Think I'm crazy? Let's turn to this 2005 paper by David Romer, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Romer's work got attention from the sports media because he contends teams facing fourth-and-goal should almost always try for the touchdown. I'm not so sure, and will address that in a later column. (Short version of my counterargument: Field goals are nothing to sneeze at.) But there is gold, absolute gold, in the overlooked later pages of Romer's study. His numbers say that anytime the situation is fourth-and-4 or less, teams should not punt. Romer thinks teams should try for the first down on any fourth-and-4 or less even when in their own territory. After all, the average play gains almost five yards. On average you will retain possession, and the pluses of that exceeded the minuses of the inevitable failed rth-down try
Romer put the opening quarters of all NFL games from 1998 to 2004 into a database, then analyzed when coaches ordered punts, when they went for it, and how these decisions had an impact on field position on subsequent possessions. Here are Romer's three key conclusions. First, inside the opponent's 45, go for a first down on any fourth-and-7 or less, unless a field goal would decide the game. Second, inside the opponent's 33, go for a first down on fourth-and-10 or less, unless a field goal decides. In Romer's sample years there were 1,068 fourth downs in which the above formulas said go for the first down, yet NFL coaches kicked all but 109 times -- meaning they went for it only about 10 percent as often as they should have. Finally, Romer's numbers say that an NFL team should try for the first down on any fourth-and-4 or less, regardless of where the ball is on the field. Of course some fourth-down tries would go down in flames and even create easy scores for the other side. But over the course of a season of rarely punting, Romer maintains, the team that eschewed the punt would score more than it otherwise would, while its opponents would score less.
Suppose an NFL or major-college coach came into a season determined to go for it any time it was fourth-and-4 or less. I don't think a coach should be doctrinaire about this. I'd punt if it was fourth-and-4 inside my 20, and I'd be inclined to punt in the second half if protecting a lead. But otherwise, the coach commits to going for it instead of punting, even if the first few attempts backfire. Surely a strategy of rarely punting would sometimes boomerang, but on balance it could lead to more scoring for your team while depriving the other team of the ball. The strategy could cause exhaustion and panic on the parts of defenses that thought they had done their jobs by forcing fourth down, only to discover your offense had no intention of passively jogging off the field. Teams that rarely punted might pile up big advantages in points and time of possession. If Don Shula's "coach who doesn't punt" appeared on the NFL scene, that coach, Tuesday Morning Quarterback suspects, would revolutionize football. Player talent being equal, that coach might blow the doors off the National Football League.