The Best (and Worst) Fourth-and-1 Play Calls

Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson
Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

(Ed. Note: This piece was finished and submitted several hours before Thursday Night Football, and we have the emails and timestamps to prove it.)

NFL Week 5 - The NFL fourth-and-1 conversion rate is 70%.

If you take one fact away from Football Outsiders this week, make it that one: when a team goes for it on fourth-and-1, in non-goal-line situations, they make it seven times out of 10. The actual number is 69.45%—648 conversions on 933 attempts, from 2018 through Week 3—but there's a lot of imprecision in the data, so let's stick with the colloquial, easy-to-remember rounding for the big takeaway.

Walkthrough is talking about fourth downs today because everyone is always talking about fourth downs in the modern NFL. But we're not talking about the wisdom of fourth-and-1 conversions: they are generally wise, or at least justifiable, in any situation where a coach would dare to attempt one. A 70% chance of retaining possession of the ball speaks for itself in most circumstances. Instead, we're looking at the best and worst plays themselves.

You know the drill. It's fourth-and-1 in a nationally televised game. The conversion attempt fails. Your Twitter timeline instantly and unanimously identifies the reason why: it was obviously the wrong play call! They should not have passed. Or run outside. Or run from the shotgun. Or risked their quarterback's health with that sneak. Silly coach.

Of course, what probably happened is that one of those three times out of 10 where the offense fails to convert just cropped up, for whatever reason (excellent defense, offensive execution error, slippery field, whatever). But it stands to reason that some fourth-and-1 calls naturally have a higher probability of success than others. And that's what we're about to investigate.

A bit of methodology before we continue: all of the figures below are based on fourth-and-1 plays from beyond the offense's 10-yard line. We're separating goal-line plays out because goal-line offense and defense is different from conventional offense and defense. We'll sneak-peek the goal-line data at the end, then revisit it on a deeper level in a future Walkthrough.

I also round to tenths of decimals throughout the rest of this study so you can see small differences, even if they are not necessarily statistically significant. You will understand why once all the 67.3's and 65.7's start bouncing around the screen.

Finally, all data comes from Sports Info Solutions, from the 2018 season through Week 3, giving us a sizable sample to work with.

Fourth-and-1 Rushing vs. Passing

It makes more sense to run than to pass on fourth-and-1. You know it. I know it. And playcallers know it: teams executed a designed running play on 709 of the 933 plays (76%) in our data set, calling just 224 passing plays. And yes, scrambles were teased out of the runs and added to the passes; it was quite a pain in the butt.

The success rate on all designed running plays, including quarterback sneaks, is 71.6%. On all designed passing plays, including scrambles, it's 62.5%. If those rates are surprising at all, it may be how high the passing success rate is.

So the data shows that teams should never, ever pass on fourth-and-1, right? If these were static probabilities on some dice chart, that would be true. But of course these are dynamic probabilities, with that 71.6% success rate dependent on the threat that the offense might pass. Passing on 24% of fourth-and-1 opportunities still seems too high as a tendency-breaker, but there are lots of variables to consider, one of which will become clearer as we sift through the data.

The play-calling rates above appear to reflect rational coaching decisions: teams run the ball in three fourth-and-short situations out of four, but with someone such as Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, it's worth trying something like this once in a while.

Oh c'mon Clyde.

Fourth-and-1 Rushing Plays

So let's move on to a question that came up on Thursday night in Week 4, when Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon was stuffed on an outside run on fourth-and-short. Is running outside in such situations a bad idea? Let's break down running plays by direction:

Fourth-and-1 Runs
Run Direction Attempts Conversions Rate
QB Sneak 174 144 82.8%
Inside (not a sneak) 248 167 67.3%
Off-Tackle 108 71 65.7%
Outside 83 57 68.7%

Surprise, surprise (/sarcasm): the quarterback sneak has a significantly higher success rate than any other running play, and therefore of any play. Again, coaches know this: more than a quarter of all fourth-and-1 conversion attempts are sneaks.

Of course, a sneak is more likely to be called on "fourth-and-inches" than when the offense needs 4 feet or so. Shorter distances mean a higher conversion rate. Unfortunately there is no way to tease "inches" situations out of the data. Also, as the video linked earlier demonstrates, a sneak does carry a non-zero risk of quarterback injury. Still, the success rate for sneaks is so high that it really should be the default call unless there's a good reason to call something else. It's fourth-and-almost-2 is a good reason. Our offensive coordinator designs such cool plays is not a good reason.

