Sports Outside the Beltway

NFL Coaches Going for it on 4th Down More

Len Pasquarelli notes that NFL coaches are going for it on 4th down a lot more often. And it’s working.

Never a group that should be confused with riverboat gamblers, NFL coaches are nonetheless a bit more inclined to roll the dice on fourth downs this season, in part because of the increased success rate. And the aggressive mind-set has been roundly applauded by players.

“As long as [the distance to make] is within reason and you’ve got some momentum going, then why not?” said Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk, whose team has a league-high 18 fourth-down attempts, including 13 conversions. “There’s kind of a ‘test of manhood’ thing about it, you know? I think it gets players fired up. I mean, there’s a limit to it, sure. But for a half-yard or whatever, on the [opposition] side of the field, I think most guys just figure, ‘Hey, let’s go for it.’ It certainly adds some more excitement to the game.”

The numbers through 12 games indicate coaches are increasingly in agreement. Indeed, to this point, it’s been a fourth-and-go kind of season.

Teams have combined to run 348 fourth-down plays this season, an average of 10.9 per club, and all but eight franchises have registered 10 or more fourth-down tries. There have been 177 conversions, a 50.9 percent success rate. Teams have succeeded on third down in 2006 just 39.5 percent of the time.

Compared to last year, offenses have run only a dozen more fourth-down plays in 2006 than at the same juncture of the 2005 season. But projected over the course of the entire season, the number of fourth-down plays is up nearly 10 percent over the 2000-04 campaigns. Not surprisingly, field-goal attempts have been reduced, but only slightly. There were 726 field-goal tries through the first 12 games in 2005, and there have been 720 this season.

So in some cases but not all, the newfound fourth-down rage isn’t connected to field goals or to some clubs’ declining confidence in their kickers. Instead, the trend is more reflective of the belief that eking out a yard on fourth down isn’t akin to walking barefoot over a mile of hot coals. And certainly, a fourth-down attempt isn’t regarded as the kind of desperation measure it once was.

In the 10-season span from 1995-2004, the NFL leaders in fourth-down attempts were characteristically clubs with losing records. Five of the six franchises with the most cumulative fourth-down attempts in that stretch were teams with losing records for the decade. But in the past couple years, teams that have embraced the notion of going for it on fourth down aren’t necessarily clubs that are going bust in the win-loss column.

Notable is that nearly 40 percent of the fourth-down attempts in 2006 have come when a team was leading, tied or trailing by only one score. So it seems that fourth down isn’t just for losers anymore.

Interesting. I’ve long thought that punting within 40 yards of the end zone makes little sense, as the field position gain tends to be small. And kicking field goals are a huge momentum killer–especially if they’re missed.

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In Madden 2006, there was a “feature” that made you behave as a “real” coach would, and only allow you to go for it on 4th down in a situation when the real coach of your team would do so. I gather they used percentages and such.

It really made head-to-head play suckier.

Posted by The Former Blogger Formerly Known as Josh Cohen | December 11, 2006 | 09:43 am | Permalink

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