In a crowded room in the Tucker Technology Center, professor of mathematics Efton Park and TCU head football coach Gary Patterson teamed up Wednesday to discuss the mathematics behind the decision to go for it on fourth down.
Park examined whether it was mathematically best to punt, kick a field goal or go for a first down depending on the line of scrimmage in a football game. He pieced together his information from the research compiled on the website advancednflstats.com. All the fourth down decision values were based on only the first and third quarters of games to prevent the data from being skewed by close games going into halftime or by the final result of the game, Park said.
“I love mathematics, and I love football, so I thought a place where they came together would be interesting, especially with the great [TCU football] season,” Park said. “I thought there would be a lot interest in the TCU community to talk about it, and [Patterson] graciously came over to join me.”
After Park mathematically explained what would be best for a team, Patterson shared what statistics meant to him as a coach.
“We use statistics all the time,” Patterson said. “Football is the same as any other business. We use computers and we use numbers. We run [numbers] to find out if there are any advantages.”
Patterson said statistics help but that other factors play a role in the final decision of whether to go for the first down. He mentioned other factors as well, like the variable of momentum from game to game.
“Some games you have to take more chances for an opportunity,” Patterson said.
Junior mechanical engineering major Allen Grammer attended the event and said he enjoyed learning about the scientific side of football.
“I don’t doubt the accuracy or validity of the finding, but the predetermination that comes from making plays based on efficiency calculations seems like it would take some of the fun away from playing,” Grammer said.
Grammer said he wondered how the feel of coaching would change if a coach made decisions solely on statistics of the game. He said it would be like pilots flying on autopilot instead of having the ability to fly themselves.
“I thought it was interesting to see football, usually played with so much passion, broken down into something as cold and austere as mathematical probabilities,” Grammer said.
Park said mathematics tells people certain things and that their gut tells them certain things.
“There’s other things that come into making a decision about football or anything in life,” Park said. “It’s just one piece of the puzzle.”
Having more information is always better even if one decides not to use it, he said.
“Statistics and mathematics are important,” Park said. “They get used in places where you might not expect them.”