down Bot” Is Interesting, But No Way To Actually Coach


It’s true. NFL coaches are, generally speaking, chickenshit.

They are often more afraid of how they will LOOK if something blows up in their face, rather than do the right thing from a tactical/percentage play standpoint.

We all remember the pile of grief Bill Belichick took for going for it, and failing, on a late 4th and 2 vs. Peyton Manning on the road. To me, the move made 100% sense. You get 2 yards, the game is OVAH! Period. Full stop. If you punt, Peyton is gonna have a very good chance of sticking the dagger in you.

So having said that, I MUST push back a bit on some recent haranguing by my fellow sports radio bloviators about coaches “doing it wrong” on 4th down decisions. The NY Times has a website called “4th Down Bot” in which the computer (with the narrative aid of a human who understand the game) renders judgement on whether it was smart or not to punt the football.

And while YES….. too many coaches punt WAY too much, there is a problem with just yelling at your coach for “ignoring the numbers!”

And this is because go-for-it/punt decisions in football are real life moments, which are EPISODIC in nature, have a ton of VARIABLES and ultimately can lead to serious NEGATIVE consequences for the decision maker. (Like, uh, getting fired.)

While a “4th Down Bot” or chart may have the benefit of a large data sample, and the luxury of the “long run” backing it, NFL coaches do not. A 4th down play is often a big moment, in a limited number of games, in which losing a single game can mean missing the playoffs, the wrath of your owner, and the end of your coaching career.

Each individually wrapped decision, also must be weighed against factors that the “big pile” of 4th down expected outcomes does not account for. Things  like: strength of your offense, strength of their defense, injuries, fatigue, weather… and on and on.

These are NOT trivial considerations.

The “4th Down Bot” formula claims to account for time left and score of game. But that is a clinical summary of ALL of the times a coach went for it, on 4th and 6 from their own 44 yard line. And that pile of instances may stretch over 3, 4 or more seasons.

That certainly doesn’t mean YOU are smart to go for it in that spot. YOU might have Case Keenum as your quarterback, and NOT Aaron Rodgers. YOU might be Jags coach Gus Bradley, hanging on to your job by a thread, and NOT Bill Belichick.

Also, football games have certain “inflection points” during the game, where a big play (either way) swings the flow and momentum in a certain direction. The 4th Down Bot cannot account for those either.

Let’s say Jay Gruden let the “4th Down Bot” make the call to start this season. And let’s say that he goes a terrible 1-9 on those gambles the first 10 times. The Redskins lose 4 of their first 5 games, not entirely, but certainly the help of those failed gambles.

However, over the next 20 “4th Down Bot” gambles, Gruden gets hot, and goes 17-3.

Great. He’s now “winning” the “4th down gamble” with a record of 18-12. But many of those “wins” came in games later in the year, where the Redskins were comfortably on their way to winning the game.

The team finishes a decent 8-8, but fans lament when Gruden went “statistically insane” back in September, where they could have easily won 2 of those games and and would now be 10-6, and division champs for the second straight year.

Instead of Dan Snyder awarding Gruden a 3-year, $20 million dollar extension… he’s fired. Resigned to working as the quality control coach at his brother’s FFA Academy every summer.

So when you call your coach a complete pussy while sitting in front of the TV next Sunday, just remember those points.

But if you see your coach punting anytime inside the 50, on less than 4th and 10…. then blast his ass! THAT, I will agree: is inexcusable!



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