NFL Plagued By Epidemic Of Gutless Coaches

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 22, 2013



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

As NFL coaches – a group that includes eight fresh faces in new places – convene in Indianapolis to try and predict the future with draft prospects at the combine, we are still chugging away at the Cold, Hard Football Facts on the 2012 season.

Following Week 10, we slammed the conservative coaches for being as gutless as ever.

Just 1.27 percent of all scrimmage plays through Week 10 were fourth-down attempts, which was the lowest rate since 1991.

Meanwhile the conversion rate was never higher with teams extending the drive 55.0 percent of the time.

It continues to make no sense why coaches prefer to shrivel up in these situations when the data consistently is in their favor to go for it more than they do.

Now with the full season in the books, we can tell you that 2012 will not go down as the most gutless for fourth-down conversions since 1991 (that is how far our data went back).

Instead it will go down as the second-most conservative after the 2011 season. In 2012, 1.37 percent of all scrimmage plays were fourth-down plays, which is just above the 1.32 percent from the previous season. Here is an updated table of all seasons (regular season only) since 1991:

NFL - 4th Down Conversion Attempts (1991-2012)

Year

Scrm Plays

4th Md

4th Att

Conv. %

Play %

Failed 3rd

4D Pct.

1991

27,221

193

410

47.07%

1.51%

3516

11.66%

1992

26,839

177

399

44.36%

1.49%

3584

11.13%

1993

28,153

184

406

45.32%

1.44%

3676

11.04%

1994

28,543

223

461

48.37%

1.62%

3739

12.33%

1995

30,974

267

496

53.83%

1.60%

3917

12.66%

1996

30,666

234

464

50.43%

1.51%

4045

11.47%

1997

30,621

240

495

48.48%

1.62%

4173

11.86%

1998

30,264

200

454

44.05%

1.50%

4091

11.10%

1999

31,557

206

473

43.55%

1.50%

4339

10.90%

2000

31,231

218

455

47.91%

1.46%

4111

11.07%

2001

31,043

203

468

43.38%

1.51%

4183

11.19%

2002

32,569

252

497

50.70%

1.53%

4205

11.82%

2003

32,093

232

501

46.31%

1.56%

4305

11.64%

2004

31,978

219

454

48.24%

1.42%

4185

10.85%

2005

32,021

223

465

47.96%

1.45%

4248

10.95%

2006

32,000

239

473

50.53%

1.48%

4218

11.21%

2007

32,133

261

533

48.97%

1.66%

4152

12.84%

2008

31,681

260

491

52.95%

1.55%

4082

12.03%

2009

32,222

279

557

50.09%

1.73%

4223

13.19%

2010

32,319

238

484

49.17%

1.50%

4224

11.46%

2011

32,569

186

430

43.26%

1.32%

4207

10.22%

2012

32,882

225

451

49.89%

1.37%

4214

10.70%

TOT

681,579

4,959

10,317

48.07%

1.51%

89637

11.51%

Teams were less successful at converting in the season’s last seven weeks. The final conversion rate for 2012 was 49.89 percent, which is still the seventh highest since 1991. Of the failed third-down conversions, 10.7 percent resulted in a fourth-down attempt. That is also the second-lowest percentage since 1991, only trailing 2011 (10.22 percent) again.

So it is pretty clear the last two seasons have been uniquely conservative when it comes to going for it on fourth down. This comes despite offenses continuing to rewrite the record books. But apparently it will never truly be video game football without fewer punts and more fourth-down attempts.

 

Breaking down 2012’s fourth-down attempts

Once again using the Game Play Finder from Pro-Football-Reference, here is the breakdown of the fourth-down attempts from the 2012 season, focusing only on the regular season.

“To Go” is the average yards the team needed for the first down. “YPP” is average yards gained per play. “Pass%” is the percentage of fourth-down plays that were passes for that team. League-wide totals and averages included.

NFL - 2012 Fourth-Down Conversion Attempts (Regular Season Only)

Team

Conv.

Att.

Pct.

