Gutless NFL Coaches Fail Badly In Four-Minute Offense

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 09, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

The 2012 NFL season began with Tony Romo drilling Kevin Ogletree on 3rd-and-10 for a 13-yard gain to put away the defending champion New York Giants.

Bang.

No Eli Manning comeback to worry about this time, because he never got a chance with the ball in his hands and time running out.

That was the four-minute offense done correctly, which we immediately recapped for the 2011 season, exposing how incredibly biased towards the run coaches are, preferring to risk a defensive collapse instead of winning the game on their own offense’s terms.

Not that we envy the hours their job requires, but NFL coaches sure eschew their massive preparation work by sticking to the most gutless decisions they can make on game day.

It appears to only be getting worse too.

In 2011 the most common result of the four-minute offense was to run the ball three times and punt (happened 20.3 percent of the time). It was the most common result in 2012 too, but now up to 29.7 percent.

Romo’s Week 1 dagger was also one of just three passes all season that allowed a team to directly run out the clock while in a four-minute offense situation. That makes it two seasons in a row when just three such plays happened.

This year Andrew Luck did it with a second-down completion against Tennessee and the only other big third-down conversion came from Aaron Rodgers on a miraculous catch by James Jones to finish off the Saints.

Does it even sound logical that in two seasons, 147 games in this situation, that we have seen just six game-clinching completions come out of the four-minute offense?

This is a league in which teams are scoring with one-minute drills at a historic rate. Teams produced 70 fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2012 and offenses are moving the ball at record-breaking rates, utilizing multiple-receiver sets and the no-huddle more than ever before.

You would think coaches would be less willing to risk putting their defense in position to lose the game late. Instead, let your offense win the game by running out the clock. But as you will see, the four-minute offense is not getting the recognition it deserves in a league where it has never been more of a necessity.

 

Breaking down 2012’s four-minute offense situations

Again, you can read last season’s breakdown, but we will be making plenty of comparisons between 2011 and 2012 here.

An offense is in a four-minute situation when the following requirements are met:

  • The team is leading by 1-8 points (one score).
  • The offensive possession began with 4:00 or less remaining in the fourth quarter.
  • Drives that were only kneel downs or three kneel downs followed by a fourth-down punt are excluded.
  • All kneel downs are excluded from any drive stats.
  • If a drive produced zero first downs and included even one kneel down, it was excluded.

In 2012 a total of 74 drives (including four from the playoffs) were considered an example of the four-minute offense. There were three games where a team had two opportunities, so the total number of games is 71. Last year it was 76 games, so this does present itself in more than a quarter of all NFL games.

Easily the most jaw-dropping data one can look at on the four-minute offense involves the run-pass ratios from the last two years. We know they were heavily slanted towards the run last year, but this consistency is incredible and frightening:

NFL's Four-Minute Offense Play Ratio

2011

2012

Down

Run

Pass

Run%

Down

Run

Pass

Run%

1st

111

5

95.7%

1st

112

4

96.6%

2nd

83

12

87.4%

2nd

88

13

87.1%

3rd

49

21

70.0%

3rd

52

22

70.3%

4th

2

0

100.0%

4th

1

0

100.0%

TOT

245

38

86.6%

TOT

253

39

86.6%

Note: designed passes turned into quarterback scrambles were counted as runs. This will be adjusted in next installment and for all analyzed seasons.

Can you believe it? The same 86.6 percent run ratio for both seasons.

More than that, the pass totals (which include sacks) are within one pass for all four downs. One! Even the runs are on a 1-5 range. It’s as if the teams just decided to do the exact same thing from the previous year, and that is to run, run, and only sometimes throw on third down.

It is not like a few teams are skewing the data. Of the 30 teams with at least one four-minute drive in 2012, every single one but Philadelphia, who only had one chance, called more running plays.

