We are often asked if our analytics ever endorse conservative actions on fourth-and-short decisions. While it is true as a general rule that aggressive first down attempts are often the dominant strategy with respect to Game-Winning Chance (GWC), each decision is unique. Two examples of exceptions occurred yesterday at the ends of the first halves for the Buccaneers and the Colts. The Buccaneers had a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, leading by 8 points, and the Colts had a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, leading by 3 points. In each instance there was time for just one play before the half, and in each case, it was correct to kick the field goal! What makes these situations different? The answer lies in the big picture.
Buccaneers face fourth-and-goal at the Vikings 1-yard line leading 14-6
Colts face fourth-and-goal at the Raiders 2-yard line leading 17-14
Two important considerations that normally support aggressive fourth-down attempts are clock management and ball position. Because each of these two decisions occurred at the very end of a first half and near the goal line, a successful conversion (score in this case) does not have the benefit of extending the possession for the leading team and burning additional clock. Also, when a fourth-and-short attempt fails near the goal line, it normally provides significant residual value because of the resulting field position. That does not apply in these cases as the first half comes to a close. The Buccaneers’ decision to kick was closer due the fact their GWC was already very high. The Colts’ decision is surprisingly clear with a difference of +3.8% GWC in the balance. Frank Reich’s choice to kick is worthy of a deeper examination.
Sometimes the simplest argument for attempting a touchdown at the goal line instead of kicking a field goal is grounded in the metric of expected points. Let’s assume the Colts are successful in scoring a touchdown at the NFL average two-point conversion rate of 47.5%. We will also assume approximate league averages for field goal (98%) and extra point (94%) successes.
Expected point comparison for Colts:
Interestingly, while the touchdown attempt has higher expected point value it does not optimize GWC. This is where the simulation model picks up on some complexities that are not obvious. Because of score, clock, and match-up considerations, the utility of points and their effects on GWC can change considerably. This is why football is such a fascinating game of risk management.
Now let’s imagine a similar decision that occurs for the Colts with a fourth-and-goal at 14:00 of the third quarter rather than the end of the first half. In this scenario, the Colts would stand to benefit from backing the Raiders up to their own goal line if the touchdown attempt fails.
Colts face fourth-and-goal at the Raiders 2-yard line, leading 17-14, at 14:00 of third quarter
While the decision would be close, we see a substantial change in favor of the touchdown attempt as a result of the residual benefit of field position.
Frank Reich and the Colts have benefited from calculated aggression on fourth downs this season and found themselves in the No. 1 spot of the EdjSports’ Coach Rankings through Week 13. Here Reich shows that he grasps the importance of assessing each decision in its proper context and shifting his approach when necessary.