Once the offense chooses to hand off, the direction of the run is not all that significant. When I first collated the data, the outside run rate was way up at 71.9%! That was because 13 scrambles, 12 of them conversions, were lumped into the outside runs. Take those out and the differences between the play types look like nothing more than margin-of-error fluctuations.

Outside runs do come with a higher per-carry average: 5.4 yards per rush on fourth-and-short, compared to 3.2 for off-tackle runs and 2.9 for inside runs. (Sneaks rarely gain more than 1 yard.) That extra yardage may be worth pursuing in some circumstances. Take the Jaguars' James Robinson counter play on fourth-and-1 when leading the Chargers 16-10 in Week 3. A well-designed play results in a 50-yard touchdown in a situation where the Jaguars have a little breathing room from a win probability standpoint. Also, the Jaguars were clearly not in an "inches" situation:

No one watching that play said, "Yuck, running outside in short yardage situations. Bad decision, Doug."

Fourth-and-1 Passing Plays

As mentioned earlier, the conversion rate on fourth-and-1 designed passing plays is 62.45%: 140 conversions on 224 attempts, with a total of 13 conversions on 15 scrambles in the data. The fact that the scramble success rate is so high, albeit in a limited sample, may make passing in short-yardage situations more enticing for teams with Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, or Josh Allen at quarterback.

Let's break the passing numbers down a bit. The following categories are not mutually exclusive: a play-action pass can also be a rollout pass, a shot downfield, etc.

Select Fourth-and-1 Passes
Pass Play Attempts Conversions Rate
Play-Action* 82 50 61.0%
Empty Backfield 22 12 54.5%
Rollout 59 35 59.3%
Shot Downfield 46 21 45.7%

The play-action passes come with an asterisk due to the limits of the databases I used: I was able to sort play-action completions on fourth-and-1, but not conversions. There are certainly a few completions for no gain or a loss in the data. What's certain is that play-action passing is a common short-yardage tactic, as it should be in a situation when everyone is expecting a running play.

It turns out that all of our "wrinkles" have a lower success rate than the overall passing success rate! That's because the best passing play on fourth-and-1 turns out to be a short pass (5 air yards or less) from the pocket. Such plays convert 59 times out of 82, or 71.9% of the time.

Wait: does that mean that short-pocket passing is more effective than rushing? Not precisely, because it's impossible to determine air yards when there's a sack. Just five sacks on what were supposed to be short passes would take the rate down to 70.1%. There are other factors such as penalties to consider: false starts and holds, invisible in our data set, are more common on passes than runs. It's more accurate to say that the success rate of a short pass is roughly equal to that of any handoff, and that both are less reliable than the good ol' quarterback sneak.

One tactic which doesn't work is emptying the backfield. Fortunately, coaches don't do that very often on fourth-and-short.

And then there's the ever-popular Kliff Kingsbury YOLO bomb. A "shot downfield" is generously defined here as a pass of 10-plus air yards. They're rare, but not as rare as empty backfields. And when they work, they work: the 21 first downs listed above netted 451 yards, or 21.4 yards per completion. It's a tactic that's used far less than once per team per season. At that rate, it may be worth the occasional gamble for a coach who either knows he won't get fired or knows he will get fired.

Fourth-and-1 Shotgun Plays

And then there's the ever-unpopular shotgun run on fourth-and-1, as popularized by Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears in Week 2. That was a goal-line play, and again, I will be exploring such plays in depth in a future Walkthrough. I also studied shotgun short-yardage runs briefly a few weeks ago, but I included fourth-and-2 situations in the data. Conversion rates decline swiftly as yards-to-go increase. Here is what we get when we focus exclusively on fourth-and-1 situations:

Fourth-and-1 Shotgun Plays
Play Attempts Conversions Rate
Passes 134 81 60.4%
Runs 138 98 71.0%

There were six scrambles, all for first downs, moved from the rushing data to the passing data. There are also eight sacks in the passing data.

Excuse me for a moment while a stare at all the data we have collected so far and cackle like the Joker.


