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Anyone who has spent any time studying football analytics knows one truth: teams are not aggressive enough on fourth down. For example, in situation-neutral contexts, it’s always advisable to go for it on 4th-and-1. The value of possession has become increasingly important in the modern game, where offenses are so adept at gaining yards and scoring points, and the likelihood of conversion is so high that the trade-off of 40-50 yards of field position for a chance to keep possession is almost always worth it. Possession, after all, is worth about 4 points: if having 1st-and-10 at the 50 yard line is worth 2 points, then being on defense in that situation is worth -2, making the swing between having the ball and not having the ball worth 4 points.

So are NFL teams becoming smarter when it comes to 4th down decision making? I looked at all 4th-and-1 plays since 1994 that (i) came in the first three quarters, (ii) with the offense between the 40s, and (iii) with the team on offense either leading or trailing by no more than 10 points. From 1994 to 2004, teams went for it on these 4th-and-1 situations about 28% of the time. Then, from ’05 to 2014, teams went for it 35% of the time. But over the last two years, offenses have stayed on the field for these fourth downs over 40% of the time both years. Take a look:

There have been 495 such 4th-and-1 attempts since 1994, at least according to PFR. On average, those plays have added 1.4 expected points to the offense just by making the decision to go for it. Teams moved the chains 72% of the time in these situations, and ran 84% of the time and passed 16% of the time.

For what it’s worth, the conversion rate has not been trending up or down: it’s held steady around 72% over the last two decades. It was 69% in 2014, 73% in 2015, and 69% last season, so if teams are going for it more frequently, it’s not because it’s easier to convert. Rather, this provides some evidence that the NFL is slowly figuring out that possession is the name of the game. Similarly, the pass/run ratio has been relatively consistent, although there’s large variance due to small sample size issues. But over the last 4 years, the conversion rate is 67% and the pass ratio has been 16%.

  • Anders

    I wonder why the incline up to 2007, then the sharp decline from 2008 to 2010. Was there any major rule changes or coaching retirements around there?

    • Richie

      I don’t see a trend. In the two years 2007-08, the league combined to punt 55% of the time (in 160 plays). In 2010, the league combined to punt 74% of the time (in 65 plays). As you can see, the sample size is small. 65 plays is a little over 2 per team on average.

      In 07-08, Jacksonville led the way with 12 plays, and they went for it 9 times (by far the most). Then in 2010, they still led the league with 5 “Go fors” in 7 plays.

      Arizona was the leading fraidy cat in 07-08 with 8 punts in 9 plays. In 2010 they punted once in only 2 plays. So they went the opposite way of the leaguewide trend. Whisenhunt was the coach the whole time.

      Cincinnati had 5 chances in each of my two sample periods, and they punted every time.

      Minnesota punted 2 of 4 in 07-08 and all 4 in 2010.

      With 65 chances in 2010, the league punted 48 times. They would have needed to punt only 35 times to match the punt rate from 07-08. Only four teams punted more than 4 times in 2010, so there just aren’t a lot of concentrated punts to remove from a handful of teams to bring the rate down. All the teams just needed to punt a little less.

      • Anders

        It still seems weird why the league seems to be going steady up for 10 years then to suddenly fall sharply over 2 years.

        • Richie

          Agreed. But it doesn’t appear to be caused by any particular teams or coaches. Just a leaguewide shift.

  • sacramento gold miners

    It makes perfect sense to go for it more often on fourth down, reflecting the changes in the game. A pass attempt can easily result in a pass interference call, and either a run or pass can have a player safety call involved. It’s extremely tough for defenses to stop these short passes in today’s NFL.

    • Tom

      Agreed. And in a lot of cases, if it’s obvious your team is nowhere near as good as the other team, you probably should be going for it (almost) every time, and throwing in a few onside kicks as well.

      The Texans/Patriots Divisional game last year is a good example…the Texans just weren’t going to win that game, there’s a reason Vegas had them as 16-point underdogs. Why kick a field goal on 4th-and-4 when you’re down by 8 in the 4th quarter, or 4th-and-3 on the 9-yard line in the second half when you’re also down by 8? You’re playing the Pats, not the Titans. Houston was given a few gifts in that game, I’m wondering if they thought “Hey, maybe if we just keep playing it safe, the Patriots will make more mistakes”…no, they won’t. Forget all the EP/WP analysis…just be reckless once in a while…maybe a dude will catch the ball on his helmet or something.

      • Reminds me of a 2004 Dolphins-Pats game in which lowly Miami beat eventual champ NE on a quasi-jump ball TD pass from AJ Feeley to Derrius Thompson (who?) on 4th and 10.

        In that case, Miami was forced into an aggressive “David Strategy” and it worked! Had they been able to “play it safe” like the Texans last year, things probably would’ve played out in a similar fashion.

        • Richie

          The Wildcat was another successful David strategy employed by the Dolphins against the Patriots.

          It would be interesting (but probably impossible) to try to quantify the success rate of other David strategies in recent NFL history.

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  • I remember hearing John Madden talk about his video game, and he said scores were too high in early versions because players would always go for it on 4th down.

    His solution was to have the programmers turn down “the odds” on 4th down. He apparently never considered the alternative that players had hit upon a strategy that more NFL teams should actually try.

    Sounds like some teams are wising up, which is good. As a Seahawks fan, nothing is more frustrating than watching Jon Ryan trot onto the field on 4th and 2 from the other team’s 43 yard line.

    • Tom

      That is hilarious. It’s like, “Teams don’t go for it on 4th down, that’s just the way the game is played, so we better fix the code to discourage that”. In any football video game I’ve ever played, I ALWAYS went for it…of course, I never had to worry about getting fired or the media lambasting me the following day…

      • Richie

        ” the media lambasting me the following day…”

        Maybe they need to work that into the game as well.

        “Last night Tom made another stupid decision when he went for it on 4th and 18 from his own 5-yard line!”

        • Tom

          Hahahaha. Truth is, I stink at those games, so I HAVE to take that strategy every time…why willingly give the ball back? Might as well take another shot…

    • Tom

      Speaking of the Seahawks…I felt like Carroll should have gone for it in the SB when they had a 4th-and-1 on the Pats 8-yard line early in the 3rd quarter. Not a bad decision top kick the FG (they eventually scored another TD after that if we want to use that as a justification), but I felt like that was the moment to make a statement, tell the Pats that you’ve got huevos and that if you need a yard, you can get it. Yeah, for someone who’s really into stats and all, perhaps that’s a bit ridiculous, but that was my thinking at the time…

    • AgronomyBrad

      Seems like people are ALWAYS more aggressive playing Madden than real-life coaches are. I’ve never taken a touchback playing Madden (but I also don’t have to worry about anyone sustaining a real concussion or tearing a real ACL, either).