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We've been hearing all year that the "analytics" say that going for it on 4th and short situations results in (on average) more points and more wins, compared to punting or kicking a field goal. The fad for the past few years has been for teams to more frequently attempt to convert 4th and short situations, even when they are not in "comeback mode". More and more teams are refusing to punt the ball from inside the opponent's 50 yard line, or to kick chip shot field goals from within the opponent's 5. So far, this has been working out for teams more often than it has back-fired.

I've been a vocal opponent of these overly-aggressive play calls throughout the entire season, and have been insisting that these decisions are going to start to bite teams in the ass. That finally happened in the NFC Championship game, when the Detroit Lions found out the hard way that maybe they should have just taken the points.

The Lions refused to kick field goals on 2 separate occasions in the 2nd half. On both occasions, they failed to convert the 4th down. They left 6 points on the board, and they ended up losing the game (and their hopes of going to the SuperBowl) by 3 points.

In the 3rd quarter, after the Lions left the first 3 points on the board, I told the people watching the game with me that I thought this was the wrong move. The 49ers had scored a field goal with their first possession of the 2nd half to reduce the Lions' halftime lead from 17 to 14. Had the Lions simply kicked the field goal (and made it), they would have kept parity with the 49ers and maintained their 3-score lead. When they opted to leave the 2nd 3 points on the board, the Lions were only down by 3. That field goal would have tied the game, or it would have taken the lead if the Lions had already made the previous field goal.

The Lions left 3 points on the field twice, and lost the NFC Championship against the 49ers by 3 points.

The Lions lost the NFC Championship because their coach, Dan Campbell, dogmatically obeyed the analytics. I would have hoped that Dan Campbell would have learned this lesson after the failed 2-point conversion shenanigans against the Cowboys that cost the Lions the number 1 overall seed. But he didn't. He doubled-down. They lost out on the opportunity to host the NFC Championship game, which probably would have made all the difference for them. And now they've lost their chance at going to the SuperBowl.

The logic of 4th down conversions

A lot of the logic behind going for it on 4th down and short is sound. Statistically, teams make enough of them that they end up scoring more points than they loose out on by occasionally missing one. Also, no field goal is guaranteed. You might choose to kick, and miss the field goal anyway. NFL placekickers are amazing at their jobs, but they aren't perfect.

Successful 4th down conversions also result in longer drives that run more clock and limit the opponent's opportunity to score points.

Failed conversion attempts can back an opposing offense against their own goalline.

If you have the ball deep within opponent territory -- like inside their 5 yard line -- the risk of turning the ball over is significantly reduced. Even if you turn the ball over, you pin the opposing offense deep in their own territory. An aggressive defense will have an opportunity to potentially force a safety. And if your defense forces a 3 and out, the opposing offense will be forced to punt from within their own endzone.

In terms of maximizing points, going for it on 4th down does definitely seem to look like an "optimal strategy".

When forward-thinking, data-analytics-minded coaches starting more aggressively attempting 4th down conversions, they were bucking trends. The analytics, at that time, was based on years (or decades) of 4th down statistics that showed high success rates for 4th down conversion attempts. But the issue with those statistics is that the statistics all came from a time before going for it on 4th down was common place.

In the before times, 4th down conversion attempts were pretty rare. They were mostly reserved for late in games, when a team is behind and becomes increasingly desperate to score points and catch up. They would also often be doing so against an opponent's "Prevent" defense, which generally cared more about stopping touchdowns than about stopping conversion attempts. After all, every play that the opponent offense runs that does not result in a score, only ticks more time off the clock.

The rarity of 4th down conversion attempts meant that teams did not have very many 4th down conversion attempts on film, and so defenses didn't have much in the way of trends or tendencies to prepare against. As such, defenses were ill-prepared to defend against a 4th down conversion attempt, when one would come up. This gave offenses an advantage because the offense could practice their specific 4th down plays, week after week, even if they rarely used them. If defenses did practice against 4th down conversions, they would have to do so largely against generic short yardage tendencies because of the lack of 4th down conversion attempts that the opponent offenses would put on film.

Most of the existing statistics come from a time before 4th down conversion attempts were commonplace.

Now, offenses are going for it on 4th all the time (often whether it makes sense to do so or not). Every team has multiple examples of 4th down conversion attempts on film, and defensive coaches and gameplanners can look at those attempts and build specific gameplans around stopping the offense's 4th down plays and concepts. Defenses have a better idea of what offenses will do in these situations, and many modern NFL teams dedicate an entire day of practice every week towards situational football, including 4th down conversions.

4th down conversion attempts are no longer desperate gambles, nor are they fringe gadget plays designed to catch defenses on their heels. They are a common part of football that defenses expect to see, and which defenses explicitly prepared against. As coaches show more and more of their 4th down plays, I think the odds will eventually swing back in favor of defenses. This is true at all levels of football, but I think it's especially true at the NFL level, in which defenses play considerably better, and scores are generally lower.

