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Analyzing Matt Campbell 4th Down Decision Making

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Coach Campbell has been knocking it out of the park on the recruiting trail, but what can we expect from him on the sidelines at crucial times?

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Toledo Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Gambling is defined as "taking a risky action in favor of a desired result." When we think of gambling, we typically think of playing games that are not in our favor in hopes that we might get lucky and win some money. When we do things such as investing in the stock market though, we aren’t considered gamblers, we are considered investors and smart with our money.

In both of these scenarios, you are risking money in the hopes of making more of it. Gambling has a worse reputation than investing and deservedly so. The house has the mathematical advantage in almost every aspect and over time you will lose money (unfortunately I can confirm). Investing can sting at times, but over time you should make money if you are making smart choices (fortunately I can confirm).

Now, you didn’t come here for investing advice and I’m not about to dish any out. What I am here to tell you, however, is that there are approximately 5-10 snaps per game where a statistical advantage can be gained, but it's often not because it is thought of as a "gamble." We are talking about the most polarizing play in football: the 4th down.

The 4th down decision is extremely easy to second guess, especially if it goes something like this.

We are a victim of television and radio announcers brainwashing us to believe in ultra-conservative strategies that quite frankly make zero sense. The thing is, it's not just fans. Coaches, knowing that they are raked over the coals for every decision that backfires, are more concerned about avoiding loss and not concerned enough about capitalizing on gains.

"Time and again, we let the fear of loss overpower rational decision-making and often make ourselves worse off just to avoid a potential loss. Psychologists call this loss aversion, and it means we often tend to prefer avoiding losses at the expense of acquiring gains." -Tobias Moskowitz in Scorecasting, 2011

There you have it. Coaches weigh the possibility of a negative outcome far too heavily and thus make poor decisions because of it.

In Georgia, there is a high school coach that never punts. Sounds crazy right? How about crazy successful? This high school program is winning more than they ever have. His theory is simple. Why would a team voluntarily give possession to their opponent?

"Yeah, but field position!"

When teams punt on 4th and short, they are voluntarily using 75% of their possible downs in favor of field position.

Kevin Kelley
Washington Post

As a fan, are you ever comfortable when the opposition is going for it on 4th and 1? Hell no, you aren’t. I want them to punt that ball away and "play field position." Why do we have this opposite view on offense then? If the defense doesn’t want the offense to go for it on 4th and short, isn’t that a pretty good sign that you should?

Some of you out there are saber-metrics gurus. Some of you prefer to think in terms of momentum, field position and doing things the way they have always been done. My challenge to all of you is to start approaching some of these concepts with "What if?" instead of "Yeah, but." I’m not in favor of abandoning the punter at all costs, just when the math tells you to.

Against the Colts in 2009, Bill Belichick made one of the most publicized 4th down decisions ever. In fact, the game is now referred to as the "4th and 2" game. With his team up 34-28 with 2 minutes remaining, Belichick elected to give his offense a chance to convert the 4th and 2. As I’m sure you know, they came up a yard short and Peyton Manning led the Colts to a game winning touchdown drive with 13 seconds left.

After the game, the Patriots coach took some serious heat.

"What the fuck was Belichick thinking?" Patriots fan Bill Simmons asked.

USA Today’s Jarrett Bell said Belichick "outsmarted himself."

So, what does the math say? The math says go for it everywhere beyond your 28 yard line on 4th and 2. What yard line were they at? You guessed it, the 28 yard line. Headlines everywhere blasted the coach for his 4th down "gamble", but the true gamble would have been voluntarily giving Peyton Manning the ball with 2 minutes left.

What does this have to do with Iowa State? There is an opportunity for the Cyclones to help close the talent gap with sound 4th down decision making. Naturally, I looked at all of Toledo’s 4th down decisions from the 2015 season. Then, I compared them to what the New York Times 4th Down Bot would recommend. These recommendations are built for the NFL, but they still apply fairly well to the college game. There are some mathematicians that would argue this model isn’t aggressive enough, but I think this model is about as far as you could ever hope a collegiate coach to go. You can find all of their rationale here, but for our readers that like pictures, here is a brief display.

4th Down Bot Chart
New York Times

As you can see, NFL coaches need to grow a pair. The worst part is they get paid millions of dollars to essentially make suboptimal decisions. Are college coaches the same?

Before we take a look at the stats, I had to include video of my favorite Toledo 4th down last season.

*Surprisingly, no punters were killed in the making of that video.

If you would like to look at every single 4th down decision Matt Campbell made last season, you can find them all here. For each of these situations, I compared Matt Campbell to both Paul Rhoads and Art Briles.

