NFL Coaches Are More Gutless Than Ever on Fourth Down

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 16, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar

Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

Last season Atlanta coach Mike Smith was criticized for a 4th-and-1 decision to go for it in overtime at his own 29 against the Saints. Michael Turner was stuffed short, and New Orleans kicked the game-winning field goal four plays later.

In Week 10 this past Sunday, the Falcons faced a 4th-and-goal at the NO 2, trailing the Saints 28-24 with 9:12 left. With an undefeated season at stake against a historically bad defense, there was no debating the decision this time. Smith quickly had his team kick the field goal, and would fall short in the game, 31-27, in a rare failed comeback attempt for Matt Ryan’s offense.

Smith’s Falcons are the only team in the league in 2012 without a fourth-down conversion, and they are tied for the fewest attempts (three).

Was the field-goal decision a case of Smith knowing the numbers, or is it just another example of a logic-defying coach showing no guts as they hope to avoid the harsh criticism if the play fails?

This is hardly just a Mike Smith problem. This is a league-wide epidemic of sissified coaching in an era where the fourth-down data has never been clearer or more available to teams.

Yet we are seeing the least aggressive coaching on fourth down in over twenty years. Isn’t this supposed to be the era of offense? Instead coaches would rather just punt or kick field goals, even though the conversion rates are as high as ever too.

You might think the recent influx of new head coaches could be the reason for this decline. The guys without clout not wanting to earn a bad reputation early are bringing down the numbers.

But even a maverick like Bill Belichick is only 1-of-3 on fourth down this season after New England went 7-of-11 last season.

Coaches can talk all they want about playing off a card or going with their gut, but we have the facts, and the facts say they are just too gutless as a group, and it might only be getting worse.

 

League-wide data (1991-2012)

You can get fourth-down team stats going back to 1991 from the NFL’s official website. We compiled that data, which only includes regular season games. The “Scrm Plays” are the total number of plays from scrimmage.

NFL - 4th Down Conversion Attempts, 1991-2012

Year

Scrm Plays

4th Made

4th Att.

Conv. %

4DPlay %

1991

27,221

193

410

47.07%

1.51%

1992

26,839

177

399

44.36%

1.49%

1993

28,153

184

406

45.32%

1.44%

1994

28,543

223

461

48.37%

1.62%

1995

30,974

267

496

53.83%

1.60%

1996

30,666

234

464

50.43%

1.51%

1997

30,621

240

495

48.48%

1.62%

1998

30,264

200

454

44.05%

1.50%

1999

31,557

206

473

43.55%

1.50%

2000

31,231

218

455

47.91%

1.46%

2001

31,043

203

468

43.38%

1.51%

2002

32,569

252

497

50.70%

1.53%

2003

32,093

232

501

46.31%

1.56%

2004

31,978

219

454

48.24%

1.42%

2005

32,021

223

465

47.96%

1.45%

2006

32,000

239

473

50.53%

1.48%

2007

32,133

261

533

48.97%

1.66%

2008

31,681

260

491

52.95%

1.55%

2009

32,222

279

557

50.09%

1.73%

2010

32,319

238

484

49.17%

1.50%

2011

32,569

186

430

43.26%

1.32%

2012

18,873

132

240

55.00%

1.27%

TOT

667,570

4,866

10,106

48.15%

1.51%

Teams convert just under half (48.15 percent) of their fourth-down attempts, though so far in 2012, it is as high as it has ever been (55.0 percent). This comes a year after the worst conversion rate on fourth down since 1991 (43.26 percent in 2011).

The “4DPlay %” is the percentage of plays from scrimmage that are fourth-down attempts. It is a very small number, and you can see the average is 1.51 percent. But the two lowest seasons since 1991 are each of the last two seasons: 1.32 percent in 2011 and 1.27 percent in 2012. No other season is under 1.42 percent.

Think you know which team has gone for it on fourth down the most? Yes, it is New England, but not the Bill Belichick teams. Instead it was the 1994-96 Patriots with Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe leading the way for the top three spots: 1995 Patriots (17/39), 1994 Patriots (18/35), and 1996 Patriots (19/34).