The overall fourth-and-1 conversion rate is 70%. The non-sneak rushing rate is a tiny bit below 70%. The passing rate, assuming a short pass with few bells and whistles, is roughly 70%. The shotgun rushing rate is essentially 70%. The shotgun passing rate is lower, but the shotgun formation is also used to help disguise rushing plays, making them more effective. There are 10 Baltimore Ravens designed quarterback runs from the shotgun in the data, nine of them for first downs. And if we tease fourth quarters out of the shotgun passing data, taking away meaningless end-of-game drives, the conversion rate creeps up to 37-of-58, or 63.8%, which is right in the ballpark of the overall passing rate.

All of our quibbling and Tweeting and pontificating over what a team should have called only comes down to a percentage point or two of probability! And those percentages cannot be statistically significant when compared to the differences between the strengths of offenses and defenses, injuries, field conditions, and so on. We're just spitballing! Nearly every play call has probabilistic merit! Give it to Derrick Henry! Or use Henry as a decoy for a short pass! Do it from the shotgun! Or under center! Do ANYTHING besides a triple reverse, as long as you execute properly, and the probabilities stay relatively the same!

I entered this study honestly expecting to find more passing probabilities hovering around 50%, outside run conversion rates 5 to 10 percentage points below inside rates, perhaps something meaningful in the shotgun data. Instead, the data insists that sneaks are better than runs are better than passes, but that the pass rates are high enough to be worthwhile tendency-breakers, and that the most significant differences in conversion rates come on plays (such as an empty backfield) that come with such obvious disadvantages that they rarely used. The data shows that coaches, on the aggregate, are behaving rationally. It shows that blunt tools like clumping "inside runs" together cannot capture whatever tactical differences might make one play or another more advantageous; unfortunately, teasing out "I-Formation 22-formation power runs" only results in uselessly tiny sample sizes.

Look, if Zac Taylor calls a Devin Asiasi tight end jet sweep from an empty backfield on fourth-and-1 and loses 6 yards, I am still gonna rip him. But normal stuff? A Mahomes pass? A Henry sweep? Lamar or Josh Allen in shotgun? We should probably admit that there's a logical reason to call such plays, based on game-planning decisions which are a little more subtle than what we can surmise from the couch.

Just make sure to call a sneak if it's fourth-and-inches.

Fourth-and-1 Near the Goal Line

OK, you were promised a sneak peek at some goal-line data. This data set extends from 2018 through all of Week 4 except the Monday night game. We have changed parameters, so changing the pool of games slightly doesn't matter.

We're also examining all fourth-and-1 plays inside the 10-yard line, not just fourth-and-goal from the 1. I want to look at situations where the defense does not need to keep safeties deep or worry about the whole field. Conversions include touchdowns and first downs for the rare occasions a team picks up one on fourth-and-short from the 5-yard line or wherever.

As you might suspect, the short-yardage conversion rate is lower near the goal line, where the defense can commit completely to stopping a 1-yard play. Here are the numbers, with five quarterback scrambles (all for first downs or touchdowns) reclassified as passing plays:

Fourth-and-1 Plays Near Goal Line
Play Attempts Conversions Rate
Rushing 169 101 59.8%
Passing 92 53 57.6%

Wait a minute … does this mean that there is only a tiny difference in conversion-rate probability between rushing and passing? That the proper choice of play probably comes down to personnel and schematic subtleties, not simple "coach be dumb" second-guessing? That coaches probably understand these odds, instinctively if not down to the decimal place, and make their decisions accordingly?

Hehe. Hehehe. He he...


53 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2022, 8:39pm

#1 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 10:34am

Wait a minute … does this mean that there is only a tiny difference in conversion-rate probability between rushing and passing? That the proper choice of play probably comes down to personnel and schematic subtleties, not simple "coach be dumb" second-guessing?

Or it could also mean that breaking plays up only into simple categories that made sense 70+ years ago is not super great. (Yes, I'm a broken record. Deal with it.) Philly Special was a pass play designed to look like a run. The entire OL blocked down and a TE pulled over to block the incoming LB. It looked for all the world like a direct-snap counter. That is a wrinkle play. It's a "ha, you can't forget about the QB when we run counter!" play.

