NFL Teams Are Finally Going for It on Fourth Down

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles scores a touchdown against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., February 4, 2018. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
After last year’s ‘Philly Special’ and Super Bowl surprise, head coaches are keener than ever to listen to their analytics departments.

After last year’s Super Bowl with the infamous “Philly Special” play executed on fourth and goal from the Patriots’ one-yard line, many coaches around the NFL took notice.

Writing in the foreword of Fearless, by Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie gave him credit. Pederson “listened to the analytics people when they told us what gave us the best chance to win,” Lurie wrote. For years, football analytics professionals have been telling NFL coaches that they could win more games by going for it on fourth down more often. The advice stems largely from a paper by Berkeley economist David Romer, “Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Professional Football” (2006). Romer found that the expected points gained from settling for field goals wasn’t as high as the expected points gained from going for it on fourth and short.

One year later, teams in the 2018 NFL season went for it on fourth down more often than at any other time in recent NFL history. On fourth and one, teams went for it 57 percent of the time in the 2018 season, up from 44 percent the previous season. On fourth and two, they went for it 25 percent of the time, up from 20 percent in 2017. Not coincidentally, the 2018 NFL season was the second-highest-scoring in NFL history.

Why have teams historically not gone for it on fourth down as much as they should have accordingly to the stats? According to Romer and the consensus of the analytics community, coaches have been concerned about job security and have played it safe, fearing blame or even being fired over a fourth-down call gone wrong.

That changed after the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl by using two critical fourth-down calls — one of them on the now famous “Philly Special” play — to “go for it” and keep their offensive momentum against the traditionally high-scoring Tom Brady Patriots. In Pederson’s case, he had an owner, Lurie, who had bought into analytics, creating one of the largest analytics departments in the league. Lurie was willing to defend him when fourth-down calls didn’t convert — it was “part of the process,” in the words of Sam Hinkie, the analytics-oriented former general manager of the Philadelphia Sixers. In the 2016 and 2017 NFL seasons, the Eagles had more fourth-down attempts than any other team in the NFL.

The fourth-down revelation from the Eagles’ Super Bowl–championship season was significant. Both of Pederson’s coordinators, Frank Reich and Jim Schwartz, left to become head coaches elsewhere (with the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions, respectively), taking the fourth-down mentality with them.

During this past season, NFL head coaches in postgame press conferences routinely made statements like “We ran the numbers” when defending analytics-driven moves, whether it was going for it on fourth or going for two points, something that analytics also say NFL coaches should be doing more of. A growing number of NFL teams, including the Eagles, now use EdjSports, a firm that produces premade charts for teams to use in various fourth-down scenarios, listing the optimal decision (going-for-it versus attempting-a-field-goal versus punting) given inputs including score, time left in the game, and field position.

That said, not every NFL head coach adopted a more aggressive fourth-down playcalling strategy this season. According to one source, former Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase admitted to some of the Dolphins staff that he would like to go for it more on fourth down but was too concerned about being blamed for a botched attempt. Perhaps if he had have gone for it on fourth down more often, he would have won more games and avoided being fired at the end of this season.

In the NFC championship game, with less than five minutes left in the game and down 20–17, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay on fourth and inches attempted a 24-yard field goal for three points rather than going for it to get the seven-point touchdown to take the lead. Many criticized McVay for settling for three points knowing, especially when giving the ball back to the Saints in a tie game would have been dangerous. The critics contend that McVay got lucky with the Saints’ pass-interception non-call by the referees.

As Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick is known for going for it on fourth down often (it played a large part in their tremendous comeback against the Falcons in the Super Bowl two years ago), Sean McVay may need to consider improving his fourth-down strategy heading into this weekend’s game.

Jon Hartley — Jon Hartley is an economics writer based in New York.

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