The 1996 Chicago Bears, a 7-9 team coached by Dave Wannstedt, had the most conversions, with 20 out of 28. Yeah, we have no clue how that happened either.

How about the fewest attempts excluding 2012? That would be two teams who met in the NFC Championship: the 1998 Atlanta Falcons (1/3) and Minnesota Vikings (3/3). Two great offenses, they did not roll the dice much.

Of course to roll the dice, you have to be put in a fourth-down opportunity in the first place.

We know from a past study, that third-down rates have been dropping in recent years as well. A fourth down can only come after an unsuccessful third-down attempt.

Let’s break down the fourth-down percentage based on number of fourth-down attempts per failed third-down plays. This gives us a better idea of how often a coach goes for it when faced with a fourth-down opportunity. Plays at the end of the half on third down that do not result in a fourth-down play being run would change the data, but we did not account for those as there’s no reason to believe they have become more or less common.

4th Down Attempt Percentage

Year

Failed 3rd Downs

4D Pct.

1991

3516

11.66%

1992

3584

11.13%

1993

3676

11.04%

1994

3739

12.33%

1995

3917

12.66%

1996

4045

11.47%

1997

4173

11.86%

1998

4091

11.10%

1999

4339

10.90%

2000

4111

11.07%

2001

4183

11.19%

2002

4205

11.82%

2003

4305

11.64%

2004

4185

10.85%

2005

4248

10.95%

2006

4218

11.21%

2007

4152

12.84%

2008

4082

12.03%

2009

4223

13.19%

2010

4224

11.46%

2011

4207

10.22%

2012

2387

10.05%

TOT

87810

11.51%

Generally, a team only goes for it on offense on 11.51 percent of the fourth-down opportunities that come up in a game.

There was a recent surge from 2007-2009 on teams going for it a little more often, but that has now fallen to the lowest rate ever the last two seasons, with the lowest this season (10.05 percent).

Even though offenses have been historically great at converting on fourth down this season, coaches are using it to their advantage at the lowest documented rate we can find.

 

Rising trend in risk-averse coaching

If something is working so well, why not use it more? The problem is most coaches are strongly risk averse, and a big part of that is the way a coach is attacked by the mainstream media when a decision does not work.

We talked about Mike Smith, but even Bill Belichick felt the brunt of it for his 4th-and-2 decision in a national prime time game against the Colts in 2009.

If even Belichick cannot get away with the scorn for that one, how can any of these other coaches?

The sad thing is the numbers still support many of these decisions, but the coaches will continue to ignore them because they do not want to be criticized for trying to win the game. Imagine that. Criticized for trying to win a game.

Notice how it is usually the fans that call for the coach to go for it on fourth down more often. But this may be a case where the fans are right for a change.

Using the Game Play Finder at Pro-Football-Reference, we were able to compile a lot more data on fourth-down conversions from 2000 to 2012 (regular season only and through Week 10 this season).

Here is a breakdown of the fourth-down attempts by an offense from 2000 to 2010 based on when the attempt occurred (quarter and if the team was trailing, tied or leading).

Distribution of 4th Down Plays From Scrimmage (2000-2010)

Quarter

Trailing

4DP%

Tied

4DP%

Leading

4DP%

Total

4DP%

1st

186

3.5%

360

6.7%

89

1.7%

635

11.8%

2nd

483

9.0%

109

2.0%

311

5.8%

903

16.8%

3rd

529

9.8%

47

0.9%

288

5.3%

864

16.0%

4th/OT

2441

45.3%

52

1.0%

495

9.2%

2988

55.4%

Total

3639

67.5%

568

10.5%

1183

21.9%

By Quarter

Not surprisingly, 45.3 percent of the fourth-down attempts come from a team trailing in the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter (and overtime) alone accounts for 55.4 percent of all the fourth-down attempts.