Call your plays based on the flow of the game

I'm not an NFL data analyst, so I don't have the actual numbers or statistics available to me. I'm going on a complete hunch here, but I think that continuing to dogmatically follow this "optimal strategy" is flawed. I think that teams should be kicking more on 4th and short, despite what the analytics supposedly says. These decisions should be based more on the flow and "momentum" of the game.

I think teams should definitely be more willing to take easy points from field goals when the opportunity presents itself. You're paying these kickers millions of dollars a year to do one job! Let them do that job.

If you're up by 1 or 2 scores, a field goal will increase your lead to 2 or 3 scores. Even with a 3-touchdown lead, converting a field goal will force your opponent to have to convert all 3 2-point conversions in order to tie the game. Missing even a single one of those 2-point attempts forces the opponent to have to score an additional time.

If you're down by 10 or 11, and need a touchdown and a field goal to tie the game anyway, then go ahead and take the field goal as your first score. Make it a 1-score game. Don't risk keeping it a 2-score game by failing to convert a 4th down. I always roll my eyes when announcers or coaches try to justify a 4th down conversion attempt when down by 9 to 11 points by saying that "we need 2 scores anyway, and we need to trust our offense to get them." But one of those scores can be a field goal, so why don't you trust your kicker to get that point for you?

Take field goals in situations in which a field goal actually helps!

There are still situations in which I think going for it is a much better decision. If you're down by 4 to 8, then a single touchdown can tie the game or take the lead. A field goal doesn't really help you in that situation. Similarly, if you're down by 14, then a field goal isn't much help there either. So yeah, sure, go for it and try to get that touchdown. You actually need a touchdown in that situation.

If it's 4th and short from the opponent's 40-ish yard line, a field goal is definitely not "easy". A punt will probably only net about 20 yards anyway. I understand not kicking in that situation. Neither the field goal or the punt are easy kicks to successfully convert in that situation. I have no problem with a team going for it in this sort of situation.

In summary, if it's a do-or-die situation in which you need touchdowns, then yeah, go for it. But if you're in a situation in which you can get a field goal, and that field goal will actually help you take a lead, keep a lead, or shrink a deficit, then I think teams should take the points.

Averages don't matter in the playoffs

I also want to point out that the 4th down analytics are based on probabilities and averages. They do not say that you will always convert a 4th and short, or that you will always win by attempting to do so. They only say that, on average, over the course of multiple attempts and multiple games, teams have statistically been successful and have had longer drives, more points, and more wins when they go for it on 4th. That's all well and good in the regular season. If you miss one early in the season, you can potentially get those points back (and a win) later in the season.

But averages stop mattering in the playoffs. There isn't a "later" in which the failed attempts will average out. If you fail, and that failure costs you the game, then your season is over. And that failure should probably be weighed way more than any successful 4th down attempt in the regular season.

Anyone can look smart converting a 4th down against a shitty defense.

This also brings me to another foible of the 4th down analytics, which is that they are based off of all teams games during the entire season. That includes plenty of successful conversions against lots of very bad defenses. Dan Campbell may look like a genius when he's converting 4th downs against the likes of the Bears, or the Vikings, or the Panthers, or the Broncos. But guess what? You're not playing the Bears, Vikings, Panthers, or Broncos in the playoffs. You're playing some of the best defense in the conference. And the deeper you get into the playoffs, the better those defenses tend to be. In this case, it was the 49ers, one of the most elite defenses in the NFL.

I don't know if all the 4th down analytics factor in the different success rates against playoff teams versus non-playoff teams, nor do I know if coaches actually factor that difference in when deciding whether to go for it on 4th during a playoff game. But if not, they should! Again, I don't have the analytics in front of me, but I would have to assume that 4th down success rates go down dramatically against playoff-caliber teams (especially division leaders or number 1 seeds), compared to success rates against the NFL as a whole.

Thus, I feel that, in the playoffs, coaches should err even more towards taking points from field goals when available.

An inflection point is likely coming soon

For the reasons I outlined above, I firmly believe that there's going to be an inflection point, at which 4th down conversion attempts will become more of a liability, and cause more teams to lose close games instead of win them. I think that inflection point is going to happen sooner rather than later. Maybe we're already at that inflection point?

I think that over the next few years, coaches like Dan Campbell will start to see that their aggressive 4th down play will cost them more points and games than it wins. I think that teams that are successful in the coming years will be teams that recognize that defenses are better prepared to stop 4th downs, and they will make their 4th down decisions based more on how the game is unfolding, rather than simply leaning on the analytics as an excuse to roll dice and loose. Those analytics and probabilities will soon be obsolete -- if they aren't already.

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