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Week Three (2015) Fourth Down Decisions In Review

Boldest Coach of the Week:

John Harbaugh’s Ravens were the only team to go for it on 4th down twice before the 4th quarter, as Baltimore converted a 4th-and-5 in the 3Q after going for it in the 2nd quarter on his own 27.  The latter decision was particularly bold: the Ravens were the only team to attempt a fourth down conversion in the first 20 minutes of the game, and going for it so close to a team’s own end zone is practically unheard of in the first half of games.   Harbaugh’s aggressiveness was rewarded, as Anthony Levine took a fake punt right end for 3 yards. On this play, fortune favored the bold: Cedric Peerman tackled Levine behind the line of scrimmage, but in the process, he caused Levine to fumble.  Levine fumbled forward and recovered, picking up the first down.

Half-Hearted Decision of the Week

Ken Whisenhunt wisely went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Indianapolis 4-yard line when up by 10 points with 20 minutes remaining.  That’s a smart decision, for many reasons, not the least of which is that being up by 13 can be a double-edged sword.  And while the Titans converted, Whisenhunt then kicked a field goal from the 3-yard line three plays later. That came back to bite Tennessee. The Colts scored two touchdowns to take the lead, and ultimately won by two points after a Titans failed on a two-point try in the final minute.

Bad Coaching Decision of the Week

Jim Tomsula elected to punt with the 49ers (i) down by 21 points, (ii) facing 4th-and-1, and (iii) at the San Francisco 40-yard line. That would normally be the worst decision, but…

Most Pathetic Coaching Decision of the Week

John Fox was only eligible for this award while using a generous definition of the word “coaching.” The Bears somehow managed to record zero 4th down attempts in a game where Chicago lost 26-0.  The Bears ended every drive in a punt, which included punting on 4th-and-1, 4th-and-2, and 4th-and-3.  A 4th-and-1 punt at the Chicago 46-yard line late in the 3rd quarter (while trailing by 20) was the coaching version of waving the white flag.

Worst 4th-and-1 Punt of the Week (tie)

Okay, Fox had a gutless, unjustifiable 4th-and-1 punt, but the Bears weren’t winning that game. So let’s have him share the award with Mike McCoy, whose Chargers punted at the Vikings 44-yard line on 4th-and-1 in the first quarter.  San Diego traded up in the first round to draft Melvin Gordon, and just gave Philip Rivers a mammoth contract extension.  Why do these things if you can’t trust your offense to gain one yard in a critical road game?

Worst Field Goal Attempt of the Week

Kicking inside the 3-yard line in the first three quarters of a game is almost never advisable, and the Steelers and Patriots both got away with those decisions.  So while we could focus on those, let’s look at one that turned out to be a bit more critical to a team’s win probability. The Ravens kicked a 21-yard field goal on 4th-and-goal from the Cincinnati 2-yard line, while trailing 14-10 with 13 minutes left the fourth quarter.   The NYT 4th Down Bot estimated that this decision dropped Baltimore’s chances of winning from 31% to 26%.  Being conservative in advantageous situations early often forces a team to be hyper-aggressive in disadvantage situations later, and sure enough, the Ravens wound up having to go for it on 4th-and-17 later in the game.

Gutsy Decision That Didn’t Work Out

On a day where the Rams offense accomplished little, give Jeff Fisher credit for at least recognizing this issue early in the game.  In the middle of the 2nd quarter, punter Johnny Hekker attempted a fake punt on 4th-and-3 from the Steelers 48-yard line.  The pass was underthrown, but it was an aggressive call on a day where the Rams couldn’t seem to move the ball.

  • I propose a “Worst Coach of the Week”. And it should be Joe Philbin until he’s fired.

  • Richie

    Oh, nice. I liked when Bill Barnwell used to write his “thank you for not coaching” article, and was disappointed when he dropped it last year. I’d love to see more of these.

  • Richie

    Regarding the Ravens kicking the field goal from the Cincinnati 2-yard line. I assume there are a few components to this decision, and different coaches weigh them differently:
    – they don’t realize how valuable it is to leave the opponent with the ball on their own 2-yard line
    – they are afraid of not coming away with any points
    – they think it will shift momentum to the opponent if they don’t make it

    Has anybody looked to see what the average result is after you go for it and fail in a situation like this? In other words, how often does the defense or the offense end up scoring next in those situations?

    I guess what I’m wondering is if there is any validity to the momentum shift theory. I’m guessing not.

    • Adam

      You constantly hear announcers preaching, “You HAVE TO come away with points here” when a team is in the red zone, as if a guaranteed 3 is better than a 60% chance of 7.

    • Andrew Healy

      I am almost positive that the data say that there is nothing to this whatsoever. I even thought it might be in the original Romer paper, but maybe I have that wrong.

      • Richie

        Which part? Momentum?

        • Andrew Healy


  • Adam

    John Fox made these same gutless decisions in Denver when he had PFM. He’s a coward and I’m so glad he’s not the coach of my favorite team anymore.

    Mike McCoy made a similar spineless decision last year against the Patriots when he punted on 4th and 4 at midfield down 9 points with 5 minutes to go. Some coaches really are more concerned with keeping the score close than actually trying to win.