If Bill Belichick isn’t careful, he is going to lose his title as the most aggressive head coach on fourth down. Todd Haley of the Kansas City Chiefs has attempted a fourth down conversion eleven times this year, including six times in the first half. The last two weeks, he has gone for it on 4th and 3 and 4th and 2 inside the opponent’s thirty yard line.
Last week, Kent Babb of the Kansas City Star wrote an article about Haley’s aggressive fourth down approach, in which Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats is cited. This week, Adam Teicher wrote about Haley’s methods. Yesterday, I listened to the media herd continue to harp on these fourth down calls at the weekly press conference. You hear terms like gambling thrown out, because the current media apparently still believes that field goals are automatic, and taking 40 cents on the dollar is not gambling. Haley talked about his how his strategy is not as random or crazy as people think:
It’s not a crazy-man mentality. It’s well thought out. There were many situations in that game where we were in four-down mode so to speak and nobody… outside of the sideline knows about them because we never got to fourth down. It’s going to be a… characteristic of our team offensively, defensively and on special teams that can help us be a great team.
I’d like to expound on that thought. The Chiefs this year have taken only 8 sacks on offense (4.3% of pass attempts). That is even more remarkable considering Matt Cassel’s history, where he was sacked over 40 times each of the last two years, on two different teams. Early last year, I wrote a modest proposal that Cassel needed to throw more interceptions, because he was taking too many drive-killing sacks. He has gotten better at getting rid of the ball, but I think a large part in this dramatic shift is tied to playcalling, which in turn is a byproduct of an aggressive fourth down strategy.
If you are consciously more aggressive on fourth down, it opens up the playbook on third down. Obvious passing downs become not so obvious, the defense has to be expecting anything, and the offense can function more efficiently. By embracing an aggressive fourth down strategy, where, as Haley notes, they are in four down mode in many situations, Cassel is not put in as many situations where the defense is “pinning their ears back” and rushing the passer with abandon.
This is exactly what we see with Kansas City in 2010. The Chiefs are roughly in line with the rest of the league on 3rd and 1. This is a running situation, and the Chiefs run it 70% of the time (72% league average). After that, though, Kansas City remains more balanced and unpredictable, and continue to feature their strength (the running backs) because the coach is willing to go for it if they come up just short of a first down.
- On 3rd and 2, Kansas City runs it 50% of the time (35% league average in 2010).
- On 3rd and 3 or 4, Kansas City runs it 30% of the time (13.1% league average).
- On 3rd and 5 to 7, Kansas City runs it 42% of the time (12.6% league average).
- On 3rd and 8 or more, Kansas City runs it 21% of the time (15.8% league average).
So while we can discuss the immediate cost/benefit of going for a fourth down conversion and the percentage payoff of 7 points versus 3 points, we also need to recognize that embracing a philosophy of aggressiveness on fourth down has other tangential effects. In this case, far fewer sacks for Kansas City, and more opportunities to decide whether to go for it in the scoring zone in the first place.
[photo via Getty]