While driving home last Sunday morning from an overnight shift at the hospital, scanning the radio for anything that would keep me awake for the next 26 minutes, I came across a radio talk show which was talking about the less than ideal decisions professional football coaches make and why. One example that caught my attention was that coaches rarely go for it on fourth down, even when just a yard or two away. However, according to the host of the program, when looking at the statistics over 75% of attempts made on the one yard line or closer successfully make the attempt. In fact, even when on the five yard line or closer, the success rate is still over 50%. The alternative would be to punt the ball, push the opposing team back only several downs and give up possession of the ball. So why do so many coaches go for the punt?
According to the host, it’s all about job security. In football, it is common practice to take the punt, and what is common practice rules. If a coach utilizes an uncommon strategy, especially when unsuccessful, he has engaged in taboo behavior which is unacceptable in football culture, and risks losing his job. However, if his team is unsuccessful in executing common or acceptable behavior the sentiment becomes more of, “well, that happens” and the blame is shared with the players’ ability to execute the play.
What is interesting to note though is that established coaches who have less to lose and are more stable in their position take these risks in games more often, possibly because their reputation has provided them a sort of allowance. This risk though, according to the statistics, actually produces greater success, which in turn continues to strengthen the reputation of the coach. Hence, when you are at the bottom of the coaching job security pile, it is challenging to get to the top. However once established, you have greater flexibility to utilize strategies that maintain your position.
Given this, I would argue that what is really actually being assessed in these game situations is not as much the quality of players on either side of the ball or what is going on in the game, but rather political and social factors occurring off the field and behind closed doors.