NFL - 2012 Four-Minute Offense

Team

Runs

Passes

Run%

Baltimore

6

0

100.0%

Carolina

16

0

100.0%

Chicago

5

0

100.0%

Cleveland

6

0

100.0%

Arizona

5

0

100.0%

Denver

10

0

100.0%

Detroit

4

0

100.0%

Jacksonville

8

0

100.0%

Kansas City

6

0

100.0%

NY Giants

3

0

100.0%

Seattle

6

0

100.0%

San Francisco

9

0

100.0%

Tennessee

3

0

100.0%

Dallas

14

1

93.3%

Green Bay

15

2

88.2%

Houston

15

2

88.2%

St. Louis

7

1

87.5%

Washington

19

3

86.4%

Atlanta

15

3

83.3%

Cincinnati

5

1

83.3%

Indianapolis

20

4

83.3%

NY Jets

5

1

83.3%

Pittsburgh

8

2

80.0%

Tampa Bay

15

4

78.9%

Minnesota

9

3

75.0%

New Orleans

6

2

75.0%

Buffalo

4

2

66.7%

Miami

3

2

60.0%

New England

5

4

55.6%

Philadelphia

1

2

33.3%

Now with two full years of this data, why even fear a pass play on first down if you are the defense? Coaches have to start proving they will break tendencies and throw.

Minnesota may have actually tried that, throwing the ball three times (two runs) on a drive against Jacksonville in Week 1. The only other team to try three passes was New England, which was also against Jacksonville. Minnesota is the only team to attempt a fourth-down play, running Adrian Peterson four times in a row to run out the clock on Arizona.

On 46 of the 74 drives no passes were attempted. Sometimes that is very logical for the game situation, but overall, the run should not be favored to such a ridiculous degree.

Teams who attempted at least one pass went 25-3, running out the clock 10 times while scoring three field goals and a touchdown.

Here is a summary of the drive results in the four-minute offense:

NFL 4-Minute Offense Summary

Year

2011

2012

Total Drives

79

Pct.

74

Pct.

Punts

32

40.5%

39

52.7%

Ran out clock

26

32.9%

18

24.3%

Touchdowns

9

11.4%

3

4.1%

Field Goals

8

10.1%

8

10.8%

Missed Field Goals

0

0.0%

1

1.4%

Lost Fumbles

2

2.5%

2

2.7%

Interceptions

0

0.0%

1

1.4%

Downs

1

1.3%

0

0.0%

Intentional safety

1

1.3%

2

2.7%

Three-and-outs

24

30.4%

26

35.1%

Punting went up (as did three-and-out drives), scoring went down, but the main goal is to run out the clock, and only 18 out of 74 teams (24.3 percent) were able to do that in 2012. That is down from 32.9 percent in 2011. The 18 teams ran out an average of 2:50 on the clock.

The lack of scoring drives is interesting. Most of the scores are set up by great field position anyway – eight of the 11 scoring drives started inside the opponent’s 40 – but few teams scored touchdowns.

In fact, the Washington Redskins had all three touchdowns. There was a 3-yard touchdown drive in Week 1 following an interception by Drew Brees. Robert Griffin III scored on a 76-yard touchdown run (on third down) to ice the Vikings. In Week 17 against Dallas, after Romo’s interception put them at the 25, Washington added one more touchdown to the total.

Another of the successful 2012 rookie quarterbacks was at the forefront of arguably 2012’s best four-minute offense.

Andrew Luck not only led the league with seven game-winning drives, but his Colts led the league with four game-clinching drives to run out the clock.

The Colts put away Miami, Buffalo, Tennessee and Kansas City that way. Vick Ballard had two big runs for first downs on third down, while Luck had an aforementioned completion to Dwayne Allen against Tennessee, and Reggie Wayne drew pass interference on third down against Buffalo rookie Stephon Gilmore.

There was also a fifth game, against Cleveland, where the Colts ran out all but one second of the final 1:54 in a 17-13 win.

The only other offenses to run out the clock multiple times were Atlanta (2), Pittsburgh (2) and Tampa Bay (2).

On the eight field goal drives, half of the teams did not even gain a first down, starting with great field position. Atlanta’s Matt Bryant was the only kicker to miss a field goal, doing so with 0:08 left in Tampa Bay. That allowed Josh Freeman to try a game-ending Hail Mary.

