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27 Jan 2012

Aggressiveness Index 2011

Guest Column by Jim Armstrong

We are entering the second decade of professional football statistical analysis on the web, which most prominently started with Doug Drinen in the early 2000s and, of course, Football Outsiders in 2003. These days, there are quite a lot of football stats sites on the Internet. Many of us host our own stats-heavy football sites and blogs, and some even write for mainstream media outlets and appear on national television. We publish research in academic journals and attend professional conferences. And, naturally, we don’t always agree with each other. We don’t always agree on how best to project the success of quarterbacks, regardless of whether they are recently-drafted rookies or aging veterans. We don’t always agree on the risks of overusing running backs, or injury prevention in general. We don’t agree on which teams are primed for success and which teams need to be blown up and rebuilt. And although we’re starting to tackle in-game strategies -- when to blitz, when to call time outs, which formations to use, what’s the optimal run/pass ratio -- for the most part, we have reached nothing remotely close to a consensus.

But there is one aspect of the game that virtually all statistical analysts agree on: NFL coaches should be going for it on fourth down much more often.

The statistically-supported idea that NFL coaches are too timid on fourth downs long predates the web. It started with a rather unlikely author: NFL quarterback Virgil Carter, a statistics major who taught college courses during the offseason. Carter teamed with systems engineering professor Robert Machol to publish a pair of academic papers in 1971 and 1978 which examined field position and fourth-down decisions. And in their 1988 seminal book on football statistics, The Hidden Game of Football, Bob Carroll, John Thorn, and Pete Palmer devoted a chapter to fourth-down decisions.

But the modern movement towards analyzing fourth-down decisions in the Internet age can be traced to Berkeley professor David Romer. In 2002, an early version his working paper on fourth-down decisions first appeared on the web and was updated and republished a few years later. This 43-page treatise included several pages of charts describing the recommended choices on fourth downs in various situations. This study remains today the most well-known and widely-cited academic paper on professional football among NFL analysts.

Since then, Romer’s paper has served as a launching pad for other writers to dissect, review, and reanalyze Romer’s findings that NFL coaches should be more aggressive on fourth downs.

William Krasker launched FootballCommentary.com in 2003. He used his dynamic programming model to analyze the fourth-down decisons encountered in NFL games.

On the pro-football-reference.com blog in 2006, Doug Drinen thoroughly examined the methodology behind Romer’s paper and its conclusions in a series of articles.

The authors of the ZEUS football tool, Frank Frigo and Chuck Bower, analyzed fourth-down decisions in NFL games from 2005-2007 and even provided an estimate of how many wins coaches cost their teams as a result of poor decisions.

Most recently, Brian Burke of advancednflstats.com has provided his own Expected Points analysis and has spent much of the past couple years second-guessing coaches’ calls on fourth downs.

Here at Football Outsiders, we created the Aggressiveness Index (originally appearing in Pro Football Prospectus 2006) to rank coaches based on how often they go for it on fourth downs. Although no NFL coach is as aggressive as the data suggests he should be, we discovered there is quite a wide range of fourth-down tendencies among coaches. To compute AI, we analyzed fourth-down decisions when the offense was in the opponent’s territory, where a coach’s tendencies were most distinguished from his peers. We also excluded obvious catch-up situations: Third quarter, trailing by 15 or more points; Fourth quarter, trailing by 9 or more points; Last five minutes of the game, trailing by any amount. AI measures how often a coach attempted a fourth-down conversion compared to the league averages in similar situations, based on the field position and the distance needed for a first down.

Below are the updated AI ratings for all 2011 coaches as well as the career rankings for 1992-2011. Not only does this show us which coaches are the gutsiest, it also identifies those with the most to gain from a more aggressive approach. Note that "opportunities" here lists the number of opportunities which qualified for measurement in AI, not total fourth-down go-for-it opportunities.

