NFL Strategy: Does Play Calling on Fourth and One Need to Shift After 2011?

Coaches should go more often on fourth and one than they do, and when they do, they should run it. That has been a general rule over the last decade, but the latter part at least was turned on its head in 2011.

Here were the success rates and ratios of run to pass over the previous four seasons (2007 to 2010):

2007: 78% Runs on Fourth and one. Runs converted 65% of the time vs. 54% for pass

2008: 78% Runs on Fourth and one. Runs converted 74% of the time vs. 51% for pass

2009: 74% Runs on Fourth and one. Runs converted 71% of the time vs. 53% for pass

2010: 76% Runs on Fourth and one. Runs converted 66% of the time vs. 53% for pass

Before we get to what happened in 2011, though, a quick word on the interesting pattern in fourth and 1. From 2007 to 2009, coaches attempted the first down on 47% of all fourth and one’s. Despite the research suggesting they were too conservative given the payoffs, and despite the success rates, they actually started to go less in 2010 (44%).

Then last year, they went even less, and were also less successful in doing so. Teams only attempted a fourth and one on 36% of the opportunities in 2011, and only converted 55% of all chances. (It was never below 63% in the previous four years). Not all opportunities on fourth and one are equal, as they could be anywhere from one inch to almost two full yards. One would think, though, that if coaches were becoming more selective, the success rates should actually increase because the average distance would be shorter.

So what happened in 2011?

It’s simple when we parse out the play by play data, which you can access now at’s play finder. Teams weren’t running effectively inside on short yardage, or equally as likely, defenses were tired of giving up high conversion rates and “sold out” to stop the run. This has been my observation, that there is even more jamming in the middle on short yardage by defenders than even in past short yardage situations.

To examine this, we need to parse out run direction and the identity of the runner. On plays where the quarterback is the runner, it is likely (though not always) a shorter yardage situation where the QB attempts a sneak. Those rates did not change from 2010 t0 2011. Quarterbacks converted just over 80% of all runs in both years.

The difference is almost entirely due to runs by the running back designated as “runs up the middle” in the play by play record. In 2010, runs up the middle with one yard to go converted 81% of the time. In 2011, it was an abysmal 6 of 24 (25%). Those designated as behind a guard also saw a dip in success rate (62% to 44%). Outside runs, meanwhile, have been particularly effective (70%) but probably underutilized if teams are selling out up the middle.

The ratios of runs to passes, and direction of runs, from outside to off tackle to those listed as guard or up the middle runs, stayed relatively constant in both seasons. The difference appears to be in how strongly the defenses are committing to stopping the runs right up the middle.

The pass plays saw a slight uptick in success rate, surpassing all runs as a result. I’ll also include the 3 defensive penalties (2 PI’s and one holding) that resulted on passes, likely because the defense was overplaying run. All pass plays on fourth and short were successful 60% of the time last year once we account for penalties.

Going to the left has been particularly effective, whether by run or pass. Most of the best run blockers on the line are to the right, but defenses know this as well. Runs designated as left have succeeded 62% of the time (36 of 58) while passes hit 63% (17 of 27).

The question is what next, and how does that drop off in runs up the middle affect decision making. Some coaches may use it evidence they should not go for it. It’s true that if you can only convert 25% of the time, you should not. However, it appears to me like teams have opportunities with play calling now. Give your quarterback an option based on the pre-snap read, just like with counting safeties in the box on first down. If the defense is overloaded to the middle, have an alternate play to the outside, either run or short pass to counter the defense.

And maybe consider going left. Left-handed is the way to go, baby.

[photo via US Presswire]

Previously: NFL Strategy: Coaches Need to Be More Aggressive on First Down Near Own End Zone


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