Why Aren’t NFL Coaches Bolder?

By Paul Seyferth

Blog post 3, Sport and the University, section 10

Earlier in the semester, we brought the entire Polsci 101 class together for a game in the union. The premise of the game was to acquire other people’s territories through attack, fortify, and sharing methods. The winning team ended up being the one that began attacking other teams from the very start.

“Fortune favors the bold” turned out to be a pretty obvious theme for the game. But in modern sports, does fortune really favor the bold?

Like many of you probably did, I spent my Thanksgiving with my family stuffing myself and watching football. During the

Dallas Head Coach Jason Garrett

Dallas Head Coach Jason Garrett

Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles game, I noticed something I found odd. Dallas was trailing by multiple possessions late in the game. When they were faced with a 4th down and short in the middle of the 4th quarter, they elected to punt the ball away instead of going for it to try to keep the drive alive. This struck me as peculiar because Dallas was essentially forfeiting their chances at winning punting. But at the same time, most coaches probably would have made the same move.

But why? Why do coaches hardly ever elect to make the bold move of going for a 4th down conversion? Or am I the one that is crazy for doubting professional coaching minds who know infinitely more than I do about the game?

After looking into it a little bit, it turns out I am not the only one with similar thoughts. There have been several studies on this exact subject, and most of them point toward our favorite saying being correct: Fortune favors the bold. I’m no statistics major, but, according to those who are, when it comes down to it, teams are usually better off not punting. Taking away one quarter of a team’s chances will, statistically, leave that team at a significant disadvantage compared to a team that went for a conversion when facing a 4th and manageable yardage. Some experts on the subject even compare a punt to a turnover.

Most who would argue against this theory would say that football isn’t played by statistics; it is a game won on the field with traditional, good play. While there aren’t really any examples at the professional level to argue either side, this strategy has been used in extreme success by coaches at lower levels. Kevin Kelley, a coach in Arkansas, implemented the system for his high school team, and that team soon won the state title. Several other high school coaches have followed Kelley’s lead with success. Not to mention, it isn’t like innovation in the game hasn’t been successful before.

Maybe a more aggressive strategy wouldn’t be as successful in the NFL as it is at the high school level, but it seems, at the very least, worth a shot. After finding out the facts, my first question puzzles me more than it originally did.

Why aren’t coaches bolder?

To me, Edmund Burke’s ideas in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” sum up the thoughts of coaches pretty well. Society is not prone to change, and changes usually come with a generally negative impact. Coaches know that if their bold system doesn’t immediately work out, their fan base will be calling

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

for their firing right away. If a coach goes for it and doesn’t get it, he’s an idiot for trying something so radical. If he punts it away, following the norms of the sport, he is just playing the game and can blame his players for not preforming. Coaches are essentially stuck in the non-changing ways of the game until one decides to be bold enough to risk his job.

Football is a ever changing sport. Spread offenses, mobile

Marcus Mariota, duel threat QB at Oregon

Marcus Mariota, duel threat QB at Oregon

quarterbacks, and trick plays have all recently been created and will have lasting impacts on the game. In my opinion, it will continue to change until one day, punting on 4th down is no longer an automatic. Fortune will eventually favor the bold, and the man that brings that change to the National Football League will be looked at as a genius.

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4 thoughts on “Why Aren’t NFL Coaches Bolder?

  1. I also agree that a coach’s position is at stake if he is doing something so “radical” as going for it on fourth and short often. But also remember, football was first played with 4 downs, and then the other team gets the ball. Nobody even thought about punting because, like you said, why would you waste a quarter of your chances to get 10 yards. This fact can be found in a book called “The Hidden Game of Football” which is said to be the ground breaking spark to American Football Analysis. I do believe that there will be a change in football where a new era of coachs become bolder, going for it on fourth and short. People don’t like change but I think if one coach, implementing this strategy, can make it to even the collegiate level, coachs will start second guessing their decisions. Just as the west coast, spread them out, offense has started to sprinkle its way into the NFL, the decision to punt the ball will not be automatic.

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  2. This blog was extremely interesting and it gave your readers a good sense on what you are thinking and how you feel about this topic. I wish you related this somehow to the reading that we had in class more, although there is a good opinion in this blog, there has to be more of a relation to the reading. On the football side of things, I have to disagree with you due to the fact that these coaches are paid millions of dollars to put the best play in the best situation possible. They have been practicing for years on how to make certain play calls at certain times. On the issue of punting the ball late in the game. The defense was playing feel at that point in time and the coach probably thought that his defense could hold their offense and get the ball back. Also the risk to go for it only throws the game away and does not give the team a chance to win. Overall this blog was extremely interesting and I enjoyed it.

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  3. I too have wondered why coaches are not more aggressive with their play calls, but it is easy to criticize coaches from your home or from a seat in the stadium. I think a key part of it is the scrutiny they could face if their gamble does not pay off. It can be argued that the criticism a coach will face if they decide to go for it on fourth down and their offense is stopped is greater than the praise they’ll receive if their bold move is successful. Coach Kelley was only a high school coach, and if his bold moves failed, he would only face criticism from people at the school, not people from across the country. I agree that the NFL will eventually change, but punting is an integral part of the battle for field position, and I don’t see a scenario in which the play will be totally disregarded.

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  4. I really liked reading your blog! I agree that sometimes it is shocking that coaches do not act more bold, especially when there team is down. I do not think we will ever see an NFL where punting on a 4th and long is frowned upon. But I can for sure see in the near future more of the young and modern coaches going on 4th down more regularly. I would have liked to see a little more from Burke’s passages in the blog as well.

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