Aggressiveness Index, 2011
Rank Coach AI Att. Opportunities Rate xRank Coach AI Att. Opportunities Rate
1 M.Tucker1.396 2 11 18.2% x 19 K.Whisenhunt0.868 4 35 11.4%
2 S.Spagnuolo 1.238 8 42 19.0% 20 M.Lewis 0.867 5 46 10.9%
3Jim Harbaugh 1.184 11 7414.9% 21 H.Jackson 0.866 7 45 15.6%
4 M.Smith 1.102 7 38 18.4% 22 L.Smith 0.863 5 44 11.4%
5 S.Payton 1.100 6 44 13.6% 23 P.Shurmur 0.860 3 44 6.8%
6 B.Belichick 1.076 8 44 18.2% 24 J.Caldwell 0.817 2 32 6.3%
7N.Turner 1.070 4 42 9.5% 25 J.Garrett 0.816 3 46 6.5%
8 T.Coughlin 1.046 8 39 20.5% 26 M.Tomlin 0.801 5 42 11.9%
9 C.Gailey 1.001 6 37 16.2% 27 J.Schwartz 0.791 6 43 14.0%
10 P.Carroll 0.998 6 50 12.0% 28 T.Sparano 0.790 5 45 11.1%
11 T.Haley 0.989 3 27 11.1% 29John Harbaugh 0.753 6 46 13.0%
12 A.Reid 0.983 9 46 19.6% 30 R.Crennel 0.743 1 9 11.1%
13 G.Kubiak 0.962 7 52 13.5% 31 Rex Ryan 0.732 4 41 9.8%
14 M.McCarthy 0.961 6 42 14.3% 32 L.Frazier 0.729 2 35 5.7%
15M.Munchak 0.959 5 53 9.4% 33T.Bowles 0.705 1 137.7%
16 M.Shanahan0.933 6 50 12.0% 34 J.Fox 0.698 3 40 7.5%
17 R.Morris 0.917 8 38 21.1% 35 R.Rivera 0.661 2 36 5.6%
18 J.Del Rio 0.869 2 36 5.6%
Most Aggressive Coaches, 1992-2011 (min. 100 opportunities)
Rank Coach AI Att. Opportunities Rate
1 R.Kotite 1.88 37 211 17.5%
2 B.Belichick 1.86 173 810 21.4%
3 M.Smith 1.72 44 210 21.0%
4 G.Seifert 1.67 82 366 22.4%
5 S.Payton 1.61 52 252 20.6%
6 B.Parcells 1.58 142 608 23.4%
7 M.Ditka 1.47 29 166 17.5%
8 T.Haley 1.46 23 121 19.0%
9 J.Haslett 1.44 50 307 16.3%
10 T.Cable 1.43 19 116 16.4%
Least Aggressive Coaches, 1992-2011 (min. 100 opportunities)
Rank Coach AI Att. Opportunities Rate
79 J.Schwartz 0.711 16 122 13.1%
80 J.Fox 0.693 46 431 10.7%
81 M.Riley 0.685 9 140 6.4%
82 J.Jones 0.682 14 143 9.8%
83 M.Levy 0.675 42 277 15.2%
84 M.Holmgren 0.669 103 838 12.3%
85 Rex Ryan 0.641 18 164 11.0%
86 N.Saban 0.639 6 104 5.8%
87 M.Tomlin 0.614 25 231 10.8%
88 A.Reid 0.594 67 634 10.6%

Coverage of coaches’ timid fourth-down tendencies hasn’t escaped the mainstream media, either. The December 18, 2006 issue of ESPN The Magazine featured an article by Moneyball author Michael Lewis accusing coaches of being gutless, complete with an illustration of the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz wearing coaches’ gear and a headset.

The New York Times Fifth Down blog has also introduced contemporary analysis of fourth-down decisions to its wide audience.

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame was one of the editors of Romer’s paper prior to its publication in the Journal of Political Economy. Levitt has also written about fourth down decisions on his own site.

A year ago, Levitt wrote an article speculating that teams are indeed becoming more aggressive on fourth downs. Citing Falcons coach Mike Smith’s record of going for it frequently in short-yardage situations, Levitt argued that no coach would have done so ten years ago. Well, Levitt is wrong because Bill Parcells was that guy in the 1990s.

Earlier this month, in a piece for the Slate/Deadspin roundtable, Brian Burke lauded Sean Payton and Mike Smith for their aggressive fourth-down decisions in the playoffs. He also wondered whether these coaches are spearheading a slow evolution in fourth-down strategy.

Perhaps that’s all just wishful thinking. Have NFL coaches really learned anything from all the analysts? When we asked this question a year ago, the answer was "maybe," but with another year’s worth of data, the answer is more clearly "no." In fact, NFL coaches were as conservative on fourth downs in 2011 as they’ve ever been in the 20 years that we have play-by-play data, continuing a sharp two-year trend in timidity.

In particular, the decrease in fourth-down go-for-it attempts seems to be coming at the expense of increased field goal attempts rather than punts. As field goal accuracy improves, coaches are apparently becoming much more willing to take what they view as the "sure" three points rather than risk a turnover on downs.