Russell Wilson's 4th and short failure last night was a pass play. It wasn't a wrinkle on anything. The entire line pass set, and there wasn't any play action. Tight end released on a pass pattern right away. Everyone knew it was a pass straight from the get-go. Still could've worked, because the Colts have no pass rushers. (Plus I know everyone's like 'Hamler was open' but y'know what would've been an awesome play call out of that? QB draw. Now that would've been A+ level trolling from Hackett.)

It's so, so frustrating to see plays be entirely categorized by "was the ball in contact with at least one player at all times" when defenses rarely are able to even see that. Especially because we absolutely have the technology to do better (glares at NextGen Stats). 

Points: 0

#12 by Spanosian Magn… // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:08pm

I disagree, I think "Should 'the ball [remain] in contact with at least one player at all times' on plays run in these situations?" is an important first-level question, and one this piece addresses quite well. Turns out there's little difference in success rate given the frequency with which teams do/don't at this time - that's an important result! What you're talking about are the "personnel and schematic subtleties" Tanier references in that quote, which should/would be the subject of a more granular follow-up if/when positioning data and whatnot become readily available to outsiders (or, Outsiders).

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#37 by colonialbob // Oct 07, 2022 - 2:04pm

Agree with you here. And considering the sample size issues, I'm not sure this type of statistical study would even be all that possible if you slice the data into too many more buckets.

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#52 by Pat // Oct 09, 2022 - 12:43pm

It's not "too many more" buckets. It's different buckets. Don't bother distinguishing between run and pass. You already know there's no difference there.

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#15 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:39pm

It's so, so frustrating to see plays be entirely categorized by "was the ball in contact with at least one player at all times" when defenses rarely are able to even see that. 

So how do you handle a pitch?

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#19 by KnotMe // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:46pm

Trying to analyze plays without any knowledge of what the defense is doing is inherently limited. It's not useless, but the same thing can get vastly different results based on how the defense is prepared for it. 

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#21 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:57pm

I feel like I should know the answer to this: like, obviously short pitches backwards are runs, and short forward pitches are passes. But are all backwards/horizontal passes counted as running plays? Or is there some weird nebulous region where it's friggin' random what they would call it?

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#26 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:09pm

I think if it's a flea-flicker or a HB option and the ballcarrier makes a bona fide attempt to pass, it gets treated as a sack and thus a passing play.

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#36 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 2:04pm

Well yeah, but what if it's a backwards swing pass out to the edge? Is that just a running play? I'm guessing in the gamebook it looks like "QB laterals to WR. WR for XX yards." Which bucket does that end up in?

think that's considered a rushing play, meaning the pass/run distinction is the exact angle of 90 degrees, which is obviously arbitrary from the defense's point of view (and yes obviously I know from the offense's point of view it's waay safer to hit that forward angle, but those passes are like 90+% so it's not really a huge deal).

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#48 by Vincent Verhei // Oct 08, 2022 - 2:37am

If one player attempts a forward pass to another, it's a passing play.

If a player is tackled while attempting a forward pass, it's a sack.

Everything else is a run.

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#2 by Kaepernicus // Oct 07, 2022 - 10:55am

Hackett has been pretty bad so far but that play call was actually decent. They had 2 recievers get open and Russ just tunnel visioned Sutton the whole way. That was one of the worst performances I have ever seen from Russ. It seems like he is entering a similar portion of his career to the late McCarthy GB era with Rodgers where he is going solo to the detriment of everyone including himself. One things I noticed in that final sequence was before the first time out when Russ was under center the Colts left a huge gap between the C and RG. I see no way that a quick snap sneak from Russ fails there. He should have just snapped it and took the new set of downs right there. 

I know you have dabbled in the sneak splits between QBs but it would be great to get an updated set of tables. One of the best QB sneak games I have ever seen was Jimmy G against the Bears last year when he had 4 yards on 5 carries for 2 TDs and 2 FDs. It was like an old Jerome Bettis special and the bears could do nothing to stop it. We know about TB12 and Jimmy G being great sneakers but who else is in there? What defenses are terrible at stopping the sneak too. We just had Geno week I think it is time for QB sneak week.

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#4 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:14am

Yeah, it's the same thing I said with the Lamar Jackson 4th down play. Russ just locked in to the right (edit: left damnit)/middle side of the field.

