Going For it on Fourth Down – Worth the Risk?

It seems like every week the NFL presents a new study case for one of the oldest questions in the book – Should teams go for it on fourth downs, or simply take the safe route with the field goal or punt? A lot depends on what kind of play you run, and obviously your position on the field.

In an excellent research done by Sports on Earth, taking into account plays from the 2010 through the 2012 seasons (4th-and-1 or 4th-and-2), eliminating any goal-to-go situations, plays that occurred when a team was down by more than 14 points and fake punts and field goals, they came up with these numbers.

Fourth Down

NFL head coaches go for it on 62.7% of the time, and will run the ball on about two thirds of the time. However, in the fourth quarter, the pass becomes a lot more relevant, and a passing play is called on 44% of the time to try and get that risky first down.

Pass plays have a higher reward factor then runs, outgaining runs 1032 to 831 in the study, despite being used less and a lower conversion ratio. Obiviously, it depends on the quarterback and running back you have, as the Tennessee Titans will likely go to Chris Johnson, while the New England Patriots might prefer using Tom Brady.

Fourth Down Plays

So the quarterback sneak seems to be the most successful way of getting to the promised land, although sneaks do have a tendency to split into other categories: pre-snap motion, quick count, hurry-up offense and a hard count. As you’d expect, from the 22 sneaks we saw in 2012, most of them came either with a quick count or with some decoy motion.

Teams were 5-for-5 on quarterback sneaks with motion used in them, and although that’s quite a small sample size, it does throw a hint or two at teams to be a bit creative with the way they move their running backs before snapping the ball and using the quarterback sneak.

Position Fourth Down

Conclusions? The best play a team has in its arsenal is probably the quarterback sneak, while the worst is a pass attempt with a three wide receiver set, however that depends on the quarterback throwing the ball.

Options and handoffs to fullbacks are hardly being used, but by overloading the backfield like the 49ers do at times, the chances of converting are greatly increased. There are no meaningful situations in which teams are suddenly 2-of-18 or anything; there’s an understandable success rate decrease in the 4th quarter, but otherwise rates hover in the 55-80% range, however you slice them.

This means that going for it will stay around the 2-out-of-3 line almost all of the time. However, the timing of the one that fails and the one that works determines how much of a genius the head coach looks like.