You’ll notice that even long-time AI champ Bill Belichick has hit a relative conservative streak, dropping to No. 2 in the career rankings. What happened? Although Belichick continues to go for it frequently on fourth-and-1, his signature tendency had always been fourth-and-2, where he typically goes for it 33 percent of the time in AI-qualifying situations. That is more than twice the NFL average. However, in 2011, Belichick kicked the field goal on all seven qualifying fourth-and-2 opportunities. That was enough to drop him from the top slot, although he is still much more aggressive than most coaches. It's still fair to wonder whether we’re seeing the effects of the fallout from his memorable fourth-and-2 failure against Indianapolis in 2009, suggesting that even Belichick isn’t immune to the pressures of increased media scrutiny.

You’d think that a quick perusal of the career AI rankings showing five Super Bowl-winning coaches among the top seven would motivate more coaches to keep their punters and kickers on the sidelines. Apparently not. Analysts have also put forth many logical arguments in support of the data. If the coaches are listening, it hasn’t changed the way they approach their decision-making on game day.

When pressed about why they don’t go for it more often, coaches usually cite circumstances that make their situations different from the league averages on which the historical analyses are based: injuries, weather conditions, specific matchups, momentum, etc. It’s always something. And of course, there aren’t many conclusive statistics that take these factors into account because the sample sizes are too small, so it’s often impossible to refute the coaches on specific plays. Yet when we look at fourth-down tendencies collectively, NFL teams remain far more conservative than the statistics dictate. It’s almost like a reverse Lake Wobegon effect: coaches all believe that their teams’ abilities to convert fourth downs are below average.

So is there any hope for the coaches? Or should statistical analysts simply declare fourth-down decisions a dead subject and move on to more tractable problems? A couple of years ago there appeared to be promise, as 2007 and 2009 were historically aggressive seasons. But now, those years look like nothing more than random fluctuations. After all these years, we seem to be stuck back at square one. Somewhere, Virgil Carter isn’t too impressed.

Posted by: Guest on 27 Jan 2012

79 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2012, 5:11pm by www.jogosdefutebol.com.br


by Dean :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:14pm

Wow. Never thought I'd see Rich Kotite and Bill Belichick ranked 1-2 in anything.

by jebmak :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 1:39am


by Travis :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:19pm

You’d think that a quick perusal of the career AI rankings showing five Super Bowl-winning coaches among the top seven would motivate more coaches to keep their punters and kickers on the sidelines.

The bottom six include two Super Bowl winners, two Super Bowl losers, a two-time AFC runner-up, and a three-time BCS champion.

by Cent (not verified) :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 5:37am

Maybe, but I'll take Belichick, Smith, Seifert, Payton, Parcells, and Ditka over the bottom six any day.

Also, being a good college recruiter has nothing to do with being a smart in-game decision maker, as Saben was more than happy to demonstrate in the pros.

by Travis :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 8:57am

The Saints version of Ditka (only the last year of his Bears tenure is included in the study, and he went 5-11)? Rich Kotite?

by Muldrake :: Wed, 02/01/2012 - 3:11pm

Perhaps you're right about Saban, but making a 'smart' in game decision by aggressively going for it on 4th down doesn't necessarily have anything to do with actual wins or losses either. The fact that there's a lot of successful and respected coaches in the bottom ten suggests that much, as does the shift back towards more conservative play even amongst the Belichicks and Paytons of the league.

by Guido Merkens :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:22pm

It seems particularly gutless for Ron Rivera to rank last in fourth down aggressiveness, given that his QB might be the best short-yardage weapon in the NFL.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:33pm

I notice that the top of the list contains a lot of coaches with good offenses but poor defense, and the opposite at the bottom of the list.

I wonder why that might be.

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:39pm

I hadn't noticed until you pointed it out. I did notice that for all his bluster, Rex Ryan was near the bottom of the list. I don't follow the Jets, but given his personality I would have expected a higher ranking.

by Dennis :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 9:24pm

Rex's philosophy is to let the defense win it, so it makes sense that he would be conservative on fourth downs.

by tuluse :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:58pm

However, the Panthers are on the wrong end. Ron Rivera was extremely cautious with a great offense and a terrible defense. I think this could have cost the Panthers a few games considering how many close ones they lost and how many leads they gave up.

by ChaosOnion :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 11:12am

Many of those games may have stayed close because Rivera played conservatively. Being aggressive on 4th down is a double edged sword. Punting or kicking field goals on 4th down benefits his poor defense from a field position standpoint. While some aggression may win CAR a game, passing up a FG could result in a 10 point swing. A 1-3 point deficit can turn into 11-13 points very quickly against a poor defense.

by Boo-urns (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:41pm

To state the obvious, there are lots of additional factors involved, including: strength of special teams, strength of defense, strength of offense, opponent, etc.

