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It's Fourth Down: What Does the Bellman Equation Say?

It's Fourth Down: What Does the Bellman Equation Say?

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Published by Zach Vaughn
Paper by David Romer on the success or failure of going for it on 4th down.
Paper by David Romer on the success or failure of going for it on 4th down.

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Published by: Zach Vaughn on May 10, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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03/25/2014

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IT 'S
F O U R T H
DOW N
A N D
W HAT
DOES THE
BELLM A N
E Q U A T IO N
SA Y ?
A
D Y N A M IC -P R O G R A M M IN G
A N A L Y S IS
OF FOOTBALL
S T R A T E G Y
D a v id R o m e r
U n iv ersity
o f C a lifo rn ia , B e rk e le y
F e b ru a ry
2 0 0 3
A B S T R A C T
T h is p a p e r u s e s p la y -b y -p la y
a c c o u n ts o f v irtu a lly a ll re g u la r s e a s o n N a tio n a l
F o o tb a ll L e a g u e g a m e s fo r 1 9 9 8 -2 0 0 0 to a n a ly z e te a m s ' c h o ic e s o n fo u rth
d o w n b e tw e e n
try in g
fo r a firs t d o w n a n d k ic k in g .
D y n a m ic p ro g ra m m in g
i s
u s e d to e s tim a te th e v a lu e s o f p o s s e s s in g th e b a ll a t d iffe re n t p o in ts o n th e
fie ld .
T h e s e e s tim a te s a re c o m b in e d w ith d a ta o n th e re s u lts o f k ic k s a n d
c o n v e n tio n a l p la y s to e s tim a te th e a v e ra g e p a y o ffs to k ic k in g a n d g o in g fo r it
under different circum stances.
E x a m in a tio n o f te a m s ' a c tu a l d e c is io n s s h o w s
s y s te m a tic , o v e rw h e lm in g ly
s ta tis tic a lly s ig n ific a n t, a n d q u a n tita tiv e ly
la rg e
d e p a rtu re s fro m
th e d e c is io n s th e d y n a m ic -p ro g ra m m in g
a n a ly s is im p lie s a re
p re fe ra b le .
I am
in d e b te d to B e n A lle n , R y a n E d w a rd s , M a rio L o p e z , T ra v is R e y n o ld s , a n d E v a n R o s e
for outstanding research
a s s is ta n c e , to C h ris tin a R o m e r fo r in v a lu a b le d is c u s s io n s , a n d to
num erous colleagues and correspondents
for helpful com m ents and suggestions.
I .
IN T R O D U C T IO N
A
fo o tb a ll te a m
ta k e s th e o p e n in g k ic k o ff a n d d riv e s d o w n th e fie ld .
T he drive stalls,
a n d th e te a m
fa c e s fo u rth d o w n a n d g o a l o n its o p p o n e n t's
2 -y a rd
lin e .
W h e n th e te a m
t r i e s
fo r a fie ld g o a l ra th e r th a n a to u c h d o w n , th e re a re s o m e b o o s fro m
th e fa n s , b u t th e
c o n s e n s u s a m o n g th e fa n s a n d c o m m e n ta to rs is th a t it h a s m a d e th e rig h t d e c is io n .
B ut has
i t ?
T w o c o n s id e ra tio n s th a t a re o b v io u s ly re le v a n t to th e te a m 's
d e c is io n
a re th e p o in ts
in v o lv e d (th re e fo r th e fie ld g o a l, s e v e n fo r th e to u c h d o w n ) a n d th e p ro b a b ilitie s
of success
(e s s e n tia lly a h u n d re d
p e rc e n t fo r th e fie ld g o a l, ro u g h ly
fo rty p e rc e n t fo r th e to u c h d o w n ).
B u t a n o th e r c o n s id e ra tio n
is w h a t h a p p e n s a fte r th e a tte m p t.
I fth e te a m
scores, it m ust kick
o ff; o n a v e ra g e th is le a v e s th e o p p o s in g te a m
w ith th e b a ll a ro u n d
its 2 7 -y a rd
lin e .
I fth e
te a m
trie s fo r a to u c h d o w n
a n d fa ils , its o p p o n e n t g e ts th e b a ll o n th e s p o t -- th a t is , ro u g h ly
o n its 2 -y a rd
lin e .
T h u s w e n e e d to k n o w
h o w
m u c h b e tte r it is to le a v e th e o p p o n e n t w ith
th e b a ll o n its 2 -y a rd
lin e th a n o n its 2 7 .
T h e v a lu e s o f th e s e s itu a tio n s d e p e n d o n th e p ro b a b ilitie s o f th e p o s s ib le s u b s e q u e n t
s itu a tio n s , a n d th e ir v a lu e s .