I don't think he was totally sold on Sutton: I think he wanted the tight end, but he slipped and fell so the timing was screwed up. Then he went over to Sutton. That's basically what it looks like from where he's looking: he glances at Sutton first (probably to hold the linebacker) then comes back to the tight end and just... keeps... watching him, but he doesn't end up with a clear throwing lane at the right moment. Then he bails and goes after Sutton.

But as soon as that guy stumbles and the defender starts going to the left, Hamler's the right play. He just never looked there.

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#5 by Kaepernicus // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:25am

That's a good call. I think the Colts huge/tall DTs really started messing up his throwing lanes and seemed to get in his head. Buckner and Gilmore really owned that game for the Colts defense. When Leonard gets back that defense looks like it could end up really good by the end of the year with difference makers at every level. Hopefully that Paye injury isn't too serious because the Colts have a chance to win that division even if the offense continues to be terrible. On the other side of the ball DJ Jones has been incredible for the Broncos. What a great signing that was. He is actually starting to pop off as an average pass rusher, pair that with his elite run defense and paying him $11 million a year is going to be a steal. The defense for both of these teams is why I think they are going to be right in the mix around playoff time.

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#25 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:03pm

I think analyzing the Broncos pass rush is tough considering how incredibly bad the tackles were for the Colts. I mean, I counted at least 5 plays where the LT was lying on the ground with his defender free rushing to the QB. And I've never seen a guy shoved back that far from a punch as I saw on some of those plays. It was nuts - the tackle was just so off balance.


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#27 by theslothook // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:13pm

It was one of the worst offensive line performances I've seen from the team. That said, I truly truly believe that if the offense had much better rhythm, it wouldn't look this bad. Yes the left tackle spot is a disaster and was a disaster coming into the season, but Braden Smith isn't usually this bad.

To me, part of the problem is when the passing game is so severely limited, it just makes everyone's job look so much worse. I truly believe if you dropped Manning or Brady or Lamar, this line would have more confidence to hold their blocks or have a better sense of their assignments than when you layer this morass over them. 

Points: 0

#35 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:59pm

To me, part of the problem is when the passing game is so severely limited, it just makes everyone's job look so much worse.

The fact that the LT gets knocked back 5 yards from the rusher's punch has nothing to do with the passing game's limitations, though. It's just technique and strength.

I actually think part of the reason that the last drive from Indy looked so much better is just because the edge rushers from Denver were getting tired faster than Indy's tackles were. Because Indy's tackles weren't exactly exerting themselves.

edit: Actually I knew I wasn't losing my mind: last night Braden Smith wasn't actually at tackle. Indy shuffled him to guard and had Raimann and Pryor at LT and RT respectively, and both of them, uh, sucked horribly.

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#9 by Mike B. In Va // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:43am

At least Lamar had a guy who was open, even if he did everything else wrong. Russ...I don't know what he was doing.

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#47 by BroncosGuyAgain // Oct 07, 2022 - 9:08pm

This was an absolutely terrible play call, for more than one reason, and possibly a terrible play design.

The decision to go shotgun helps the defense.  The linebackers can now not honor the run, take a step-and-a-half more depth pre-snap, making all throwing lanes much tighter.  That alone makes the play selection a terrible choice.

Wilson correctly initially looks left to lock the safety before looking right for Hamler.  But the play also calls for the back to hit the typical run-gap, then drag across the goal line to his right.  As he does so, he basically steps in front of Hamler's route.  On the surface, this looks like terrible play design, but more likely it is a function of the highly shortened field and the condensing of all of the routes. (If the play typically asks Hamler to run a deeper route, then it might be a reasonable design). So possibly terrible play design but more likely a second element of terrible play calling.

The actual pass was not even intended for Sutton; he just tried to make a play on a desperate ball thrown on a horribly broken play. 




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#8 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:35am

QB gets evaluated for concussion, then is cleared to return to the game and makes poor decisions in multiple game-critical situations.

I don't have any evidence that there is causation here other than my own (subjective) assessment of what I saw last night, and what I saw was that Wilson just wasn't thinking straight and made multiple mental errors in the last half of the game after taking a hard blow to the head.

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#10 by IlluminatusUIUC // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:53am

We know about TB12 and Jimmy G being great sneakers but who else is in there?

Josh Allen doesn't do a ton of under center sneaks any more because word is out, but man he fights like a wild animal for that yard. In the Dallas Thanksgiving game he fumbled the snap, wrestled it out of the pile, and pushed through two tacklers to convert. It was completely insane.

