Home > College Football, Div-I FBS > Why Don’t Coaches Go-For-It Near the Goal Line?

Why Don’t Coaches Go-For-It Near the Goal Line?

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Watching the UConn Huskies put the emphatic exclamation point on the Charlie Weis-era at Notre Dame really helped to take this point and put it in perspective: coaches who kick the field goal on 4th and goal from inside the oppoenents 5 yard line really put their teams in a bind, and yet, this is standard football operating procedure.

This applies to professional football as well, and is not simply just a college thing.

Watching Weis this year really hammers the point home, for me at least.  Weis, and most other coaches, really structure their coaching style as if they have one of the best defenses at the level, but this is hardly a universal given, and in fact, I think a lot of the coaches who make these baffling decisions actually have below average defense.

The downside of a failed fourth down conversion is pretty obvious: a highly successful drive often comes away with no points.  I think the biggest problem is that the commentators and fans and coaches all put this premium on coming away with something in the points department as the name of the game on offense.  In many ways, this is not an incorrect line of thinking, as offenses will always be judged by the point total they produce.

But the problem is that, very often, a points-centric approach to decision making often comes at the expense of the alternative: a wins-centric approach.  “Going for the points” is never a bad decision from a points-centric approach.  Kicking that field goal gives you the same three points whether you kick it from the 5 or from the 35.  Going for the touchdown on fourth offers about the same amount of expected point value, but really increases the variance at which those points get scored.  From the points-centric line of thinking, point production is better when fewer risks are taken inside the payoff zone.

But the ND-UConn game offers up a good reason to suggest that only a loser would take the “safe” route there.  From the two yard line in the third quarter up by four, Notre Dame passed up another shot at the end zone for a chip shot field goal.  That decision gave them an instant three points.  It also took the ball out of the shadow of the UConn goalline and forced the Irish to kick off to the Huskies.  Connecticut’s Jordan Todman found a seam on the kickoff return and took it back 96 yards to the end zone to tie the game up.

Here’s the bigger picture:  if Notre Dame had gone for it on fourth down, and gotten into the end zone (the best case scenario from Weis’ perspective), it does nothing to stop Todman’s return and the corresponding “momentum” swing at Notre Dame stadium for those who believe in such concepts.  But in that case, it would have made the net point trade-off equal to zero.

Coaches, on the whole, do not seem to realize the negative side of “taking the points.”  You’re not just taking points, you’re also giving the opponent field position.  That field position can easily turn itself into points for the opposition, especially in the worst case scenario offered up by Todman.  It’s not like coaches disagree about the value of field position, as even the most aggressive of coaches prefers to punt in opponent territory rather than risk a really long missed field goal.  That’s the precise opposite of “taking the points”, but I’d say more often than not, it’s the right move from the wins-centric perspective.

Weis made similar mistakes earlier this year against Michigan (ND loss) and against Purdue (ND win), when he judged the value of three points to be worth letting the other team out of it’s own end zone free.  Now, if it’s a game where the coach expects scoring opportunities to be limited, going for the points might help you win a 9-6 game and would be a good decision if the gamble about the value of the score pays off.  Weis’ decisions cannot really claim that as an excuse.  Notre Dame is a team that lives off of what it’s offense can do, and has to overcome the consistent failures of the defense.

It’s a classic case of a guy who simply isn’t doing what it takes to win.  In the absence of a great defensive unit, settling for three is nearly always a losing play.  When Notre Dame’s only chance to win involves having the offense score touchdowns more often than not, there’s really no excuse to cost them a shot at the end zone inside the five yard line.  Weis’ teams struggles in the red zone should have made the need to go for it really very clear.

His tenure ends with him not doing what I feel is neccesary for a team on the margins to win more close games than they lose.  There are plenty of other coaches out there who would fall into the same “taking the points” trap, but the great programs and franchises need to find the coaches who understand the difference between mindless gambling and winning football.  Then, maybe, there can be a return to glory.

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