Fourth Down and Short Situations in 2013: What Do They Show?


On Sunday, Buffalo faced a fourth and goal from the 1, after being stuffed on the goal line twice. Buffalo trailed 10-7 at the time, early in the second quarter; a kick would have tied the game. Thaddeus Lewis tried to roll out and score, but James Harrison tracked him down for the loss of a yard and turnover on downs.

Generally, one of the benefits of going for it on the goal line in the run of play (in addition to scoring a touchdown) is the possibility of pinning the opponent and getting the ball back again. That, likewise, didn’t work out for Buffalo. Cincinnati was able to swing field position with this huge pass to A.J. Green, accompanied by Andrew Whitworth, and then score with Gio Bernard for a 98 yard drive.

That is about as bad an outcome as possible in the aftermath going for it–getting stuffed, giving up a big play, and allowing the opponent to score. As it turns out, the Bills would get this game to overtime, so the chorus of “they could have used those three points” picked up. That neglects several things, namely that there are numerous plays that affect the outcome, never just one, and that the game may not have played out the same.

Would Buffalo have gone for it on 4th and 8 from the Cincinnati 22, if they were down 24-13, and could cut it to the “one score game”, rather than 24-10? That play resulted in a touchdown that cut it to a 7 point game (rather than 8 points). Also, Cincinnati punted on 4th and 1 near midfield before the two minute warning. Buffalo then took it and scored the tying touchdown. Thus, in a one sample outcome world, the propriety of a fourth and one choice, going for it or punting to make the opponent march, hung on unrelated events that would play out after an overtime coin flip.

The Cincinnati-Buffalo game was a win for conservatism, as the team that punted on 4th and 1 ultimately prevailed over the one that tried to score a touchdown. How has it played out so far in 2013, though? The media and public tends to focus on the fantastic failures of the aggressive coaches, and easily forgets counter-examples.

I went through every 4th and 1 possibility this year, and then used Advanced NFL Stats win probability calculator to figure out what the chances of winning were, before the decision was made. For example, facing a 4th and 1 at the goal line at the two minute warning, already up 10 points (like Kansas City against Philadelphia) is going to be a win no matter what the decision (98% chance of winning). Similarly, it didn’t matter if Buffalo went for it against Cleveland with 13 seconds left and down by 13 points–they weren’t winning.

If you don’t do that, you might conclude that conservative is better. Here are the winning percentages based on what teams do on 4th and 1 (knowing nothing else about the game).

  • Teams that go for it on 4th and 1 have won 44.8% of games;
  • Teams that punt on a 4th and 1 have won 52.1% of games;
  • Teams that kick a field goal attempt on 4th and 1 have won 57.1% of games

What we see, though, is that coaches are going for it more frequently when they are in a worse situation. Not exactly a revelation. Here is the expected winning percentage (measured at the moment of decision on 4th and 1), the actual winning percentage of all teams that chose each scenario, and the difference in win percentage from the decision.

Just so you are reading that chart right, teams that chose to go for it (and later converted) were expected to win 39.1% of the time based on the time and score remaining at the moment of decision, and have won 46.9% of games, for a +7.8% difference.

Yes, the teams that have failed on fourth down attempts have also outperformed expectations, while the teams that have kicked have slightly underperformed, despite notable failures on fourth down that impacted the game (see, the craziness that happened to Green Bay to lose the Cincinnati game).

The main thing that sticks out, though, is that these decisions are just one of many factors in the outcome of a game, and none are determinative. They are just one play where a coach can try to squeeze a little extra chance of winning (or losing).  The Seahawks won a game against Houston when they punted on 4th and 1 in the 3rd quarter, already down 17. I think you would have to stretch logic to tie the eventual outcome of Schaub throwing a pass to Richard Sherman to tie the game, to that decision. Poor decisions work out, excellent decisions fail, and it is only in looking at the overall picture that you can see what strategy works.

Those numbers probably understate the impact. So far this year, teams are only 55.2% in converting fourth and one. Over the previous five seasons and a much larger sample size of nearly a thousand attempts, the average is 64.2%. Kickers, meanwhile, have made 26 of 29 attempts (90%) that occurred on 4th and 1. The average distance for those field goals is 35 yards, so they have overachieved as a group–and still not outperformed expectations.

Further, there are fourteen “go for it” situations where the team with the ball had less than a 5% chance of winning when they went for the conversion. None of them won the game.

Here is what the numbers would look like if we just limited our look at 4th and 1’s by teams with between a 30% and 70% chance of winning.

These would be close games, including scoreless games in the first quarter, and close contests in the second half. Fortune favors the bold, even if we selectively remember the times it does not.