Points: 0

#13 by theslothook // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:27pm

That was one of the worst performances I have ever seen from Russ.

I think this was by far the worst I have ever seen Russ play. This was worse than the nfc championship game. 

I mentioned in discord that I am finally bailing on this offense ever being really good. That's probably still premature, but after 5 weeks its still hasn't had one game you'd consider really good.

The question now is why? Its really hard to tell. The 4th down play was on Wilson, but then the deep pass where the ref interfered was also a play where two receivers were running in the same spot. That can't be on Wilson you would think.

I am sympathetic to the idea that maybe the Broncos should just fire Hackett and pay Sean Payton a lot of money. The owners can certainly afford it. But I am also legitimately concerned that Russ may be aging, even at this age. It can be hard to see ex ante if its age vs talent vs coaching, but you string together enough poor seasons and that's usually how you can tell. I will say, great qbs going through mid career funks are not unprecedented. Philip Rivers went through an extended period before finally breaking free of it.  

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#20 by KnotMe // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:55pm

I think there is an adaption process where as QB age they generally adapt to being less atheltic and it doesn't really hurt them that much unless they get injured or the arm goes (like say Ben, or seems to be the case with Ryan). It's possible Brady aged well bc he was always unathletic so he had to adapt to it to succeed in the first place.(or his play never really depended on it might be a better way to put it).

If I had to guess, I suspect Russ will eventually pull through it, but it might not be pretty for a while. If he actually is aging that will go down as a historically bad contract. Can't really fault them for it since elite QB usually age pretty well, the worst case is pretty horrific. 

Points: 0

#29 by theslothook // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:20pm

Obviously we have no idea how this is going to play out, but one has to wonder about maybe Seattle knew something the rest of us didn't. I remember Russ issued an ultimatum to the team a few years ago basically saying you have till this deadline or I am going to request a trade/go scorched earth. They caved.

I don't know if Russ behind the scenes this year told them effectively that its over, but I was always floored by the decision to trade Wilson. It just didn't make sense from the outside. 

However, if you know the guy is/going to be cooked; then you have effectively sold high. Who knows if that's true.

I will agree; its hard to fault Denver ex ante for giving him the contract. 

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#38 by BJR // Oct 07, 2022 - 2:30pm

I find it hard to believe Russ has suddenly fallen off a cliff. Maybe he's a little past his best now, but he still put up pretty good numbers last season, in spite of missing some games and rushing back too quickly. 

There is a decent chance we have all been under-rating his supporting cast in Seattle these past few seasons.

Most likely I'd say is these are teething problems, amplified several fold by having a brand new, first time HC who looks suspiciously out of his depth (at least on game day). I've seen some analysis today showing how even Manning and Brady struggled in their first half-seasons with new teams (not to this extent, but certainly by their standards).

The knives are already out for him, understandably so given how much he cost Denver. But I'll give it a while longer before declaring him washed. 

Points: 0

#39 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 2:38pm

The scary part is that if the Dumbest Correlation in Football History continues (Russell Wilson's AY/A vs Week trend), Wilson would be unwatchable by year's end.

So at least if Wilson's bad in the beginning and better by the end, it'll help to get rid of that stupid thing.

Points: 0

#42 by theslothook // Oct 07, 2022 - 2:47pm

I largely agree with you on all points. 

I would only say that dramatic declines are quite common for quarterbacks. McNabb and McNair vaporized within one offseason and they were comparatively much younger. Manning the elder and Favre also went from MVP level players to unplayable. 

I am not saying that's happening to Russ, but I don't think you can completely dismiss it out of hand. But like you, I don't think that's the likely culprit, which is why if this season's horror show plays out the same way my first move is firing Hackett and finding the best offensive minded head coach I can. 

Points: 0

#34 by colonialbob // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:57pm

There's also the idea that certain skills go before others as you age. Baseball has very clear examples of this - things related to general athleticism go first (running, then fielding, things like arm strength) but there are other skills that decline very slowly/much later, such as contact skills or plate discipline. I wonder if something similar is true for QBs; field vision and pre-snap stuff should obviously decline slowly if at all, pocket presence mobility seems like a thing that would hold for at least a while, arm strength maybe before then, and then the obvious pure athleticism parts probably decay first. So perhaps somebody like Russ whose strengths don't necessarily match up with being a primarily pocket-bound passer would age out of his good skills faster than somebody like Phillip Rivers. Of course, each QB is different, and unlike baseball there aren't really enough of them to get a good sample size, so it's hard to say for sure.

