If you paid even a modicum of attention to the NFL last Sunday, or even Thursday, then you noticed a number of teams going for it on 4th down. Running a play on 4th down is not uncommon, however, the situations in which these teams tried to convert were. For example, the Chargers were winning 7-0 with 12:05 left in the 2nd quarter and on 4th down elected to pound Melvin Gordon up the middle for a one-yard gain and a first down.
The Chargers went on to finish that drive with a field goal and a two-possession lead. Mike McCoy risked losing a two-score lead with his decision and he was absolutely correct to do so. Why? Not because I, a random sportswriter, thinks so, but because analytics dictate it so.
The most famous published study on 4th down decision making was written by the New York Times in 2009. I won’t bore you with all the details, but essentially, if you are 33 yards or less away from the end zone and the first down marker is 4 yards or less away, then you should go for it. It’s as if Mike McCoy had read that very article and knew that on Denver’s 20 yard line with only one yard to go, the decision was simple, go for it. McCoy was not alone in his approach this weekend.
Both Sides of the Coin
Jim Caldwell decided to follow suit with 13:02 left in the first quarter. That’s right, on the opening drive of the game, the Lions converted a 4th and 1 on the Rams 49 yard line. They went on to score a touchdown and possess the ball for an additional 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Caldwell’s decision is not quite as cut and dry as McCoy’s. The distance to the first down was sufficient, but the field position was not, according to the study.
As usual though, the coach’s decision is not evaluated on the process, rather, the result. Given that the 4th down conversion resulted in a touchdown, Caldwell made the correct decision not once, but twice. Caldwell benefited from a fantastic scramble and catch on 4th and 2 at the Los Angeles two yard line. Sadly, or not so sadly if you’re from St. Louis, the oppositions coach was not so lucky.
What makes the Lions and Rams game unique is that both teams attempted 4th down conversions outside of conventional situations. With four seconds left in the first half, Fisher elected to run Todd Gurley on 4th and goal from the one yard line. Hilariously, Gurley was tackled for a one-yard loss.
Once again, a coach’s decision is measured by the result not the process, which Fisher should get credit for. He made the correct call given their position on the field and distance to go. Instead, every armchair quarterback and couch coach screamed at their TV saying, “You gotta kick the field goal!”
Isolated Incident or Contagious Concept?
Just because three teams decided to roll the dice more than usual last weekend doesn’t necessarily mean this is an emerging pattern, right? Correct. Thankfully, ten teams elected to go for it on 4th down not because the flow of the game dictated so, but because it was the right decision. Here are the following teams that attempted a 4th down conversion outside of normal “go for it” situations.
I decided to leave out any fourth quarter 4th down attempts to avoid any type of confusion about whether or not the decision to attempt a 4th down is considered conventional. One could argue that Carolina’s second attempt to convert was conventional given their deficit, but, I decided to include it anyway.
It’s interesting to see the majority of these attempts occurred in the second quarter. At that time, games are not usually out of reach. Rather, teams are trying to establish an offensive rhythm and determined that it was worth the risk. While not every situation aligned perfectly with 4th down analytics, I believe in the idea of aggressive offense.
The fantasy implications of this concept are simple. More plays, mean more points, and more scoring opportunities. More importantly, is the impact this trend could have on offensive gameplans. If a team’s offensive scheme gives them four plays to get ten yards, then play calls will change. Thus, a team won’t feel pressure to throw the ball on 2nd and eight. Knowing they have two more downs, they can run the ball for a 3rd and six. Then pass for a five yard gain and then line up to convert a fourth and one.
Like most theories, that logic sounds good on paper. It’s one thing to have a play sheet printed of fourth down plays and the appropriate situations. It’s another thing entirely to call one of those plays. Right now, the Raiders are the front-runners for adopting this philosophy. They have consistently attempted 4th down conversions all season and no doubt they will continue to do so against Jacksonville.