That being said, it's interesting that Jim Harbaugh is up there, given that the 49ers had kind of a shitty offense all year, a great scoring defense, and great special teams.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:51pm

It'd be intersting to see a coach with a great defense express great confidence in it by openly declaring, by his actions, early in the season, that once mid-field was reached, he considered it 4 down territory, and he would run his offense accordingly.

by tuluse :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:00pm

As much as that might be fun, I'm not sure it's wise. If you have a great defense and a mediocre to poor offense, any points could be enough to win, but they could be equally hard to come by. Thus, you may want a few field goals.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:31pm

I dunno. A mediocre offense which had a 33% increase, in the chances to gain 10 yards, might be very successful, just like a mediocre hitter who was afforded 4 strikes might become an All-Star.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 6:19pm

Would that also be true if that 4th strike came at the expense of a second out for a strikeout?

by Muggs (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 12:39pm

I think a better analogy would be giving an opposing teams batter an extra strike. If your pitcher was good enough it could be a viable strategy.

by tuluse :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 3:33pm

I don't think so. Strikes are like downs. Outs are like possessions.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 6:20pm

Outs aren't a perfect correlate, because of their value in baseball.

My point was that field position has value, though, too, and that if you have a solid defense, or at very least, a pro-defense performance disparity, then playing FGs and punts can be a useful strategy.

The Harbaughs are fun. Both had middling offenses and talented defenses. One was super-conservative, the other super-aggressive. They had almost identical team performance on the season. Goofy.

by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 5:31pm

What was astonishing to me was that the 49ers led the league by far in those 4th down situations. It's almost as if Harbaugh was forced to be aggressive because the offense was getting stopped so much.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:48pm

Here is today's conumdrum; when a coach's team stinks, offense and defense, should the coach be less aggressive, because the odds of success are so low, and the cost of failure is so likely to be high, or should he be more agressive, because failing spectacularly is more likely to boost your losses from, say, 13 to 15, and then give you the rights to draft Andrew Luck?

by JIPanick :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:17pm

Or to boost your wins from 3 to 6 and increase your job security.

Going for it is (almost) always the right answer.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:33pm

Yeah, even more so for really bad teams, I suspect, for reasons you and I suggest.

by MC2 :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 5:44pm

Plus, going for it introduces more variance, which tends to benefit the underdog, at least if you assume that there's no real difference between a 7-point loss and a 17-point loss, but there's a significant difference between a 7-point loss and a 3-point victory.

by zlionsfan :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:18pm

It’s almost like a reverse Lake Wobegon effect: coaches all believe that their teams’ abilities to convert fourth downs are below average.

Well, it's not just that ... it's also that their GMs' and owners' willingness to evaluate decision-making over results is always below average. It's nice that you're properly aggressive, but you didn't convert enough of those fourth downs, and I can't fire all those players, so ...

by Southern Philly :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:22pm

"we analyzed fourth-down decisions when the offense was in the opponent’s territory"

That seems very limiting to me. Aggressive coaches will go for it in their own territory more often than conservative ones, so using all (well, more, going for it on 4th down on your 20 is of course rare) the field would tell me more. I would at least push it back to a teams' own 40 yard line. There's essentially no difference between going for it on the other team's 48 and your 48, but this study is throwing out the latter.

by Andrew Potter :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:36pm

There's essentially no difference between going for it on the other team's 48 and your 48, but this study is throwing out the latter.

That's true whatever yard line you use. At some point, you just have to pick a cutoff and run the study. I'd expect the difference between aggressive and conservative coaches in their own half of the field is fairly negligible.

by Southern Philly :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:43pm

"At some point, you just have to pick a cutoff and run the study."

Agreed, any yard line is going to be an arbitrary point. But the data says to go for it just about anywhere (obviously going for it on your 5 yard line has enormous risks), so let's use more of the field.

For example this year Mike Smith went for it on 4th down on his own 29 in OT. It was much talked about, and while some people called it dumb and some people called it smart, both sides called it aggressive. But that play doesn't show up in this study. Belichick's infamous 4th and 2 decision doesn't either.

by Jim Armstrong :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 11:38pm

The main issue with fourth-down plays in your own territory is there are quite a lot of them, but conversion attempts are so extraordinarily rare that including these opportunities essentially dilutes the data set with punts. This would effectively minimize the differences among coaches' tendencies and, in my view, decrease the usefulness of the index.