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#43 by IlluminatusUIUC // Oct 07, 2022 - 3:16pm

It's possible Brady aged well bc he was always unathletic so he had to adapt to it to succeed in the first place.(or his play never really depended on it might be a better way to put it).

There's age and then there's mileage too. Tom Brady has been sacked 550 times in his career, Russ has been sacked 443 times in half the games. I've not sure where if anywhere QB hits absorbed is tracked, but between those sack rates and Russ' rushing earlier in his career, he's may have taken as many hits as Brady already.

Points: 0

#45 by KnotMe // Oct 07, 2022 - 3:45pm

Big Ben is actually the career sacks leader(554) although Brady(550) probably passes him this year on sheer career length. Ben probably absorbed the most hits of a QB I can think, mainly bc his thing was "I'm gonna stand there and throw with a guy hanging off me if I have to".  

Russ does have a fairly high sack rate (8.28%), although it's hard to say what that means other than he's had teams with bad O-lines. Bart Starr has one of the highest rates (11.33) of players with decent career lengths and you could almost kill people back then. 

I'm not sure we really have the data to track hits in any sane fashion. QB who are running will often slide and avoid a hit.I'm not sure you can come with a neat relation ship between statistical hits and runs and when a player will decline. I don't disagree but I'm not sure there is any way to know and I'm not sure all hits are equal from a mileage perspective. 

I suspect Russ's problem may be a couple things like some decline + new coach, system and recievers and it's hard to compensate for all at once. 

Points: 0

#46 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 4:59pm

So on Twitter there's a suggestion that the actual play is this:

which actually suggests that the problem was that Wilson just totally misread the defense, and overall, that makes sense. The defense is actually straight up man with one high safety, so you should read the right side where the switch-release will create an opening for one of the two. The left side is primarily for zone, with the RB/WR/TE spaced.

Like I mentioned above, it's pretty clear Wilson's first glance was to the TE, which is the first read there. It's just a totally wrong read of the defense.

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#3 by Pat // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:14am

grr, in reply to above

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#6 by MJK // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:30am

“Do ANYTHING besides a triple reverse, as long as you execute properly, and the probabilities stay relatively the same!”

Well, not ANYTHING…

Technically fourth and three, not fourth and one, but still…

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#41 by mansteel // Oct 07, 2022 - 2:46pm

Holy crap. Honestly, that may be the single-worst play call I have ever seen. As Collinsworth says, you can't even imagine what the plan was.

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#7 by theslothook // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:34am

The call was fine, the execution was a mess.

I do wonder the alternative strategy though. Denver kicks the field goal with about 2:30 left in th game and two timeouts(they don't burn one trying to decide which call to make).

The Colts get the ball back with about 2:15. Indy is pretty much going to punt, so Denver can get the ball back with about a minute left or so left let's say. I know they have done jack shit on offense all day, but in that situation you only need a field goal for the win. So who knows?

I think part of the merits for going for it on offense is a bit dependent on how much variance you should be going for. If the opposing team is flat better than you, then you should embrace variance. If the other team is far worse(which in this case I think it is); you should probably play more conservatively.

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#16 by BigRichie // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:41pm

"Indy is pretty much going to punt"?? Like on their just-previous drive? And of course they have to not just punt, but go 3-and-out. And if the Broncos call a timeout, and the Colts then do pick up the first, the Broncos have screwed up royally.

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#22 by theslothook // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:58pm

In reply to by BigRichie

Indy's offense is ranked 32nd coming into this game and will probably remain that way next week; so yes the smart money would be on them going 3 and out and punting. If you can't trust your defense to hold the worst offense in football to a punt late game where the team is going to be leaning conservative as is; then I don't know what we are talking about. 

That really is the difference between these two teams. The Colts have a QB they are trying to hide. The Broncos ostensibly have a QB that you want the ball in his hands 

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#28 by KnotMe // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:19pm

Well the D gave up a FG on the previous drive, so I'm not sure you could count on them for 3 and out, although getting a new set of downs, running the clock down and kicking FG if you had to could work as it's not like Ryans deep ball is a threat. And the Ryan int would be in play. 

