Quantifying the Causal Effects of Conservative Fourth Down Decision Making in the National Football League
29 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2018
Date Written: January 4, 2018
In part driven by academic research, perception in the sports analytics community asserts that coaches in the National Football League are too conservative on fourth down. Using 13 years of data, we confirm this premise and quantify the unobserved benefit that teams have missed out on by not utilizing a better fourth down strategy. Formally, teams that went for it are paired to those who did not go for it via a nearest neighbor matching algorithm. Within the matched cohort, we estimate the additional number of wins that each NFL team would have added by implementing a basic but more aggressive fourth down strategy. We find that, on average, a better strategy would have been worth roughly an extra 0.4 wins per year for each team. Our results better inform decision-making in a high-stakes environment where standard statistical tools, while informative, have possibly been confounded by extraneous factors.
Keywords: National Football League, causal inference, matching, risk aversion, fourth downs
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