That said, those high-profile plays have definitely got me thinking about ways to include them, perhaps at a reduced weight, although I still doubt it would affect the rankings much.

by Southern Philly :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 12:18pm

I already addressed this. I said I would start by rolling it back to the 40 and not the entire field because for obvious reasons they get rarer the further back you go. I'm not advocating using the entire field, although the two examples I gave wouldn't show up if you pushed it back to the 40 either.

Crossing the 50 yard line doesn't increase your ability to convert a fourth down, so why stop there? It will, for some dumb coaches, increase their willingness to go for it, but that's okay. This is a study of who is more aggressive those coaches will rightfully be at the bottom of the list. Maybe have two sets of data: in opponent's territory and then a second set that is say your own 30 to the 50. Admittedly those are also arbitrary end points as well, but the coach who goes for it in his own territory more often is the more aggressive coach, no? So let's include that information and paint the fullest picture possible.

by andrew :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 4:47pm

Is there a clutchness component to the AI?

by Anonymous454545 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 5:43pm

Maybe BB punts more now because the Pats actually have a serviceable punter after going through an entire decade with crappy kickers that wouldn't look out of place on the Redskins. If Ken Walter's going to shank it, and Chris Hanson's going to punt it through the endzone, I'd go for it every time in enemy territory!

by Andre Carter (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 5:54pm

Hard to read Belichick's mind of course, but I'd say if he's haunted by any 4th down call at all it was going for it on 4th and 13 early in the FIRST Pats-Giants Super Bowl, rather than going for a 50-yard field goal. That 4th and 2 in Indianapolis was the right call and, as the NFL documentary on him this season revealed, he'd been preparing his team for that call since pre-season. There wasn't anything remotely brain farty about it.

by PatsFan :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 5:57pm

There wasn't anything remotely brain farty about it.

Other than (a) it was clear from the preceding play calls that they weren't running the series on four-down mode -- going for it was an ad hoc decision made when 4th down came up, (b) they wasted a timeout in the process, and (c) came up with crappy 3rd and 4th down calls.

So yes, GFI was the right idea, but the execution both on and off the field sucked.

by Boo-urns (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 7:19pm

yeah, particularly given that they were trying to run time off the clock, the pass play on 3rd down was terrible.

by slomojoe (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 10:50am

On 4th down, a pass play that falls incomplete or short of the 1st takes at most a few less seconds off the clock than a short run. Passing or running would have made no difference clockwise. They also failed it by a matter of inches, or essentially by the crapshoot of the tackling angle and ref ball-spotting randomness, so not only it was strategically the right call, even the play-call was pretty much correct.


by slomojoe (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 10:51am

Duh, I should learn to read for comprehension, shouldn't I? Sorry.

by ChicagoRaider :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 6:14pm

Hue Jackson is ripped off. While fourth-and-one and fourth-and-two may not be his best spot, he made some really aggressive special teams calls.

by Jerry :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 6:39pm

I'm surprised to see that Friend of FO Jim Schwartz is on the conservative side of the ledger, since I'm sure he's aware of the studies.

by BJR :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 7:17am

I thought that might be because Detroit had a terrible run game, but they were right around league average last year according to DVOA. Perhaps they were poor in short yardage 'power' situations? I don't know, I haven't got access to the numbers. Perhaps Schwartz will become more adventurous now that he has turned Detroit into a contender and has a pretty secure job.

I will echo others and say that there is simply no excuse for John Fox and Ron Rivera being at the bottom of the list with the two most mobile QBs in the league.

by Mr Shush :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 8:07am

There's an excuse for Fox: his defense was far better than his offense. Rivera, not so much.

by JonFrum :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 7:47pm

The number one job of every HC is not to win games - it's to keep his job. Given the flak Belichick got for doing the right thing(!), is it really hard to understand why coaches won't go for it? The fact is, if you do the safe thing, but lose in the end. there's no cause for direct finger-pointing. If you play the odds correctly by taking a positive action and it blows up on you, you take the heat.

No head coach was ever blamed for losing a game because he punted instead of going for it on a 4th and 2. Punts are considered 'neutral' decisions, and just don't get the heat.

by Travis :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 8:02pm

No head coach was ever blamed for losing a game because he punted instead of going for it on a 4th and 2.

