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No. 1881:
Fourth and Short

Today, let's go for it on fourth and short. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's Super-Bowl Sunday. I'm in my normally-quiet neighborhood, only eight thousand feet from the stadium where it's all about to happen. Helicopters circle. We hear horns and sirens. A family of four could live all year on the cost of four good seats. The only person I know at the game is a reporter from my radio station, KUHF. He drew the long straw and gets to cover it.

It's all pretty strange. I never got the hang of watching football without being committed to one of the teams. And both the Panther and Patriot players strike me as equally nice young men.

But my interest rose dramatically when I read today's New York Times. It told about a paper written last year by Berkeley economist David Romer. The title is: It's Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say? Romer comes to some surprising conclusions.

Take, for example, the title question: "It's fourth and two; should we go for it or should we punt?" How many times has your team reached the other team's forty-yard line and, faced with fourth and two, opted to punt? How often has the announcer knitted his brow and intoned the words, "They made the right choice."?

Well, Romer has collected historical data, strung together sequential probabilities, and discovered that punting on fourth and short is very often a bad call. He's also reached the more general conclusion that coaching decisions consistently tend to err on the conservative side.

There's more. The New York Times has also learned that Patriots coach Bill Belichick not only read Romer's paper, but has also been putting it to use. So, now, as the game begins, I turn on my own TV with renewed interest and curiosity. (Football noise)

On their first drive, the Patriots reach the shadows of the Carolina goalposts on fourth and short. They ignore Romer's advice. They opt for a field goal, miss, and go away empty. Later in the half, they begin a drive and come up on fourth and inches. This time they heed Romer, they go for it, gain a first down, march to a touchdown, and go on to win the game.

Now, I'd like to say that Super Bowl XXXVIII was won in a University of California office. I know that'd be going too far. And Romer is no fool; he knows that his input data are not perfect.

However, there is that tendency today, toward conservative decisions -- and not only in football. Maybe it's because we impose a greater penalty for losing when a person gambles, than we do when he's played it safe -- even when gambling is actually more prudent.

So Romer has sounded a message for our times. We've reached a point in football -- and business and technology -- where risk-aversion becomes a virtue beyond its usefulness. That's why it was nice to watch the Patriot's gamble pay off -- even though it left my wife owing our New England grandson twenty-five cents. (Her risky gamble, it seems, did not pay off.)

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

D. Leonhardt, Incremental Analysis, With Two Yards to go. The New York Times, Week in Review, Sunday, February 1, 2004, pg. 12.

For David Romer's article, click here.

The 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII was played at 5:30 PM, Sunday, February 1, 2004, in Houston's Reliant Stadium, between the New England Patriots and the South Carolina Panthers. New England won by a field goal during the last nine seconds of the game. The final score was 32 to 29. The KUHF reporter covering the game was Jack Williams.



Before the Super Bowl