The Lure of the Fourth Down Gamble
Tear up the record books, the Coach is “going for it” again! Yes, we’ve entered a new era in college football, in which it’s now a near- norm for our team to risk the rent money week after week, by gambling on the fourth-and-whatever- is- needed to grind out that precious first down yardage and retain possession of the football. By a recent count, the Texas Tech coach has called on his team to gamble his team’s potential success by calling for this maneuver around 150 times this year. And he’s been successful 60% of the time, according to my resident stats maven. Can there be any argument that, on average, he’s been more successful than not?
Stepping back to the end zone and surveying the potential for glory on fourth down has been an act of desperation that no sane coach will endeavor, unless time is running out and he literally needs those precious yards for survival. Of his job, anyway. But in a world where reasonable risk carries the opportunity for glory, one wonders why this tactic has not been more liberally employed by coaches at every level. Would it suggest a Las Vegas or riverboat gambler-type attitude if a coach were to “go for it” as an overall strategy of taking these calculated risks routinely? Would the opposition have to change their own defensive schemes on second, and even third downs, to make the chess match down there even more complicated?
The original premise, of course, is risk. Wars are won and lost on these strategies (remember Patton?) and great fortunes have been amassed – and blown – the same way. The sweetness in taking risk is the seductive promise of success, and if we can live with ourselves through the agony of defeat when it doesn’t work, then go for it, say some of us. When you can’t, and the alumni association rises in righteous wrath against the loss of their money, then go hire a Woody Hayes and pray for something a little more productive than “three yards and a cloud of dust,” say those with a lot of skin in the game.
Is there an advocacy voice for the extreme form of this strategy, which says that if you’re down, you need to pull out all the stopes to get back in the game? Well, maybe.
There was a recent Tech game against a formidable opponent, in which our guys were down by a score and a bit, and a play was called on fourth down and about eight yards to go, and pretty deep in the other guy’s territory. This was in the fourth quarter with several minutes yet to play. The gamble failed and Tech subsequently went down to defeat. Detractors of this gamble would say that the coach didn’t trust his defense enough to give away possession and try to get the ball back while there was still time. Others would say that it was the right call, but the 60-40 odds were not applicable in that kind of situation. The argument goes on, of course, but I now believe that the die has been cast. It’s going to become a national trend.
Now fads come and go, and this one may prove to have a short life, especially when every team starts to do it. On the other hand, it may be refined as time goes on, and become a more commonly- employed part of the offensive arsenal. It will cause defenses to adjust strategies, maybe even several downs or possessions ahead of time, to anticipate the likelihood of the opposition’s gambling mentality. “Going for it” has always been part of the game, but only now is Coach McGuire’s name being hailed as the “Father of the Fourth Down Gamble.” Why not refine the tactic, design plays that are specific to the situation, and trust the coach’s leadership to make his statistical point? We may even win a few more games along the way. The lure of the Bowl is a seductive siren’s call.
George Thatcher November 2022
George is an American Bad Ass. He grew up in Jersey, flew B-52s in Vietnam, taught English, Spanish and other languages to children around the world, makes his own salsa, has been known to enjoy a beer or two and has called Lubbock home for a few years, just to entertain the locals. Welcome to Raiderland, Major. We are going to feature some of his writings going forward. Some new, some old. Some rhyme, some don’t. When it comes to George, there’s no box. So… enjoy our friend and enjoy his writings! – Hyatt