New York Daily News, December 7, 2008, after the Jets' 24-14 loss to the 49ers:

... Eric Mangini, too, started the bad vibe on the opening possession, when after the Jets recovered a surprise onsides kick, he decided to punt on a fourth-and-2 from the Niners' 38. The punt, naturally, went for a touchback. Mangini said he considered going for it, but that he wanted to pin San Fran back.

by Andrew Potter :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 8:23pm

In fairness, any head coach who decides to punt on 4th and 2 from the opposition 38 should be pretty much handed his walking papers on the spot.

by tuluse :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 8:15pm

Going for it more on 4th down leads to winning more, winning more leads to keeping your job. In your first paragraph you actually make that point. Belichick was criticized, but he kept his job because he wins so much.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 11:30pm

That argument would be stronger if the longest tenured head coach in the NFL wasn't at the bottom of the list.

Going for it on 4th down more may help, but not enough to be the difference between getting fired and not.

To be honest I'm probably the only person who disagrees with the basic analysis. Good teams do not need to go for it on 4th down more often.Going for it is a gamble, and good teams don't need to gamble. They can be fine with the less risky solution even if it's more valuable, because since they're better, they gain a bit more each time. (This is the same argument as good teams should have a fast pace because with more opportunities, they gain more distance.)

Now consider that most coaches don't admit to themselves that their team is weaker until it's too late, and poof. There's your recipe for conservative decision making.

by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 2:44am

Oh, I see your point, and I and some others kind of hint at it above, when we suggest that it is the bad teams which really should be more aggressive.

You're right, however, in stating that most coaches won't admit to themselves that their team stinks. Even if they do, they might be reluctant to indicate that fact to their players; "Guys, we suck, so we won't be punting or kicking field goals on Sunday!".

by Mr Shush :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 8:43am

Good teams with strong defenses, sure. I don't have a problem with the conservatism of Rex Ryan or John Harbaugh, or Lovie Smith. But I suspect that teams like the Packers, Patriots and Saints, where the offense is vastly superior to the defense, gain more in expected outcome than they lose in increased variance.

Edit: I also suspect that the gains from a true four down strategy would be so vast, and change the game so radically, that once we start talking about that level it's a different order of question. The Broncos should try it.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 7:21pm

How many times do you get a 4th and 2, say, in field goal range in a game? Maybe once? In that case, the better team should always take the safer option. All taking the riskier option does is give the lesser team more of an opportunity to win.

Why "always"? Because think about it - in the cases where they go for it, and make it... great. They score, and are more likely to win the game. Except they already were more likely to win the game - even if they were losing at that time, given enough possessions, they're likely to win. This is where the failure of analyses like Win Percentage occurs: because they're based on the assumption both teams are equal (and that teams can't control the pacing of the game).

So I actually disagree here - when the offense is good, still kick the field goal. Chances are you'll be back in the same situation next drive, except you'll likely convert the 3rd down, and 3 points per drive is still very likely more than the opponent can muster on average.

(Note my arguments are typically between going for it and kicking the field goal, not punting. Going for it instead of punting is a little different.)

by Mr Shush :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 8:02pm

Well, it's all a matter of degree (and about relative strength, not absolute). If you're far better than your opponent, sure. But if you're only a little better, and your offense is awesome, and your defense is terrible, and their offense is excellent, and their defense is even worse, I think you go for it. Say if Green Bay had played the Patriots this year, or something. Or the Panthers against the Raiders.

As others have mentioned, the person on the above this who should be absolutely slated in this regard is Ron Rivera.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 12:31am

Again, though, it's really a situation issue. How good you are doesn't change the fact that you just don't get into these situations all that often.

Going for it versus punting is different, because it now involves their offense versus your defense, and plus now the 'safe' options (punting) has a fair amount of variance as well, in terms of what the opponent does on their drive. Going for it versus kicking a field goal is all about how many points you want to gain. (As an aside, the other question is pacing - a good team might also lose out on wasting the time to gain the few extra points.)

The careful reader may point out that field goals have variance as well, but honestly, field goal percentages have been going up so crazily that in a few years 45 yard field goals will be gimmes.

So long as the field goal kickers pay attention to the current down, that is.

by MJK :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 9:48pm

I think I understand why coaches with good offenses and bad defenses go for it more, and vice versa.

If you have a good offense, you're more likely to succeed, and if you fail, if your defense is bad, it really doesn't matter if the other team starts from their own 15 or their own 38...you're probably going to let them march down the field anyway and you'll have to try to hold them in the redzone. Plus, with a team built like that, you are going to have to try to win every game as a shootout, so you can't afford to give up possessions.

