What Fourth-Down Decisions Reveal About Deadlines and Risk

Football_play_graphicTry asking any Monday morning quarterback about blown fourth-down play calls in the NFL and you are guaranteed passionate opinions. In most fourth-down plays, an NFL team will punt or try for a field goal. But occasionally, teams decide to do something that is viewed as risky: attempt a fourth-down conversion or “go for it.”

Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management associate professor Ranga Ramanujam, David Lehman from the National University of Singapore and other researchers studied 22,603 fourth-down decisions over five NFL seasons to understand when teams were more likely to attempt a seemingly risky fourth-down conversion. The goal is to apply this research to organizations. These findings are reported in a forthcoming study in Organization Science.

Teams that were behind were generally more likely to go for it on a fourth-down, and the more points the team was behind, the more likely it was to go for it. This effect became stronger as the game progressed. In other words, a trailing team was more likely to go for it later in the game rather than earlier in the game. But this was only the case for teams trailing by a margin of about three or fewer touchdowns. Teams trailing by wider margins actually became less and less likely to go for it as the game progressed.

“The idea here is that as the deadline approaches, the time available begins to factor into the decision to try something different in response to underperformance,” says Ramanujam.

The results suggest that as the game clock runs down, teams within striking distance of their opponent grow more and more eager to try risky plays that might help them win the game at hand. However, teams outside that striking distance grow increasingly concerned with “saving face” or avoiding a risky move that might backfire and make them look stupid.


“We argue that this same tension between chasing organizational goals and avoiding reputational threats can help us understand risk-taking behaviors in other types of organizations,” says Lehman.
The goal of the study was to understand how risky organizational decisions might be shaped by performance feedback (i.e., the extent to which current performance is above or below the aspired level of performance) and deadline proximity (i.e., time remaining before an important deadline such as an earnings report date).

“In other words, when are organizations more likely to deviate from routines?” says Ramanujam. “This is an important question for understanding a variety of organizational outcomes such as innovation, change and fraud.”

Unlike previous studies that analyzed whether fourth-down conversions are as risky as they are made out to be, Ramanujam notes, this study was about understanding when teams were more likely to go for it.

“What is especially relevant to our study is that teams treat this decision as a nonroutine choice. In more than 80 percent of fourth-down plays, the teams punted the ball,” says Ramanujam.

The paper is titled “The Dynamics of the Performance-Risk Relationship Within a Performance Period: The Moderating Role of Deadline Proximity.”

Explore Story Topics