Football: Mustangs' Marshall a leader in coaching 'smart-aggressive'

The day is coming when a Canadian play-by-play announcer will not say "interesting" when a football team goes for it on third down and less than five yards.

The rub is, really, it's not interesting when a coach makes the right call. Football coaches' willingness to gamble on fourth down has been flavour-of-the-month of late. Sports Illustrated recenlty carried a feature on the Pulaski Academy (Ark.) Bruins, who never attempt a punt, field goal or deep kickoff. They don't even attempt punt returns. The strategy is born out of "cold, rational numbers." Point being, it's fine and dandy like sour candy for someone sciencey-person such as Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex or author (and Concordia grad!) Jonah Keri to say it at his eponymous blog. It's finer if coaches are putting it into action.

Is it happening at the CIS level? Deeper analysis requires someone who didn't (lowers voice) major in English and more easily accessible statistics is needed — ahem — to know if CFL and CIS teams go for more on third down than in the past, outside of the standard quarterback sneak on third-and-1.

Western coach Greg Marshall, for one is taking the smart-aggressive tack. You would recall that back on Sept. 26, the Mustangs were very aggressive in a 41-39 win over Guelph. Western went for it in the following down-and-distance situations when a lot of teams would have punted or tried a long field goal:
  • Third-and-3 from the Guelph 37 — they converted and went on to score;
  • Third-and-12 from the Guelph 39 — the Gryphons held, but Western forced a punt so the failed bid didn't cost them;
  • Third-and-goal from the Guelph 3 — Michael Faulds play-actioned for a touchdown pass;
  • Third-and-6 from the Guelph 39 — Nathan Riva broke a 31-yard run, setting up a touchdown catch by Jesse Bellamy on the following play.
It's arguable Western might have made a different decision in a lower-scoring game (punt and be patient) or if it was facing an actual a more formidable defence. It worked well for Western. Twice during that game each team had a third-and-6 situation where it punted and netted only 13 yards on the exchange. Giving up possession for only 13 yards of field position isn't worthwhile.

Obviously, there are other coaches who are going for it more often in similar situations; that was just one example. It's completely backed up by the numbers, according to Lehrer, who corroborated a 1999 study by Berkeley economist David Romer:
"According to Romer's analysis, teams would have been better off going for it on fourth down during the 1st quarter on 1100 different drives. Instead, coaches decided to kick the ball 992 times. This meant that NFL coaches made the wrong decision over 90 percent of the time. Romer summarized his counterintuitive results: 'This analysis implies that teams should be quite aggressive. A team facing fourth and goal is better off on average trying for a touchdown as long as it is within 5 yards of the endzone. At midfield, being within 5 yards of a first down makes going for it on average desirable. Even on its own 10 yard line — 90 yards from a score — a team within three yards of a first down is better off on average going for it.' Romer conservatively estimates that a more aggressive approach on fourth downs would make a team 5 percent more likely to win the game. This is a significant advantage: a coach willing to endure the risks would win one more game in three seasons out of every four."

That brings it to last Monday in Montréal, the Calgary Stampeders-Alouettes game. With three minutes left in the first half of an 8-7 game, the Als had third-and-goal at the three-yard line. Their coach, Marc Trestman, went for it and TSN's Chris Cuthbert says, "This is interesting."

Well, the call wasn't. The play was. Jamel Richardson did a little shake-and-bake on his defender and got open for a touchdown catch. Montréal ended up winning 32-11.

Keri, incidentally a Montrealer, notes, "In any endeavor, it can take a long time to see true change. Sports teams will eventually copy someone else’s innovative style, but only when the coast is really, really, really clear." He was referring to media criticism of coaches when those bids don't work.

The rub is that doesn't factor in much in CIS football; coaching decisions are barely commented upon in some game stories. Greg Marshall is hardly the only coach who would go for it in those situation, but if the more prominent coaches are showing a sterling-silver set of stones, you might see teams park the kicker on the bench. It's good to know the logic, even if it's improbable the coaches are doing it on some economist's say-so..

Football (Jonah Lehrer, The Frontal Cortex)
Going for it on 4th down (
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  1. Deeper analysis requires someone who didn't (lowers voice) major in English

    Did someone call me? (Well, I nearly majored in English, but dodged that bullet.)

    This is simple once we have play-by-play logs. Do those exist for most teams, going back a few years, or at least for this year as a starting point?

  2. Atlantic University Sport and Canada West org have them for each game. The CIS website, if you click on 2009 results, has them for each team this season. There's a more complicated way to find them for the QUFL.

    So basically, they are out there, except it's tough to find them for OUA games prior to this season. And the OUA ones are on the CIS website, but not the OUA's.

  3. Marshall as O coordinator along with Head coach Haylor in 2006, elected to gamble on several 3rd downs that went awry instead of dooable field goals at Laurier in playoff. All three time were stuffed and Western lost by less than 3 field goals I recall. Thankfully Laurier unable to repeat in Vanier.

    In 2007 as part of 0-4 losing streak went for several gambles against Mac at Ivor Wynne resulting is missed chances and eventual Mac win. Besides goaline stand by Mac being down 10 points in the first quarter with Western missing on third down run, the best was a timeout called by Marshall now as Western head coach, with 50 seconds left in 2nd quarter and ball with Marauders, and Mac then using timeout to pass for 70 yard TD to make game a 3 pointer by half time. Western goes on to have to bust a nut to get into playoffs with subsequent Yates win.

    I love my Western Mustangs and am thankful they turned 2007 into winning season after dismal and somewhat unlucky at other times start.

    Gambles have their upside as noted in article above but can punish you other times.

  4. Greg Marshall is a whiney bully. And no, I don't support Gryphons. Its not up to him to dictate how the officilas handle last second "taking of knees". And, he caught a break moments later with the no yards call. Seems like the refs the week before (Guelph at Mac) blew down a short punt for "safety reasons". That could have been done today with the high winds (no not the Marshall hot air...the other winds). He's a bully and refs shouldn't listen to him.