Risky Business
EdjSports examines critical decisions and their impact on GWC (Game-Winning Chance).
Colts kicker
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.


5 comments, Last at 15 Dec 2020, 2:50am

1 Wow, this is opposite what…

Wow, this is opposite what Aaron was calling out on Twitter (and it's equal to what my instincts told me).

Does this change much if Tampa doesn't get the ball to start the 2nd half? That would factor in for me, considering kicking the FG allows you to push the Vikings toward pass-happy tendencies before they ever see the ball again. A three-score lead gives you a lot of margin to be aggressive.

4 Maximizing the free shot

I agreed with Aaron hoping the Bucs went for the TD. I figured they were lucky to even have that opportunity following the questionable DPI, so why not make the most of it especially if Minnesota later starts converting some of their solid offense into points. And to me an 11-point lead was no more valuable than 8 points, but going for a 15-point lead would be worth the risk.

Then again, assuring they continue their momentum, with like you said getting the ball first after halftime, is also valuable.

2 well, this helps

I had wondered about this. I was following the game on ESPN gamecast and it indicated the 1 YL--I was surprised Reich didn't go for it.  The 2 YL would make it a coin toss for me, and the 3 YL would be a definite FG situation.  Turns out I may be a little more aggressive than wisdom dictates.  Story of my life.