San Diego State Head Football Coach Might Just Go For It On Fourth Down This SeasonS

Field goals—fuck 'em, right? They've been called "an anachronistic holdover from the game's rugby origins" in this space before, and finally someone with a little cojones (and a football team) may get rid of them altogether.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has the story of Rocky Long, head coach at San Diego State:

After reading articles about an idiosyncratic Arkansas high school coach who never punts, always onside kicks, and has tremendous success doing it, Long is toying with the idea for his Aztecs of no punts or field goal attempts once they've driven inside an opponent's 50-yard line.

Just to be clear: after reading articles about a high school football coach whose strategy apparently works but probably benefits from some competitive imbalance, Long started to consider doing an attenuated version, limited to one half of the field—the other team's half—and leaving out that stuff about always onside kicking. In essence, the idea Long is toying with involves little risk, and may not be quite as radical as it seems on its face: in situations where his offense has marched down into the other team's territory, he'll go for it on fourth down. He's not kicking field goals.

Also, writes the Union-Tribune, "Before football traditionalists and bloggers go nuts, understand that Long is merely considering the possibility and not yet sold on it." So let's not GO NUTS!

Long might end up punting once or twice inside the other team's 50, but so what? This is progress. The article notes, "Cal economist David Romer published a study in 2005 in which he argued that over three NFL seasons he studied there were 1,068 fourth-down situations in which teams, mathematically, would have been better off going for it. In all but nine of those occasions, the teams either tried a field goal or punted." Romer's study primarily underscores how risk-averse football coaches trip over themselves trying to make decisions that seem safe. Long is (perhaps slowly) coming around to the idea that statistical models meant to determine the best choice in a fourth-down situations probably don't say "kick a field goal" nearly as often as football coaches have tended to think they would. You can talk up the riskiness aspect ("And yes, Long — who apparently hasn't yet tried it all in his 40 years of coaching — is serious about this") and it is risky, in the sense that breaking with tradition exposes you to criticism—but it's far from crazy.

If Rocky Long is risking anything here, it's his own sanity: people will have have many more opportunities to second-guess his play-calling on fourth down, and second-guess they will. Long himself wonders in the Union-Tribune, "everybody in the world is going to say this is not Football 101, right?" But San Diego State can afford to experiment a bit here. They have a year left in the Mountain West Conference before defecting to the Big East, and went 4-3 in conference and 8-6 out of it, ultimately losing to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. Anyone about to GO NUTS about this interesting and probably wise variation in play calling is either in need of some perspective, or tenuously holding onto a scholarship as place-kicker for the San Diego State Aztecs.

Aztecs' Long considers fourth-down gambit [San Diego Union-Tribune]