Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fourth Down - what play do you call?

My viz has been selected as a finalist in Tableau's Elite 8 Iron Viz competition! Please vote for me via hashtag:    

The fourth down is the most critical possession in football - it is the team’s final play and they are left with three basic options: Go for a first down, kick a field goal, or punt the ball away. The most important variables when making this decision are how many yards are needed to get the first down and where they are positioned on the field. Of course, this all goes out the window when it comes down to the wire in the fourth quarter.

This first half of my Iron Viz submission illustrates what NFL coaches typically do when faced with a fourth down decision. Users can see clear trends in how the most common play changes based on these two variables. Note how certain scenarios are impossible (e.g. fourth and seven on the five yard line). Increase the pressure and switch to view only fourth quarter stats and see how much riskier the play calling becomes when the entire game is on the line.

The second half of my viz provides additional detail around expected outcomes of each of the three options to help guide the decision for your team. Maybe your field goal kicker has some extra distance in their leg compared to the NFL average or perhaps your punter has control issues resulting in many short punts. These factors all influence the calculus of which play is the right one to call.

Blue 42, Blue 42, Hut Hut Hike!


  1. Great viz! Very interactive and it was interesting to see stats by team in the lower half.

    I'm not sure if the rules allow you to add another variable or two to the underlying data, but that would really make it fantastic. The first variable is Score differential. If I'm down by 10 points vs up by 10 points, my play calling on 4th down is going to change greatly.

    As you correctly pointed out, play calling does get more risky in the 4th quarter, but even there I think the more accurate variable is: Time left in the half.
    With only 2 minutes left in the game (vs 12 min) and the score differential more than 3 points there's almost a great certainty that teams will go for it even if they are at the 50 yard line. Somewhat similar calculus enters into the equation near the end of the first half, where it is important to go into the locker room with some points scored.

    Good luck on the Iron Viz!


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