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Scott Kacsmar posted an interesting article yesterday, noting that teams are punting or kicking on 4th down in 2012 more frequently than at any other time in the last 20 years. So far in 2012, just 1.27% of all plays are 4th down attempts.

Scott also noted that teams have been less aggressive on 4th and 1. I wanted to tweak some of Scott’s cutoffs and see if the results changed. I look at all 4th-and-1s since 2000, but limited the data to just weeks 1-10 and the first three quarters of the game. This year, teams have gone for it 56 times in these situations, gaining a first down 75% of the time.

The table below shows how often teams punted, kicked a field goal, or went for it on 4th and 1. The fifth column shows the conversion rate when teams did choose to try to get the first down, and the next two columns display the run to pass ratio (scrambles are included as runs). The final two columns show the success rates by run and by pass.

YearPuntField GoalGo For ItConv RtRun %Pass %Run ConRtPass ConRt

It is a bit odd to see that teams seem less willing to try to convert on 4th-and-1 in 2012 than they were a decade ago. Why do you think that is?

  • Shattenjager

    This is obviously pretty much a stab in the dark and it seems extremely oversimplistic, but could it be because of the harsh public criticism of Belichick’s infamous fourth-and-two and Mike Smith’s nearly-as-infamous fourth-and-inches?

    While the analytical football blogosphere was strongly in the coach’s corner each time, it seemed like no one among the national mainstream media was. Coaches, being risk- and criticism-averse as an act of job preservation, may have reacted to those situations by saying, “I’m sure as hell not opening myself up to that” and deciding to err even more on the side of kicking than they otherwise would have.

    • Chase Stuart

      That’s certainly possible. I also think most coaches, job-preservation concerns aside, still view going for it on 4th and 1 as a risky (read: bad) proposition. The low conversion rate last year may have something to do with it, although Scott addressed that in his article.

  • Andrew

    I think that teams simply don’t want to lose a game to a bad call in a season with so much parity. You don’t want to be the caoch who made the call that caused your team to be 8-8 instead of 9-7 and miss the playoffs. On the other hand, you would think that would be balanced out by smart, aggressive coaches like Belichick or McCarthy and desperate-for-a-win coaches like Rex Ryan or Jason Garrett or any of half a dozen other coaches, especially if anyone on their staff were to show them the fantastic success rates on fourth down plays. So I’m going to blame it partly on fear of being the scapegoat in a season that promises to have a lot of them and the stupidity of prevailing coaching theory in the NFL: play not to lose instead of playing to win. There appears to a huge difference betwixt those two things.

    • Chase Stuart

      Oddly enough, Belichick has been particularly meek in this situation so far this year. I am not sure any of the normal justifications would make 2012 different than any other year, but it could simply be a change in the winds. I agree that coaches are afraid of being the scapegoat, but also that coaches would rather defer the risky decisions until the end of games.

  • Ben

    Random noise in the data?

    • Chase Stuart

      Always possible. It’s worth remembering that 4th and inches is different than 4th and 4 feet, and we have no way of knowing what the breakdown on that has been this year. So we could have a Simpson’s Paradox issue going on.

      • Steven

        I’m tentatively inclined to agree with Ben. If I’m remembering correctly, the 95% margin of error for boolean (i.e., yes-or-no) data is roughly 1/sqrt(n), so if we’re talking about 200 4th downs, the “population mean” could be anywhere from 23% to 37%. That said, the fact that last year’s number was similar (and even lower) makes me a little bit less inclined to dismiss it altogether. We’ll have to keep an eye on this as we get more data.

  • Could it be influenced by this year’s crop of new head coaches?

    • Chase Stuart

      I suppose that’s possible. Is that how you feel it’s been?

      • That’s just a guess, not necessarily based upon anything. Should have said, new coaches from the past two years, not just this year. I’d be interested to see how that split out.

  • Danish

    Mind boggling since offense way up league-wide the last couple of years…

    • Chase Stuart

      Yes, that is the crazy part. Having the ball has never been so important.

  • Richie

    Is it possible that the distribution of locations of the 4th downs is different? For instance, maybe a larger percentage of 4th and 1’s are happening deep in team’s own territory, where they are less likely to go for it?