To Go

YPP

TD

INT

FUM

Sack

Pass

Rush

Pass%

Jaguars

8

26

30.8%

5.46

4.12

1

2

0

1

23

3

88.5%

Eagles

14

24

58.3%

4.96

7.25

1

0

0

1

15

9

62.5%

Rams

13

24

54.2%

4.25

4.00

3

1

0

1

21

3

87.5%

Cardinals

10

24

41.7%

7.25

9.13

2

2

0

3

19

5

79.2%

Seahawks

11

18

61.1%

5.33

5.44

2

0

0

0

10

8

55.6%

Redskins

12

17

70.6%

3.82

3.71

1

0

0

1

9

8

52.9%

Buccaneers

7

17

41.2%

6.35

5.41

0

0

1

1

10

7

58.8%

Bengals

11

16

68.8%

4.44

8.25

2

0

0

1

6

10

37.5%

Browns

7

16

43.8%

5.00

3.50

0

0

1

3

12

4

75.0%

Raiders

4

16

25.0%

6.31

1.75

0

0

1

1

9

7

56.3%

Chiefs

7

15

46.7%

4.40

2.60

1

0

0

1

10

5

66.7%

Lions

6

15

40.0%

6.40

4.27

1

2

0

3

13

2

86.7%

Dolphins

5

15

33.3%

5.00

1.93

2

0

0

1

9

6

60.0%

Titans

5

15

33.3%

3.27

2.20

1

0

1

3

12

3

80.0%

Saints

8

14

57.1%

5.07

7.00

3

1

0

0

13

1

92.9%

Jets

7

14

50.0%

4.29

3.57

0

0

1

1

6

8

42.9%

Ravens

6

14

42.9%

5.64

3.71

1

0

0

0

7

7

50.0%

Packers

7

13

53.8%

5.31

5.00

1

0

0

0

9

4

69.2%

Bears

5

13

38.5%

4.31

4.46

1

1

1

0

7

6

53.8%

Patriots

8

12

66.7%

4.08

5.83

3

0

0

1

9

3

75.0%

49ers

8

12

66.7%

6.83

7.83

2

0

0

1

6

6

50.0%

Vikings

7

12

58.3%

3.75

3.25

2

0

1

0

7

5

58.3%

Steelers

6

12

50.0%

4.25

2.25

1

0

0

1

5

7

41.7%

Cowboys

8

11

72.7%

4.45

7.09

3

1

0

0

8

3

72.7%

Chargers

6

11

54.5%

5.36

4.09

2

2

1

1

6

5

54.5%

Giants

5

10

50.0%

2.10

7.40

0

0

0

0

8

2

80.0%

Panthers

3

9

33.3%

4.44

0.56

0

1

1

0

4

5

44.4%

Colts

7

8

87.5%

5.13

8.88

2

0

0

0

3

5

37.5%

Bills

5

8

62.5%

7.00

9.50

2

0

0

0

6

2

75.0%

Falcons

2

8

25.0%

4.50

-0.25

1

1

0

1

7

1

87.5%

Texans

4

7

57.1%

3.86

4.29

0

0

0

0

4

3

57.1%

Broncos

3

5

60.0%

1.20

7.60

1

0

0

0

4

1

80.0%

Total

225

451

49.9%

4.97

4.87

42

14

9

27

297

154

65.9%

Teams passed on 65.9 percent of all fourth downs, which should not come as much of a surprise.

Jack Del Rio may have been gone in Jacksonville, but his riverboat gambler approach carried on with Mike Mularkey’s Jaguars leading the league with 26 attempts. Of course a 2-14 team that often trailed is likely to have a lot of fourth downs. Their 30.8 conversion rate ranked 30th in the league ahead of only the Falcons (25.0 percent) and Raiders (25.0 percent).

No team converted at a higher rate than the Colts (87.5 percent), but they were only 7-of-8. The only stop was Andrew Luck getting stuffed on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak against the Packers.

John Fox was bashed for being conservative in Denver’s epic playoff loss, but consider the fact that with Peyton Manning as the quarterback, the Broncos only went for it a league-low five times on fourth down in 2012. Every time it was with 1-2 yards to go. Three times they did it while trailing, and three times they converted. Willis McGahee let a fourth conversion slip through his hands in New England. A fifth play was actually a fake field goal against the Raiders, so Fox only had Manning actually go for it four times, which is absurd.