T h o s e v a lu e s d e p e n d in tu m
o n th e p ro b a b ilitie s
o f th e p o s s ib le
s u b s e q u e n t s itu a tio n s , a n d th e ir v a lu e s ; a n d s o o n .
T h u s th is is a p ro b le m
th a t is n a tu ra lly
a n a ly z e d u s in g d y n a m ic p ro g ra m m in g .
T o c a rry o u t th is a n a ly s is , S e c tio n II u s e s d a ta fro m
o v e r 7 0 0 re g u la r s e a s o n N a tio n a l F o o tb a ll L e a g u e g a m e s in th e
1998, 1999, and 2000
s e a s o n s to e s tim a te th e v a lu e s o f h a v in g a firs t d o w n a t a n y p o in t in th e fie ld , a s w e ll a s th e
v a lu e o f a k ic k o ff.
T o a v o id th e c o m p lic a tio n s in tro d u c e d w h e n o n e te a m
is w e ll a h e a d o r
w h e n th e e n d o f a h a lf is a p p ro a c h in g , th e a n a ly s is fo c u s e s o n th e firs t q u a rte r.
1
S e c tio n III u s e s th e re s u lts o f th is d y n a m ic -p ro g ra m m in g
a n a ly s is to e x a m in e te a m s '
d e c is io n s o n fo u rth d o w n .
T o e s tim a te th e v a lu e o f k ic k in g a t v a rio u s p o in ts o n th e fie ld , I
s im p ly u s e th e o u tc o m e s o f a c tu a l fie ld -g o a l a tte m p ts a n d p u n ts .
D ecisions to go for it on
fo u rth d o w n (th a t is , n o t to k ic k ) a re s u ffic ie n tly ra re , h o w e v e r, th a t th e y c a n n o t b e u s e d to
e s tim a te th e v a lu e o f try in g
fo r a firs t d o w n o r to u c h d o w n .
I therefore
u s e th e o u tc o m e s o f
th ird -d o w n
p la y s in s te a d .
I th e n c o m p a re th e v a lu e s o f k ic k in g a n d g o in g fo r it to d e te rm in e
w h ic h d e c is io n is b e tte r o n a v e ra g e a s a fu n c tio n o f w h e re th e te a m
is on the field and the
n u m b e r o f y a rd s it n e e d s fo r a firs t d o w n o r to u c h d o w n .
F in a lly , I c o m p a re th e re s u lts o f
th is a n a ly s is w ith te a m s ' a c tu a l c h o ic e s .
T he results are striking.
T h e a n a ly s is im p lie s th a t te a m s s h o u ld b e q u ite a g g re s s iv e .
A
te a m
fa c in g fo u rth
a n d g o a l is b e tte r o ff o n a v e ra g e try in g fo r a to u c h d o w n
as long as it is
w ith in 5 y a rd s o f th e e n d z o n e .
A t m id fie ld , b e in g w ith in 5 y a rd s o f a firs t d o w n m a k e s
g o in g fo r it o n a v e ra g e d e s ira b le .
E v e n o n its 1 0 -y a rd lin e -- 9 0 y a rd s fro m
a score -- a
te a m
w ith in 3 y a rd s o f a firs t d o w n is b e tte r o ff o n a v e ra g e g o in g fo r it.
In p ra c tic e ,
h o w e v e r, te a m s a lm o s t a lw a y s k ic k o n fo u rth d o w n e a rly in th e g a m e .
T h e o n ly s ig n ific a n t
e x c e p tio n s o c c u r in th e
"dead zone" around the opponent's
3 5 -y a rd lin e , w h e re a fie ld -g o a l
a tte m p t is u n lik e ly to s u c c e e d a n d a p u n t is lik e ly to p ro d u c e little y a rd a g e , a n d o n p la y s
w h e re th e te a m
h a s o n e y a rd to g o a n d is n e a r th e o p p o n e n t's
g o a l lin e .
Even in those cases,
h o w e v e r, te a m s a re m u c h m o re c o n s e rv a tiv e th a n th e re c o m m e n d a tio n s
o f th e d y n a m ic -
p ro g ra m m in g
a n a ly s is .
Section IV
c o n s id e rs v a rio u s p o s s ib le c o m p lic a tio n s a n d b ia s e s .
I c o n c lu d e th a t th e y
do not change the basic m essages of the analysis.
S e c tio n V
c o n s id e rs th e re s u lts ' q u a n tita tiv e im p lic a tio n s .
T h e e s tim a te s im p ly th a t
fo llo w in g th e p re s c rip tio n s
o f th e d y n a m ic -p ro g ra m m in g
a n a ly s is o n fo u rth -d o w n
p la y s in th e
firs t q u a rte r w o u ld ra is e a ty p ic a l te a m 's
p ro b a b ility
o f w in n in g a g a m e b y ro u g h ly h a lf a
p e rc e n ta g e p o in t.
S in c e th e a n a ly s is c o v e rs o n ly a b o u t o n e -th irtie th
o f a ll p la y s , th is s u g g e s ts
2

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