It did seem weird to bet everything on one play (and telegraph that you are doing so), rather than keep the option of getting the first on the table. 

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#30 by theslothook // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:22pm

I don't think you can just look at the previous drive and assume the defense is going to give up a field goal, unless you think your defense is just gassed. 

Once again, the Colts offense was wheezing and sucking all night. Hemmoraging pressures and Ryan throwing lame ducks left and right. Yes I know they scored a whopping 12 points, but it came on so many drives that it makes the per drive figure even more ghastly. Which is why DVOA is likely to hammer them this week. 

Like I wrote above, the decision was fine. I just think there is a universe where kicking the field goal doesn't automatically mean a tie. You can still play for the win; it just comes with more assumptions and conditions, but again, its the freaken 32nd ranked offense! 

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#24 by KnotMe // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:02pm

In reply to by BigRichie

Is it cynical of me to wonder if Hacket didn't realize the game was over if they don't get a FG first down there? I don't think that's it, but I almost wonder. 

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#33 by jheidelberg // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:51pm

There is 2:15 left in OT, the value of being better in the NFL usually amounts to 3-7 points over 60 minutes, substantially better we get BUF as 14 point favorites over PIT.  How much value can you put on being the better team in 2:15?

Lets say all 16 games go to OT this week and the underdog has the ball with 2:15 left in OT, with the timeouts remaining the same as in DEN-INDY game.  This is an enormous advantage.  How many games do you have the underdog winning, losing, or tying?

I think that you are shellshocked from watching the Colts offense for 5 weeks.   If the Colts are tied with 2:15 left in OT and have the ball at their own 25 in all 12 remaining games, expect them to have one of the best records in the AFC.

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#40 by Paul R // Oct 07, 2022 - 2:43pm

  If the Colts are tied with 2:15 left in OT and have the ball at their own 25 in all 12 remaining games, expect them to have one of the best records in the AFC. 

Is it possible to win the AFC South with a 2-2-13 record?

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#11 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 07, 2022 - 11:57am


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#14 by Harris // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:32pm

In the 80s and 90s, fourth down automatically meant kicking unless the team was down late and had to score. Going for it in a non-do or die situation was the very height of madness. Meanwhile, Sirianni went for it inside his own 30 against the Jags and made me all tingly in my swimsuit area. You kids are so lucky this is even an issue.

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#32 by miqewalsh // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:39pm

The auto-FG expectation in that era made the occasional fake FG quite effective!

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#18 by BigRichie // Oct 07, 2022 - 12:45pm

I'd like to see the low leverage (defense team way ahead) plays simply tossed out of such analyses. They totally pollute the data set.

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#23 by zenbitz // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:00pm

The same numbers on 3rd and 1.  The situations are somewhat different (although if you never go on 4th then...) but the sample size should be much larger as well.

I also feel like the sneak data is confouding because of the difference between 1.5 feet and 4 feet; I would also guess that the defensive line can "deny" a sneak if they really want by clogging the 0 and A gaps.

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#31 by miqewalsh // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:37pm

I don’t know if you can tease this out from the data, but if you’re counting scrambles as pass plays, you should also count shovel passes as run plays.

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#53 by LionInAZ // Oct 09, 2022 - 8:39pm

Um, no, for a number of reasons.

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#49 by doctorjorts // Oct 08, 2022 - 8:28pm

Run/pass option plays?

Also, is there any documentation by play-by-play systems that the refs measured with the chains before the prior play? If so it might help weed out “4th and inches” from 4th and 4 feet.

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#50 by doctorjorts // Oct 08, 2022 - 8:28pm

Run/pass option plays?

Also, is there any documentation by play-by-play systems that the refs measured with the chains before the prior play? If so it might help weed out “4th and inches” from 4th and 4 feet.

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#51 by nat // Oct 08, 2022 - 10:24pm

Are sneaks always “called”?

The high success rate for sneaks is largely because they aren’t so much called, as taken opportunistically. There is another play called, but the QB can opt for a sneak if the defense leaves an open gap, and the distance isn’t too great.

So the idea that a sneak should be the default call is probably wrong. But it is nice to give your QB the choice.

Points: 0

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