Baltimore of course took an intentional safety in the Super Bowl, while Seattle did it first against Carolina.

The only interception belonged to Ryan Fitzpatrick, and it was a costly one against the Titans, who went on to score the game-winning touchdown. Fitzpatrick also had a failed completion on second down. That was one of just nine drives with multiple pass plays.

The two fumbles belong to running backs, and both happened on the same day in Week 2. Both nearly ruined their team’s chances to win.

In a wild finish, New England’s historic clutch kicking finally came up empty when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yard field goal with one second left. This came after rookie back Ryan Williams inexplicably fumbled the ball for the Cardinals who were only leading 20-18.

Later that day St. Louis’ Daryl Richardson fumbled in Washington territory, but Josh Morgan helped him with a stupid penalty that made Washington’s game-tying field goal attempt 62 yards.

Here are the average drive stats in the four-minute offense:

Drive Averages

Year

2011

2012

Start time

2:32

2:43

Lead (PTS)

5.24

5.19

LOS

39.3

35.2

First downs

0.9

0.8

Plays ran

3.6

4.0

Yards

19.8

15.8

End time

0:58

1:02

End time*

1:28

1:21

In 2012, an average a team started their four-minute offense with 2:43 left, holding a lead of 5.2 points. They gained fewer yards per drive than last year, but ran slightly more plays per drive.

The first “End time” is for all drives, while the second is for only the 56 teams who had to give the ball back to the opponent. So teams had slightly less time to work with when given the ball back in 2012.

Not many first downs gained here, but one often does the trick anyway.

Year

2011

2012

First Downs

Teams

Teams

0

33

32

1

26

29

2

16

8

3

4

5

More teams happened to get multiple first downs in 2011. Washington actually had two of the five drives to gain three first downs.

 

What about winning the game?

After going 72-4 (.947) in 2011, this year’s teams were 63-8 (.887) in games where they had a four-minute offense drive.

That is a rather staggering 135-12 (.918) record over the last two years. With a winning percentage that high, you might say it does not matter what the team does on offense in the final four minutes. They still win these games almost every time.

But that’s putting the pressure on the defense and ignoring just how many close calls there were that never needed to happen with better offensive execution. In 2012 especially, it is unbelievable some of these teams still won after nearly blowing the game so late. A few have already been referenced.

Dallas had its share of close games. Dez Bryant almost had the catch of the year to beat the Giants, but was just out of bounds. The opportunity came after a conservative three-and-out drive from the Giants. Dallas did rally back from 10 down to lead Cleveland, but after going three-and-out and giving up great field position, Cleveland regained the lead with 1:07 left. The Cowboys still tied it and won in overtime. They would take the Saints to overtime with a late 14-point comeback, but came up empty in the extra session as New Orleans rebounded for the 34-31 win.

Jacksonville had an unbelievable start to the season. After forcing Minnesota to go three-and-out late in Week 1, Blaine Gabbert hit Cecil Shorts with a go-ahead touchdown with 0:20 left. But the Vikings managed to score a game-tying field goal and win in overtime. Two weeks later the roles reversed and the Jaguars led Indianapolis late before giving up the lead. Again it was Shorts making an 80-yard touchdown catch in the final minute to save the win.  

Carson Palmer was in great position to lead Oakland to an 18-point comeback in the fourth quarter after a sloppy drive from Tampa Bay. Then he remembered he was Carson Palmer and threw an interception with 2:27 left.

Then you have the classic ending to the 2012 Jets’ season. After Tennessee mailed it in with three runs and a terrible punt, Mark Sanchez was 25 yards away from the win. But Nick Mangold had a poor snap that was kicked around and recovered by the Titans.

It is very hard to win a game in which you are trailing and do not even have possession (yet) in the final four minutes. Really not surprising to see the strong records overall. But you are still playing a game of risk any time you give the ball back, which happens more often than not.

The eight teams who lost despite the late lead and possession definitely regret what they did with the ball.