When the game is tied, teams are most likely to go for it in the first quarter, but get away from doing that the rest of the game.

Another sign of avoiding risk is the low (1.7 percent) mark of fourth-down tries when leading in the first quarter. A coach may feel comfortable with his early lead and does not want to get “greedy” to try to build on it.

One category that needs some data cleaning is leading in the fourth quarter/overtime (9.2 percent), because a lot of kneel downs and irrelevant plays are inflating that total.

Here is the same comparison, but only for the 2011-2012 seasons.

Distribution of 4th Down Plays From Scrimmage (2011-2012)

Quarter

Trailing

4DP%

Tied

4DP%

Leading

4DP%

Total

4DP%

1st

12

1.8%

38

5.7%

13

1.9%

63

9.4%

2nd

58

8.7%

10

1.5%

39

5.8%

107

16.0%

3rd

47

7.0%

4

0.6%

24

3.6%

75

11.2%

4th/OT

352

52.5%

6

0.9%

67

10.0%

425

63.4%

Total

469

70.0%

58

8.7%

143

21.3%

By Quarter

Look at the big change. Now we have teams attempting 52.5 percent of all fourth downs in the fourth quarter when trailing, and 63.4 percent overall attempts coming in the fourth quarter/OT.

We also see a decrease in attempts while tied and in the first and third quarters as well.

In other words, teams since last season are going for fourth down in the most obvious of situations even more, and doing it less often in the riskier moments of the game.

 

The most common fourth-down decision

While most people are not asking for a coach to go for it on 4th and 10 inside their own territory, everyone can agree that there needs to be more attempts on 4th and short, and especially on 4th and 1.

Since 2000, roughly 89.4 percent of all fourth-down attempts come on 4th and 1.

It is the easiest and most common call to make for a fourth down, so let’s break those numbers down. The “GO%” is the percentage of 4th-and-1’s in which the team did make an attempt with their offense. The “Rate” in the last column is their conversion rate. We removed muffed or fumbled punts from the conversions as they come up under Pro-Football-Reference’s searches as first downs.

4th-and-1's

Decision

Success Rate

Year

4th-1

Run

Pass

Punt

FG

GO%

Conv.

Rate

2000

408

118

37

171

82

37.99%

105

67.74%

2001

432

130

40

194

68

39.35%

92

54.12%

2002

424

136

40

179

69

41.51%

121

68.75%

2003

424

146

36

179

63

42.92%

125

68.68%

2004

422

123

36

202

61

37.68%

107

67.30%

2005

431

153

42

186

50

45.24%

125

64.10%

2006

432

128

40

184

80

38.89%

115

68.45%

2007

445

164

46

164

71

47.19%

132

62.86%

2008

435

161

45

177

52

47.36%

142

68.93%

2009

485

171

59

196

59

47.42%

152

66.09%

2010

429

143

46

176

64

44.06%

123

65.08%

2011

397

109

35

190

63

36.27%

77

53.47%

2012

252

63

25

127

37

34.92%

63

71.59%

TOT

5416

1745

527

2325

819

41.95%

1479

65.10%

When faced with a 4th and 1, teams are going for it just under 42.0 percent of the time, and converting 65.1 percent of the time. That includes a very high 71.6 conversion rate this season.

But once again, we see 2012 with the highest conversion rate, but the lowest attempt rate (34.92 percent). One has to wonder if part of the reason is that 2011 had the poorest conversion rate (53.47 percent), so these coaches are nervous to go for it.

But that did not stop the coaches in 2002 after a poor conversion rate of 54.12 percent in 2001. They increased their attempt rate to 41.51 percent. Things once again were starting to peak from 2007-2009 with coaches going for it over 47.1 percent of the time each season.

Now we are back to being ultra conservative the last two years. This does not fit the “offense rules” story one bit.

Here are the 4th-and-1 numbers broken down for attempts inside opponent territory (inside and including the 50). Obviously a coach is more likely to go for that 4th and 1 on that side of the field.

