There are many justifications for not being more aggressive on fourth down. The actual results, when using larger sample sizes, are not one of them. That did not deter NFL Live from arguing the numbers earlier this week with a panel of Trey Wingo, Tedy Bruschi, Bill Polian, and Herm Edwards. Shockingly, all of them were proponents of taking the field goal, getting the points, and playing to win the game.
It all began earlier in the day with this tweet from Trey Wingo.
Here’s why you don’t GO FOR IT on 4th and goal unless you need it: 17% conversion rate on TDs this year. FGs 22 yds or less? 100% made 31/31
— trey wingo (@wingoz) October 22, 2013
Let’s talk about all the things that are wrong with this. First, the number is wrong, because math is hard. The actual number is 7 of 23, which is 30.4%. That would be the number that would eventually be used as the talking point for why kicking field goals is better than going for a touchdown.
There is some intellectual dishonesty here. The “unless you need it” part is included in these numbers. These aren’t just 4th and short at the goal line, it includes every attempt. Over half of the fourth and goal attempts have come in the fourth quarter, exactly when teams were willing to go for it in less likely situations rather than taking the certain three points because it did not help them win.
If we look at just 4th and short, which is where the real debate is, teams are 7 of 17 (41%) going for it inside the opponents’ 5-yard line. That’s a pretty small sample size, and we shouldn’t be basing the judgment off a few events when there are more to look at. I think NFL Live would agree with that. Since all four panelists went with an argument about making the right decision to win the game, and taking the points, we can judge which path is taking the points and the playing to win the game by looking at the evidence.
Using the play finder at pro-football-reference-com, teams that go for it are 268 of 480 (55.8%) with 228 of them scoring a touchdown on the conversion attempt directly. (Note: those numbers don’t include nine defensive penalties that also resulted in a new set of downs). In the world of playing to win the game by maximizing your points, the break-even point is 42.8%. That’s before even talking about the field position benefit realized with a failure.
But let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about what teams did when they acted foolishly (ie, went for it) vs. playing to win the game (ie, kicking the field goal). Going back to 1999, here are the records of teams that were tied in the first half, and faced a fourth and one inside the five yard line near the opponent’s goal.
- Teams that went for it: 49-28 (63.6% win pct)
- Teams that took the three points: 26-28 (48.1% win pct)
You play to win the game, right NFL Live crew? Well, I suppose you do, and then you talk a different game once you move to television. Here is the record for the relevant teams of the NFL experts on the panel, for tie situations in the first half, and all first half situations.
4th and 1, within 5 yards of end zone, tie game, first half
Polian’s Colts (1999-2011): 2 conversion tries (scored both), 0 FGA
Bruschi’s Patriots (1999-2008): 2 conversion tries (scored both), 0 FGA
Edwards’ Jets and Chiefs (2001-2008): N/A
4th and 1, within 5 yards of end zone, all situations first half
Polian’s Colts (1999-2011): 7 conversion tries (3 scores), 3 FGA
Bruschi’s Patriots (1999-2008): 6 conversion tries (4 scores), 1 FGA (which was in 1999 in a loss, pre-Belichick)
Edwards’ Jets and Chiefs (2001-2008): 4 conversion tries (3 scores), 3 FGA
The esteemed panel, advocating you should always “take the points,” were involved as GM, coach, and player on teams that collectively went all four times in a tie game, and in all first half situations, went 17 times and kicked a field goal seven times. Well, that’s a weird tap in the nuts.