On the other end of the spectrum, even a GOOD defense will generally give up about two first downs or so on average. What makes them good is that they often don't give up more than that. In which case the difference between pinning them deep or failing on a 4th down attempt may be the difference between forcing a punt and givin up a FG (or getting the ball back in good field position versus getting pinned yourself). If your offense is bad, you rue every point you give up, and have to take whatever field position you can get.

In other words, in the latter case, field position is much more important than posession, whereas in the former case, possession is much more important because field position changes so easily.

That is why I don't agree that going for it expresses confidence in your defense. It expresses confidence in your offense, and reservations about your defense.

by Joseph :: Fri, 01/27/2012 - 10:13pm

This is why Sean Payton is up there, and I suspect Mr. Hoodie also. If I had an elite QB with a great offense, I'd go for it every chance I got also.

To the author: I think you might want to check some of those 4th Q FGAs too. I can't imagine a 4th & more than 1, in FG territory, being ahead/tied, where I wouldn't take those 3 points--ESPECIALLY if I was winning by 1 or 2, or 4-6 points. Making the other team need a TD, or a TD + the 2pt conversion, or multiple scores just makes a whole lot of sense--esp. when you figure in end-game strategy. I don't know the math on the break-even points, but I suspect that a FG of less than 40 yds is more likely than a 4th & anything from any yardline. In end-game situations, IMO, sometimes the "pretty sure" points are better than the "probable" 4th down conversion--esp. if we're talking >1 yd, or even 1/2 yd.

by Mr Shush :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 8:46am

But if you had a bad QB and a great defense, a full-on four down strategy would allow you to sign up linemen who can't pass-protect worth a damn (and are therefore cheap) but are road graders in the run game, call an 80:20 run:pass ratio, and spend even more money on making your defense dominant. It's a different question to in-game fourth down decision making, but I think an interesting one.

by ammek :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 4:05am

The astonishing figure to me is that Jim Harbaugh had 40% more opportunities than any other coach.

I wonder if we'll ever see a team that doesn't show its hand on fourth down. It would need a hybrid-type player who could run, pass and punt. Split a receiver out wide. Make the defense gamble.

by MC2 :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 6:49am

It would need a hybrid-type player who could run, pass and punt.

Ironically, the aforementioned Rich Kotite had exactly that type of player in Randall Cunningham, although just 1 of Cunningham's 20 career punts came during the 4 years that he was coached by Kotite.

by Andrew Potter :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 7:11am

I expect part of the issue is to completely avoid tipping your hand, you wouldn't only need one player who could run, pass, and punt. You would also need wide receivers who were reliable pass catchers, run blockers, and special teams gunners - most wide receivers who are reliable enough to be consistently trusted with fourth-down receptions are starters, not ST gunners - and special teams tight ends who could reliably run block, pass block, catch, and block on special teams. That combination would certainly justify the title "special teams", but is probably beyond most teams' ability - or willingness - to field as a specialist unit.

by Mr Shush :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 8:49am

Say, Kevin Walter, Joel Dreessen and James Casey?

by Andrew Potter :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 9:03am

Is Kevin Walter a gunner? I didn't realise that, if so. Dreessen's certainly the kind of guy I had in mind, but at this point isn't he more of a starter than a special teamer? If you're going to throw all of your starters out there, you're as well just declaring yourself and putting your regular offense on the field.

by Mr Shush :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 7:53pm

Walter isn't a gunner now - he was a pretty good one back when he wasn't an offensive starter and did it regularly.

Dreessen spent a lot of time on the field this season, with Johnson injured and Yates in at QB, and last season with Daniels injured, and he did well enough with it that he may get more even with both those guys healthy. Really, though, with a full strength team, only one of Dreessen, Jacoby Jones, Casey and Vickers will be out there at any given time, outside of goal line and short yardage plays. He might be out there for as much as 35% of the snaps, I suppose.

I kind of assumed that the point was more to be able to pick up huge punt yardage by forcing them to act as if you were definitely going for it than to be able to go for it against a punt unit. Force them to dispense with a returner, or at the very least get their blockers in a horrible position, with the wrong personnel.

by JIPanick :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 2:34pm

Like Tom Brady?

by Jeff7689 (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 5:30pm

It would be interesting to see the advantage Brady would get if he showed the quick kick a few times in the regular season for 4-short in the 40 - midfield range, and then was given the choice to audible at the line to either go for it or kick. I guess the downside is injury risk, the upside is you get a defense that cant decide if you're going to kick and it needs to return, or you're going for it and it needs to cover.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 6:26pm

He said "can run".

by tuluse :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 3:38pm

One problem with this is that if you line up in punt formation the defense can mug receivers down the field.

by dmstorm22 :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 7:11pm

Apparently, not before the punter kicks the ball. This happened in I believe an Oakland game this year, where the Raiders were called for defensive holding on a punt (they were receiving the punt), because one of the players outside was holding the gunner, and since it happened before the punt was kicked, the Lions retained possession.

by tuluse :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 7:27pm

You still aren't allowed to hold. What you can't get called for is illegal contact.