In Opponent's Territory (>50)

4th-and-1's

Decision

Success Rate

Year

4th-1

Run

Pass

Punt

FG

GO%

Conv.

Rate

2000

246

95

33

36

82

52.03%

90

70.31%

2001

246

113

37

28

68

60.98%

81

54.00%

2002

234

107

36

22

69

61.11%

96

67.13%

2003

241

127

25

26

63

63.07%

106

69.74%

2004

232

104

30

37

61

57.76%

90

67.16%

2005

238

131

33

24

50

68.91%

105

64.02%

2006

249

105

34

30

80

55.82%

95

68.35%

2007

272

139

39

23

71

65.44%

110

61.80%

2008

246

137

35

22

52

69.92%

121

70.35%

2009

285

142

50

34

59

67.37%

126

65.63%

2010

255

121

40

30

64

63.14%

102

63.35%

2011

202

88

31

20

63

58.91%

59

49.58%

2012

130

51

20

22

37

54.62%

50

70.42%

TOT

3076

1460

443

354

819

61.87%

1231

64.69%

Or is he? Of all the 4th-and-1 attempts since 2000, 56.8 percent have been attempted inside opponent territory compared to 43.2 percent inside your own territory. Perhaps not the split we expected, though within your own territory you get more of the trick plays.

  • In opponent territory, teams go for it on fourth down 61.87 percent of the time, and convert 64.69 percent.
  • Inside their own territory, teams go for it on fourth down 15.77 percent of the time, and convert 67.21 percent.

Once again, in 2012 we see teams only going for it 54.62 percent of the time on 4th and 1 in opponent territory, despite the fact they are converting a 21st-century-best 70.42 percent of the time. And once again, that follows a horrific rate last season of just 49.58 percent.

If teams convert just as well, if not better, inside their own territory on 4th and 1, why not go for it more often? But of course, that involves a lot more risk, and we know coaches hate risk, and they apparently hate it more than ever.

  • From 2000 to 2010, coaches went for it on 4th and 1 inside their own territory 16.16 percent of the time, and converted 66.36 percent.
  • Since 2011, coaches have gone for it on 4th and 1 inside their own territory 13.25 percent of the time, and converted 73.81 percent.

Even though teams are 31 of 42 – really should be 31 of 40 (77.5 percent) when you exclude kneel downs by Matt Ryan and Drew Brees – at converting 4th and 1 inside their own territory the last two years, we are seeing it happen less often.

Going back and removing all kneel downs or intentional safeties at the end of the game on fourth down would only enhance the conversion rate, which tells us teams should be going for it on fourth down more often.

 

Conclusion

For as much praise is heaped on the offenses in today’s NFL, coaches are more than ever limiting their chances for success by not allowing them to stay on the field, even in the most common situations (4th and 1).

Every move is analyzed with great scrutiny in today’s game, but coaches should believe in the fourth-down data and what that tells them more than they should care what some writer says retroactively about their decision in overtime.

These are risks, but they are calculated risks. The numbers are predictive, though you should apply them to your team’s strengths. If Peyton Manning (league-best numbers on fourth down since 2000) is your quarterback, you may want to put the ball in his hands compared to Willis McGahee. If you are the Minnesota Vikings, Adrian Peterson is a better option than Christian Ponder.

But regardless of your offensive philosophy, if you cannot trust your team to gain one yard when they need it most, then what does that say about you and your team? What are you saying to your team by punting?

At this pace we will finish 2012 with the best conversion rates on all fourth down and 4th-and-1 attempts since 1991, but with the fewest decisions.

Instead of embracing the data, NFL coaches continue to move further away from logic and deeper into conservatism, afraid to take accountability for their actions.

To modify an old quote, “it is better to lose on your feet than win on your knees.”

When will that next maverick coach come around, taking what Herm Edwards said to heart, but applying his brain and actually following through with the plan that will win games?

Right now, the NFL is lacking in fortitude. When fear is the driving factor in your decision to punt, you might have picked the wrong profession. The only good news is you are no different than your colleagues.

Gutless.

 

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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