Speaking of absurd, the Arizona Cardinals had three of the season’s four biggest gains on a fourth-down play:

  • Rashad Johnson ran 40 yards on a fake punt on 4th-and-7 against the Jets. Cleveland also had a 35-yard run on a fake punt against Pittsburgh in Week 17.
  • Michael Floyd caught a 37-yard pass from John Skelton on 4th-and-6 against the Packers with the game nearly out of reach in the fourth quarter.
  • With the game definitely out of reach, Floyd caught a 37-yard touchdown from Brian Hoyer to convert a 4th-and-24 against San Francisco in Week 17.

The only longer play was Cincinnati’s Cedric Peerman rushing for 48 yards against Jacksonville to convert a 4th-and-1 situation.

For plays that mattered the most, here are the clutch, game-winning highlights of fourth-down plays in 2012. You can probably guess two of them:

  • Andrew Luck’s little flip to Donnie Avery to complete a 14-yard touchdown on 4th-and-10 to beat the Lions with no time left.
  • Matt Hasselbeck went high to Nate Washington in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown on 4th-and-9 to beat the Bills in the final minute.
  • Yes, a touchdown was what Russell Wilson found to Golden Tate on 4th-and-10 from 24 yards out against the Packers in Week 3.
  • Finally, while not a game-winning touchdown, how can you forget Joe Flacco’s “Dump Mary” to Ray Rice on 4th-and-29 in San Diego to barely convert the first down on the game-tying field goal drive? Baltimore won in overtime.

This particular dataset also taught us something about stats and how they can lie. The PFR data sums up to 227 first downs, while the official number is 225. This difference is because of penalties.

For example, the Browns officially were 7-of-16 on fourth down this season. In Week 4 in Baltimore, Brandon Weeden tried to lead a game-tying touchdown drive in the closing seconds. Facing a 4th-and-10 at the BAL 33, his pass was incomplete. But Paul Kruger was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after shoving Joe Thomas (who flopped) late. That gave Cleveland a first down via penalty, but technically they finish the game 0/1 on fourth down.

Is that the right way to score it? Could argue either way, but it is something to keep in mind when doing the research and getting different results.

Speaking of outliers, four of the failed conversions were actually just kneel-down attempts to end a half. Meaningless plays, they bring the conversion rate down to 49.9 percent when it could have been 50.3 percent without them.

 

Correcting the most common fourth-down decision

Though we sometimes spew out out statistics like a machine, we are still human (barely), and humans make mistakes. Even HAL 9000 malfunctioned once.

In November’s article I made a huge mistake that I have only discovered in writing this update. While 4th-and-1 is the most common fourth-down attempt, it does not account for 89.4 percent of all fourth-down attempts since 2000 as I wrote in that section.

This was an error due to counting all 4th-and-1 situations (punts and field goals included) rather than actual attempts (runs and passes). Instead, roughly 37.4 percent of all fourth-down attempts since 2000 are on 4th-and-1 plays. In 2012 it was 35.0 percent (158 out of 451 plays).

This makes more sense. The conversion rate on 4th-and-1 in 2012 was 64.6 percent (102 out of 158). Here is the updated table for 4th-and-1 attempts.

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

451

111

47

229

64

35.03%

102

64.56%

TOT

5615

1793

549

2427

846

41.71%

1518

64.82%

With teams facing 451 opportunities on 4th-and-1, they only went for it on 35.03 percent of them. That is the lowest percentage since 2000. The conversion rate was not overly great this year, but it was much better than 2011’s horrid 53.47 percent.

While I can learn from my mistakes and believe in the data, NFL coaches have shown they are increasingly more afraid to even be in a situation that makes them look wrong on fourth down.  

With a quarter of the league changing head coaches, six of which are first-time NFL head coaches (seven counting interim-only Bruce Arians), it will be interesting to see if 2013 continues the gutless approach, or if this new breed will start to turn the tables and roll the dice a bit more.

Trust the numbers. Double check them too just to be safe. But trust that going for it on fourth down is going to be worth it more often than not.

 

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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