Falling Short of the Stick

by Aaron Schatz

As a football fan, I'm not sure if anything frustrates me as much as when my team calls an 8-yard pass on a 3rd-and-9.  I'm sure it is the same for fans of every team, which is why Jets fans were probably screaming at their televisions during Thursday's season-opening Jets-Skins game.

"You can see the first down marker right there... so why are you stopping?!?!"

Even worse than when players can't get that extra yard or two is when coaches call a play that doesn't get that extra yard or two.  This kind of thing clearly irks John Madden also, because it came up repeatedly last night.  It seems like this was happening to the Jets over and over again, but actually it was only twice.

At the end of the second quarter, on 3rd-and-9, Santana Moss caught a pass, but was tackled for only a seven yard gain.  Punt.  Then in the fourth quarter, on 3rd-and-9, Wayne Chrebet caught a pass and was immediately tackled, one yard short of the first down marker.  Punt.

So this got me thinking, which teams have the biggest problem with falling short of the first down marker when a conversion is needed?  I went back to the 2002 numbers and totaled two different stats:

  • The number of times a team fell one yard short on third down (or a non-punting fourth down) with five or more yards to go.
  • The number of times a team fell one yard short on third down (or a non-punting fourth down) with five or more yards to go OR fell two yards short with eight or more yards to go.

The results may surprise you.  They were lower than I expected, but I told Ian (from Scramble for the Ball) about this and the numbers were higher than he expected.  I do know that while, as a Patriots fan, it seems like my team is doing this all the time, they are actually near the bottom of the list.  It seems like there are more of these plays than there really are, because these are the plays you remember the next day.  "If only we had that one more first down... didn't he see the stick?"

If you use the broader definition, including plays that miss by two yards with 8+ yards to go, Seattle comes out as the team that falls just short of the stick the most often.  There's no one player at fault; it was a mix of Alexander runs, Hasselbeck passes, and Dilfer passes.  With the stricter definition, only plays missing by one yard, Atlanta is the worst.  This is somewhat due to Vick's scrambling ability, with a few plays where he had nobody to pass to, had to run, and didn't quite make it.

And oddly enough, Arizona falls just short of the first down marker less than any other team in the NFL.  Finally, something the Cardinals are the best at -- too bad it is because they blow most of their third-down conversions by much larger margins than just a yard or two.

The numbers in this table represent the actual number of plays falling short of the stick, but the teams are in percentage order according to the broader definition.  These are 2002 numbers.

Team 1 yd short
5+ yd to go
1 yd short 5+ yd to go
2 yd short 8+yd to go
Total 3rd and 4th downs
with 5+ yd to go
Short of the Stick %
SEA 8 15 156 9.6%
TEN 8 12 136 8.8%
ATL 11 13 152 8.6%
PIT 10 12 141 8.5%
DAL 6 13 155 8.4%
PHI 6 12 147 8.2%
BAL 9 11 136 8.1%
JAC 4 11 141 7.8%
STL 8 10 133 7.5%
WAS 10 12 160 7.5%
NYJ 5 9 126 7.1%
DEN 8 9 129 7.0%
BUF 7 9 140 6.4%
DET 7 10 160 6.3%
SDG 6 9 153 5.9%
SFO 6 8 151 5.3%
CLE 5 7 143 4.9%
IND 5 7 143 4.9%
CAR 7 8 167 4.8%
CHI 5 6 138 4.3%
NWE 3 6 144 4.2%
MIA 4 5 121 4.1%
HOU 5 7 178 3.9%
CIN 6 6 155 3.9%
TAM 2 5 134 3.7%
GNB 2 5 138 3.6%
OAK 3 4 130 3.1%
MIN 3 4 136 2.9%
NYG 4 4 138 2.9%
KAN 3 3 112 2.7%
NOR 3 4 166 2.4%
ARI 1 2 159 1.3%


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