You are never allowed to hold, even if it had been a punt, holding would be illegal.

by ClavisRa (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 5:17am

Most analysis of 4th down play calls is based on expected points. But you don't win games for having the most points possible. You win for having more points than your opponent (extra points don't get extra credit). The same decision that may yield more points on average could also increase your chances of losing the game (high risk/high reward). Everyone understands this at the end of the game when the clock is running out, and the team that is losing will go for it even on fourth and fifteen. The problem is coaches are bad at the gray areas, like down by 10 early in the third period. They tend to play the whole game one way until desperation time instead of a graduated adjustment of play calls based on clock, score and field position. Also, coaches need to decide on third down that they will likely go for it on fourth down, and call their third down play accordingly; you might feel more confident with one play to pass on 3rd & 3, but if you know you will run a play on 4th too, you might be willing to run instead.

by ClavisRa (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 5:18am

Most analysis of 4th down play calls is based on expected points. But you don't win games for having the most points possible. You win for having more points than your opponent (extra points don't get extra credit). The same decision that may yield more points on average could also increase your chances of losing the game (high risk/high reward). Everyone understands this at the end of the game when the clock is running out, and the team that is losing will go for it even on fourth and fifteen. The problem is coaches are bad at the gray areas, like down by 10 early in the third period. They tend to play the whole game one way until desperation time instead of a graduated adjustment of play calls based on clock, score and field position. Also, coaches need to decide on third down that they will likely go for it on fourth down, and call their third down play accordingly; you might feel more confident with one play to pass on 3rd & 3, but if you know you will run a play on 4th too, you might be willing to run instead.

by Dales :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 3:17pm

Reid being at the bottom may partially answer the why behind something I think is true (namely, the Eagles win at a rate below what DVOA suggests for reasons other than just random bad luck). Partially. I think his lack of balance and poor clock management skills also contribute.

by rots (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2012 - 9:13pm

Id like to see an evaluation of what idiot coaches punt from their opponents side of the field and how often that happens. If i were an owner i would immediately fire just about any coach who punts at any time for damn near any reason from the opponents 30-40 yard line.

Also, not surprised at the least to see John Fox on this list.. 1 season of his stewardship over the broncos and i am already convinced that he will not be the coach who is in charge when we next win a SB. Too conservative.

by JIPanick :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 1:11am

Risk averse, sure, but conservative?

John Fox ran the least conventional offense of any team this year.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 9:24am

I agree there is a difference between risk averse and conservative.

Having said that some of the Denver games I saw (obviously selectively) Tebow looked unstoppable on two-point conversions down at the goal-line. I'd have thought they definitely his ability definitely warranted the Broncos going for it more often.

by rots (not verified) :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 5:16pm

Yes, too conservative. Does Fox deserve some credit for giving a lukewarm Ok to transitioning the offense to some spread concepts, sure, but lets not go overboard.

Tebow is basically only good at one thing and that is running and teh broncos punted far too often on 4th and shorts and refused to go for 2 except in cases when even an arch conservative like Fox realzied he had to go for it.

Fox is definitely straight from the mold of "play not to lose" coaches that are a plague upon the league.

by Mr Shush :: Sun, 01/29/2012 - 7:46pm

If Tebow only had to pick up 2.5 yards a play instead of 3 1/3, could anyone consistently stop him? I don't think it's just about going for it on fourth down when you get there for the Broncos - I think it should be about being entirely comfortable with getting there - calling plays with the expectation of facing and going for it on 5-10 4th and shorts a game, or even more.

by Dean :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 9:46am

Could anybody stop him? Yes. Tim Tebow could stop himself.

by Mr Shush :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 2:18pm

Also Chuck Norris, presumably.

by Ben Stuplisberger :: Mon, 01/30/2012 - 11:36am

"Most recently, Brian Burke of advancednflstats.com has provided his own Expected Points analysis and has spent much of the past couple years second-guessing coaches’ calls on fourth downs." What's the Passive Aggressive Index on that line? ;)

by www.jogosdefutebol.com.br (not verified) :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 5:11pm

Appreciatе you this awareness, even If I imagіne it brings up the conсeгn of whats upсoming?