4. Go for it: This has been covered by those of a more probabilistic mindset more than anything else on this list for the simple reason that NFL coaches do not go for it nearly as often as they should. A case can be made easily that a team that never punts would perform better than just about every team in the NFL currently. While better, that's not the optimal strategy either.
Without deliberating too much more on how to calculate what is optimal, a better statement can be made: treat every possession with three things in mind 1) use up to four downs to get ten yards, 2) gain as many yards as possible on each play and 3) do not turn the ball over. The first item is of utmost importance in this section.
A "behind the scenes" TV show on the Madden video game series perfectly illustrated how poor coaches are at strategizing and how long it may take for the game to change. When watching members of the "PlayStation generation" compete in "his" video game, John Madden noted how many times players would go for it on fourth and make it. Upset at a discord from "real football," Madden demanded that the likelihood of converting on fourth down be artificially reduced by the programmers. Uh, why? Once the ball is snapped, how is fourth down any different than any other down?
There should be no such thing as a "three-and-out." Assuming no turnovers, there could only be four-and-outs and three-and-oh-man-we-lost-a-bunch-of-yards-and-are-deep-in-our-own-territory-so-we-have-to-punts. Playing with the mindset of the extra down opens up the playbook and buys more opportunities for the offense to be creative. Design plays that will have the greatest potential to score. Run those until a first down is absolutely needed. First and second downs should be fun downs.
Along those lines, there are only two logical options on third and long (longer than ten) and none of them include a screen or draw followed by a punt: 1) run a play with a high likelihood of picking up some, but not all yards, so fourth down is easier and then go for it on fourth down or, 2) if splitting the difference going for it on fourth is out of the realm of possibility, try to get the first down. Regarding the latter, what are the negatives of attempting a 30 yard pass on 3-and-26? You could throw an interception – which is the same as a punt. You could throw an incompletion – and punt on fourth down. Or, you may just complete the pass and keep the drive alive – especially if the defense does not follow the #9 on this list.
And lastly, this may sound contradictory to most of the items on this list, but whenever the ball is within a yard of the line to go, sneak the ball with the quarterback. He is going to have a positive gain and very likely get the yard. This is not the time to get tricky or cute. Just get the first and go back to following this list.
Paul Bessire is the Senior Quantitative Analyst and Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!