That includes the Packers in Seattle on Monday Night Football. Yep, that game. Leading 12-7, but backed up at their own 7 with 1:54 to play, the Packers had arguably the worst four-minute offense drive in 2012. Cedric Benson fumbled on first down with the Seahawks nearly taking over. After that the Packers just kept it on the ground, giving Seattle great field position at the 47. We know how that one ended.

Seattle also came back to beat New England after Tom Brady failed to hook up with Deion Branch on a third-down pass.

The Panthers are becoming masters of the close loss under Cam Newton, and we highlighted his failed third-down run in Atlanta that would have won the game if he did not fumble in the air, losing the first down and forcing the Panthers to punt. Matt Ryan is deadly as they come in the final minute of the game.

Detroit lost many close games in 2012, but the Indianapolis loss hurt as much as any with a 12-point lead in the final four minutes. But after deciding to run on third down at midfield, Detroit punted the ball back to Luck, who already has a knack for coming through in the clutch, throwing the game-winning touchdown with 0:00 left.

Even Nick Foles, a less-celebrated rookie in Philadelphia, had a game-winning touchdown pass with no time left to beat Tampa Bay on the road. This came after the Buccaneers simply kept handing off to Doug Martin, even after a holding penalty brought up a 2nd-and-17 situation.

When rookie quarterbacks are able to drive the length of the field, on the road, to win the game with alarming frequency, you have to start taking more preventive measures to stay out of those situations altogether.

 

Four-minute offense faces uphill battle in preventing two-minute drills

The season began with an innocent Romo completion that apparently is a rare feat in the NFL. While it may have ended with Super Bowl XLVII, it is still hard to get past the image of Rahim Moore coming up short on the pass to Jacoby Jones.

That 38-35 loss by Denver in the AFC Divisional was 2012’s eighth and most critical loss by a team after having an opportunity to win with the four-minute offense.

It especially looms large now for what it did to Joe Flacco’s contract and status, which could have a massive, league-shifting impact on the NFL’s future. Always keep the butterfly effect in mind. If Aaron Rodgers starts making $25 million per year, where does it end for franchise quarterbacks when the salary cap is not rising at the same rate?

Yet the whole situation could have been avoided if John Fox gave Peyton Manning two chances at gaining eight yards and a first down. When you know for certain victory is that close, you should go with your best option.

Fox should have learned this from early in the season when the Broncos were a touchdown away from a 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter against both Atlanta and Houston.

Did those teams hand the ball off on a critical 3rd-and-5 so Manning can finish his comeback? No, Ryan threw to Julio Jones for the first down and Atlanta went on to run out the clock. Matt Schaub threw to Andre Johnson for the first down and the Broncos had just 0:20 left (needing 86 yards) when they did get the ball back.

That’s how you get it done in the four-minute offense.

But just about every coach in the league would have played it the same way Denver did in the playoffs, which is why we will continue to see the comebacks and game-winning drives in the final two minutes. Keeping your author in mind, this is acceptable. Captain Comeback and the NFL would not be the same without the last-second finishes every week.

To be honest, perfect execution in the four-minute offense is not as exciting to watch as the two-minute drill. Any game that ends with a commercial break followed by three kneel downs is the definition of anti-climatic.

Just remember, coaches still have a choice in these situations. Decades of conservatism have ingrained into their heads that you have to run the ball, protect the ball, and win the game on defense.

For a modern NFL that markets itself as a game of sexy offense, it is hard to take that reputation seriously when the game’s best quarterback is content with handing the ball off five times in a row to Ronnie Hillman when two first downs put you in the AFC Championship.

It is going to take a gifted, open-minded coach to slowly push the NFL away from this belief that you should risk putting yourself in a position to lose later instead of giving yourself the chance to win sooner.

Whether it is fewer punts or more passes in the four-minute offense, that new coach may be laughed at soon as he takes his lumps. But if he sticks with it, the success should come, followed by the copycats and former critics.

For the loser now will be later to win. For the times they are-a changin’.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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