Message to NFL Coaches: Stop Being Stupid on Fourth Downs

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In the most competitive professional sports in the world, teams constantly have to adapt to stay afloat. Following coaching conventions from twenty years ago simply isn’t a recipe for success. In the current age, teams are scoring at an all-time high rate. Coaches have to change it up in order to keep up with high-flying offenses. The problem is that teams aren’t taking enough risks. On the few occasions that they do take these chances, they’re not being smart.

There’s plenty of different types of gutsy calls for a coach to make: attempting an early game onside kick, calling a pass play at your own goal-line, sending an all-out blitz, etc. While these are all interesting, the highlighted topic will be the question of attempting to convert on fourth-down plays.

There are obviously many situations in which going for a fourth-down doesn’t make sense. Teams aren’t criticized for punting the ball on 4th-and-10 while up by multiple possessions. However, in other situations, teams should nearly always keep their offense on the field.

Journalist Brian Burke compiled data from 2,400 games and calculated “expected points”, which is defined as the average potential points a team can expect given a certain situation. Burke was then able to determine exactly what a team should do in various fourth-down situations. His findings are depicted in the following graph.

Burke found that a team’s chances of scoring more points (and eventually winning the game) increase when they follow these rules. Short-yardage fourth-down conversions ( should generally always be attempted.

Burke’s findings stretch even further, though.

The data shows that teams should even go for it on fourth down with 11 yards to go on the opponent’s 38-yard-line. While this sounds initially sounds crazy, it actually makes sense upon further examination. For most teams, the opponent’s 38-yard-line lies within a difficult grey region. You’re too close to the endzone to punt it away because you don’t want to come away with no points on a decent drive. However, you’re too far to kick a field goal. From the 38-yard-line, a field goal would be 55 yards long. Over the past 20 years, kickers are hitting field goals this long at a 48.9% rate. Not exactly efficient. A team’s best option is to try to extend the drive with a fourth down conversion attempt. If the attempt fails, your opponent begins their drive 13 yards further than usual. Big deal. This season, offenses gained an average of 33 yards per drive.

Of course, coaches shouldn’t simply have a laminated version of this graph at their disposal to fully rely on for their decision making on game day. Many other factors need to be taken into account, such as team strength. I’m sure John Harbaugh is more confident letting Justin Tucker attempt a 55-yard field goal. Mike Zimmer may be more hesitant. The game situation is obviously relevant as well. If a team needs a field goal to win the game, nobody thinks that they should attempt to convert a fourth and goal while six yards away from the endzone.

The takeaway should be that teams are clearly far more conservative than they should be. It’ll take time for them to reach the level that statistics suggest they should reach. The lack of aggression from coaches is practically an ingrained part of the game. Remember the outrage when the Saints went for a fourth down and seven conversion at the Eagles’ 38-yard-line?

Brian Burke showed us that it was the right call.

We’re not going to see many teams attempting to convert long fourth-downs in situations like that very often. While it makes sense, it would be a huge shift in coaching convention. It will take time for significant change to occur in that department.

Short-yardage fourth-down situations are another story. These are plays in which the offense has less than three yards to go for a fourth-down conversion. Burke’s model suggests that teams should nearly always attempt these conversions. While this hasn’t happened, the league has seen a considerable increase in short-yardage fourth-down aggression.

Time will tell whether this year is just an outlier or if this is a legitimate trend that will hold up in the future. Let’s hope that it’s the latter. After all, these dangerously conservative habits being discarded is good for everybody involved. It’s infuriating for fans to watch coaches make boneheaded decisions. Atlanta Falcons fans have been forced to witness far too many game management fails.

With Burke’s study in mind, it’s clear that the trend toward greater aggression is certainly a good sign. However, there’s still an obvious issue. While coaches are being more aggressive, they’re not being smarter. As legendary college football coach Nick Saban once explained, the important thing isn’t to take risks. The key is to take calculated risks.

Over the past few years, the league average conversion percentage on short-yardage fourth-down attempts has hovered around 65%. There wasn’t a significant increase in 2018 despite teams being more aggressive. Teams need to increase the volume of plays in which they go for fourth-down while also increasing their efficiency. They’ve completed the first step; not the second.

Well, how do they become more efficient? Simple. They call the right play.

Let’s look at their options.

 FrequencySuccess Rate
Pass 41.22%62.61%
Run (Excluding quarterback sneaks)41.58%68.10%
Quarterback Sneak17.20%85.42%

The quarterback sneak is by far the least frequently utilized play on short-yardage fourth-down situations. It’s also the most effective. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. It’s almost impossible for the defense to stop a play where the quarterback just has to fall forward.

For a proper conceptualization of the success rate of quarterback sneaks, look at the chart below. Every quarterback sneak called on short-yardage fourth-down situations this season is plotted.

In 48 attempts, the sneak was stopped just 7 times. A team’s estimated points on a drive skyrocketed when they take this chance. It’s a low-risk-high-reward play.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at how stark the difference is when we plot all pass plays and non-QB-sneak run plays.

Despite being one of the most effective plays in the NFL, coaches refuse to utilize it. There’s no good reason for teams to not attempt more quarterback sneaks on short-yardage fourth-down plays instead of punting the football away.

There are many theories as to why coaches are so hell-bent on playing an idiotically conservative style of football. One theory is that coaches inherit this lack of aggression from their former teachers who worked in a completely different era. Nearly all coaches in the NFL are part of a long coaching tree. As a result, old tendencies stick. These tendencies made sense back then — offenses were weaker and a good punt essentially guaranteed a defensive stop. That’s not the case today.

Another plausible suggestion is that coaches fear for their job security. It’s not common knowledge to fans that attempting to convert on fourth-downs is generally a good decision. Coaches will still always serve as the scapegoat if it goes badly, even if it was the right decision.

Regardless of why they’re doing it, nothing excuses the conservative habits of NFL coaches today. Many people say they “trust their defense.” This is used as an excuse for not taking initiative on offense. If you don’t trust your offense in 2019, you won’t survive.