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Taking the Points: Going For the Touchdown on Fourth and Goal From the 1

Two teams faced fourth down decisions on the goal line last week, one early in a game, and one late. You may have heard more about the late one, the Minnesota Vikings getting stuffed on the goal line with 4 minutes remaining, down 10, which basically ended the game.

Earlier, the Cincinnati Bengals also had a fourth and goal in the first quarter of their game against the Browns, down 7-0. This one probably did not get as much attention, as it occurred earlier, and because media focus on these decisions is results oriented, it became a footnote as the Bengals ultimately won. Cedric Benson was stuffed on the goal line as well. The Browns punted after three plays (one of the benefits of going for it being that teams often play conservative near their own end and have farther to go), and the Bengals scored a touchdown on the next possession.

So, let’s talk about one of my biggest pet peeves: the phrase “you gotta take the points.” I agree that teams should always take the points, but differ on the fact that kicking the field goal is usually what does it.

First up, the first quarter situation like the Bengals faced. I don’t have all the play by play from this year loaded, so I used 2002-2010. Sixty-nine times a team faced a 4th and 1 in the first quarter of a game during that stretch. The coach went for the touchdown exactly two-thirds of the time, so going for the touchdown is the more common play.

“Taking the points” usually means kicking the field goal to most people. From that short distance, it is virtually automatic. 22 of the 23 teams that kicked there made it, and the one that didn’t was a botched snap. Of the 46 teams that went for it, 25 converted it into a touchdown (54%). Some quick math, and assuming 7 for a touchdown, will tell you that the teams that went for the touchdown averaged 3.8 points versus 2.9 for the field goal kickers.

In this case, “taking the points” should mean going for the touchdown.

We can also look at the result of those games. The Field Goal Teams went 8-15. The Go For It Teams went 33-13. The teams that went and failed: 15-6. The teams that went and succeeded: 18-7. That’s right, the teams that went for a touchdown, that didn’t take the points on a field goal, won more when they failed than the field goal teams did. The “Go For It” Teams went 12-7 in close games decided by 4 or less. The “Kick It” Teams went 2-6 in similar close games.

The Bengals going for it, even though they were not successful, was the clear right call. They still got their points on the next drive after putting the Browns in bad position, and eventually came back to win the game.

As for the Vikings’ decision, it was a clear cut call based on the game situation. It failed. People illogically would rather prolong defeat than maximize victory, if they think that kicking a field goal there was remotely the right call. The criticism of the Vikings, if any other than failure to score, should have been for using a timeout before first and goal, then taking two minutes before the fourth down play was run.

The decisive fourth down play where Toby Gerhart was stuffed came with Minnesota down 10, with 4:22 left, and the Vikings having two timeouts remaining. Minnesota had at best one more possession, dependent on how quickly they stopped Atlanta. They had to score twice.

Of course, the key question is when was their best chance to get a touchdown. It doesn’t get much better than being one yard away. An 18-yard field goal is almost automatic, but if you contemplate the other option, the decay rate for field goals and for touchdowns isn’t the same.

Let’s say I told you that you would have two plays, one from the 1 yard line, and one from the 30 yard line, and they will decide the game. You have to hit both, and get 10 points. You miss one, you lose. Which one do you use for the touchdown try, and which for the field goal? Pretty clearly, you want the touchdown opportunity from closer, unless you actually think your chances of throwing a last second pass from the 30 are better than 30%. This oversimplifies all the possibilities that could happen at the end of a game, but should at least provide an illustration of why opting for the touchdown rather than “taking the points” is the play.

All of this also leaves out one of the bigger factors that people tend to forget when talking about how many points a team needs. 10 points for the Vikings only gets them tied. They need at least 13 points to win.

Consider another hypothetical. We ask Leslie Frazier if he will trade 4 minutes for a touchdown and get the ball in the same spot, on fourth and 1, down 3, little time remaining. What should he do?

This was basically the same scenario that the Packers faced at the end of the Ice Bowl. Kick for overtime. Go for the win or loss from the 1. It is a similar decision to what Gruden did a few years ago in Tampa Bay against Washington, when an offsides on the extra point gave him the option of going for the win (or loss) from the 1 rather than kicking the extra point for overtime.

Those coaches made the right decision, and Leslie Frazier did too. It didn’t work out. It was the best chance to win the game though.

[photo via Getty]

 

 

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