Entire Game 4th Down Agreement

Entire Game Total Agreements Total Decisions Percentage
Paul Rhoads 88 108 81.5%
Art Briles 71 89 79.8%
Matt Campbell 67 86 77.9%

I was as surprised as all of you to find Paul Rhoads at the top of this list, especially above Art Briles. While I wasn’t encouraged to see Matt Campbell at the bottom, I wanted to do some more digging as to why he might be there.

1st Thru 3rd Quarter Agreement

Could Rhoads have had easier decisions due to being behind by so much and so frequently in the 4th quarter? Could Briles have had easier decisions in the 4th quarter because they were up by so much so often? I took out the 4th quarter and here is what I found.

First Three Quarters Total Agreements Total Chances Percentage
Art Briles 54 65 83.1%
Paul Rhoads 62 75 82.7%
Matt Campbell 51 67 76.1%

Briles and Rhoads were actually even better in the first three quarters when the score shouldn’t dictate too many decisions.

Distance

I continued this witch hunt by looking at the distance each coach had when making these decisions. We looked at the number of 4th and 10s (easy punt/fg), and the average distance each coach had to go.

Distance/Field Position 4th and 10+ Avg. Dist. Med. Dist.
Art Briles 21 6.28 5
Matt Campbell 25 7.41 6
Paul Rhoads 35 7.84 7

I don’t think it came as a surprise to anyone that Iowa State had the most 4th and 10’s in this group last season and that Baylor had the least. But, if Briles had the shortest distance to go on average, shouldn’t his decisions have been harder?

4th and 2 or Less

In order to throw out the obvious punt situations, we decided to look at some of the hardest decisions to make: the 4th downs with two yards or less to gain.

4th and 2 or Less Total Agreements Total Chances Percentage
Art Briles 18 23 78.3%
Paul Rhoads 12 18 66.7%
Matt Campbell 14 22 63.6%

Finally, we have some separation, although not in the way we would have hoped. Briles made the correct decisions on 4th and 2 about 15% more often than Campbell. The math for this down and distance calls for a team to go for it in nearly every situation. Between the three coaches, there were 19 times they disagreed with the math on 4th and 2 or less and every single time they were more conservative than the computer wanted, meaning they opted for punts and field goals.

Opponent's Territory

Finally, I wanted to look at decisions in opponent’s territory. To me, these are some of the hardest decisions to make. All three options (punt, field goal, go for it) come into play in opponent’s territory.

Opponents Territory Total Agreements Total Decisions Percentage
Art Briles 37 49 75.51%
Matt Campbell 39 53 73.60%
Paul Rhoads 33 47 70.21%

Once again, Briles comes out on top. It was encouraging to at least see Campbell beat Rhoads in this area though.

Conclusion

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t find what I was hoping and expecting to find. As a young head football coach that seems to leave no stone unturned, I expected Matt Campbell to be on the cutting edge in this area of coaching. This certainly doesn’t spell doom and gloom for the Cyclones going forward, but it does show this is an area where improvement can be made for Coach Campbell. The staff needs to be more efficient in this area as it keeps drives going and puts more points on the scoreboard. In fact, if they really committed themselves to following the math on these 4th down plays, they could exploit an inefficiency in collegiate coaching.

The part that often gets forgotten when looking at the 4th down decisions is how it affects 3rd down play-calling. Knowing that the offense will stay on the field for 4th and short will free up Tom Manning’s 3rd down play calling and make them more unpredictable. A successful 3rd down and 6 doesn’t have to go 7 yards anymore. It can go 3 or 4 yards because you know you are using all four downs.

Here is an example. Knowing that they are most likely going for it on 4th down, Baylor treats third down as an opportunity to make 4th down a little more manageable.

Now, they didn’t get a 1st down, but they didn’t have to because they knew they had another down. By working a 3rd and 9 into a 4th and 6 they were able to be unpredictable on 4th down.

In contrast, here is Toledo locking themselves into gaining at least 8 yards to convert a 3rd and 7. The drive ended with a missed field goal.

Matt Campbell has dramatically improved Iowa State's recruiting ability. In coaching, it truly is about the "Jim’s and the Joe’s" more so than the "X’s and O’s." However, Iowa State is still at a talent deficiency and they will be in the foreseeable future. The coaching staff can’t do the same things other teams in the conference are doing and expect to beat them. They have to be better, and that can start with their decisions on 4th down.

I plan on continuing this research with other coaches based on their decisions last season and the upcoming year. Please comment with any coaches that you would like to be included in the next analysis.