The Dallas Cowboys had a friendly home crowd and a prime-time audience on Sunday night — and just about everyone who watched them drop a critical game against the Minnesota Vikings blamed the fourth-down play calling.
With less than two minutes left in the game, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw to tailback Ezekiel Elliott on a gotta-have-it fourth and 5 — right after Elliott ran for no gain on second and 2 and lost three yards on third and 2. NFL watchers everywhere are second-guessing head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, saying they called the wrong pass play, called too many runs to set up the pass play or shouldn’t have trusted Elliott a third time in a row. Whatever they would have done differently, many viewers came away thinking Garrett and company made a hash of an easy situation.
But for today’s NFL head coaches, fourth-down play calls are anything but easy.
For years, the numbers have been indisputable: NFL teams punt, or try field goals, far more often than they should. But as NFL skippers get more aggressive, they’re still cagey about just how much they trust the data.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said this week’s late-game decision to go for a 2-point conversion was “purely analytics.” But last week, Rivera said his two aggressive fourth-down calls came from a sense of “feel,” “momentum” and being unable to “measure those things with numbers.” In fact, NFL ball-tracking technology is letting teams make better-informed decisions, giving them data on distances more precise than the football-standard yard. And regardless of what data coaches are actually using, we can measure how often Riverboat Ron and his colleagues actually ante up.
Through Week 10 of this season, NFL teams are going for it on 14.5 percent of all fourth downs, the highest rate in at least 25 years. That might be because in 2018, going for it was a very successful strategy: Running or passing on fourth down resulted in a first down (or touchdown) 59.4 percent of the time — the highest success rate since 1998.1
But so far in 2019, the success rate of fourth-down conversion attempts has fallen to 50.2 percent, below the 51.7 percent average of the last 10 seasons. And if we exclude the unusually successful 2018, this year’s success rate is still slightly below the 2009-2017 average of 50.8 percent.
For a big chunk of that mid-aughts decline, teams were obsessed with throwing on fourth downs. In 2015, NFL teams passed on 69 percent of conversion attempts, a record going back at least 25 years. Much of that was driven by the goal-line fade craze: Throwing on fourth-and-goal situations nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015.
The only problem? It didn’t work. Fourth-and-goal success rates plummeted as pass rates soared. After 79.6 percent of fourth-and-goal play calls were passes in 2015, the pass rate dropped by about a third the following season.
According to models like The New York Times’s 4th-Down Bot, shorter fourth downs have significantly higher chances of being converted — and that’s where NFL coaches’ decision-making has been furthest from optimal. But over the past two seasons, they’ve been getting better.
From 2008 to 2017, coaches went for it on fourth and 2 or shorter only 32.5 percent of the time. But across 2018 and 2019, that rate rose to 43.6 percent — and their effectiveness has risen, too. NFL teams’ success rate on fourth and short over the past two years is 65.8 percent, up from the prior decade’s 61.5 percent.
In a way, though, Rivera is right. Making decisions based solely on leaguewide averages is not perfect. But the unaccounted-for factors aren’t just ineffable (and possibly imaginary) things like momentum and feel. They’re things Rivera could describe very well with numbers and analytics, such as, “My team currently ranks fifth in rushing defense-adjusted value over average,” and “I have a dual-threat tailback who’s a serious MVP candidate.”
As coaches like Garrett continue to learn which players to trust and when to trust them, they should continue to look at the numbers and realize how far they have to go before they’re actually making the best fourth-down calls they can.
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