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Cowboys Film Study: 4th Down Attempts and Game Theory

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The Cowboys attempted just 11 plays on 4th down last season, converting on only four of them (36.4%).  The average distance-to-go was 2.64 yards, although eight of the 11 plays were either 4th and 1 or 4th and 2.

Despite converting on only four of the plays, the Cowboys gained an average of 6.72 yards-per-play on fourth down. This was due to three outliers–big plays of 53, 19, and 14 yards.

Despite the short distance-to-go on the majority of the 4th downs, Dallas passed the ball on seven of them (63.6%).  All of their conversions came on passes, meaning they were 0-for-4 when running on 4th down.

This lack of success when running on 4th and short could be a problem for the Cowboys if it prompts offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to call even more passes in short-yardage situations.  While Dallas had more success passing during 4th and short last season, this was simply due to a small sample size.

In reality, offenses tend to pass far too frequently in short-yardage situations.  The graph to the left, provided by Advanced NFL Stats, shows the conversion percentages of teams on 3rd downs in various situations.  Of course 4th down plays are different, but no so much so that we cannot draw meaningful conclusions from the comparison of the two.

In 3rd and 1 situations, offenses obtain a 1st down on 70% of runs, compared to just 58% of passes. In fact, running the ball on 3rd down actually yields the most success (in terms of achieving 1st downs) up until 3rd and 5.  Surprisingly, passing the ball never becomes significantly advantageous over running the ball in any situation up through 3rd and 10.

The reason behind this has to do with game theory.  If defenses were to remain in their base personnel regardless of the down and distance, running the ball in medium-to-long yardage situations would be generally unsuccessful.  Since defenses substitute their nickel or dime personnel and dial up a play designed to defend a pass, however, offensive coordinators could increase their 3rd and 4th down conversion rates by calling far more runs in those situations.

Another way to look at it is that the play-calling of other offensive coordinators around the league affects that of Garrett.  The two are not independent of one another.  Running the ball on 3rd and short-to-medium is the optimum strategy not because of anything inherent in the game of football, but because of the play-calling of other offensive coordinators.  If other OCs suddenly started calling a bunch of 3rd and 4th down runs, defenses would adjust, perhaps making passing the ball in those scenarios the optimum strategy.

Now, we should not only factor in conversion rates, but also big play percentages.  For example, while we would love to see the Cowboys’ 36.4% conversion rate on 4th down plays increase, it wouldn’t be advantageous if it increased (even moderately) at the cost of losing big plays. The plays of 53, 19, and 14 yards which the Cowboys obtained on 4th downs were momentum-builders which often led to quick scores.

Thus, the run/pass balance on 3rd and 4th and short is a delicate thing.  Yes, you want to convert the play for a 1st down, but obtaining a 1st down is not the only goal.  Sometimes, it is advantageous to bypass high-percentage 1st down plays for medium-percentage plays which could result in a quick touchdown.

We talked about this quite a bit in our study of 2nd and 1 play-calling.  In those situations, when offenses possess downs left with which to work, it is optimal to open up the playbook and take a shot down field.  On 4th down, however, there is no room for error.  While obtaining a 1st down is still not the only goal, it is much more important than it is on 2nd and 1.

Optimal 4th down strategies, based on results of thousands of plays--provided by Advanced NFL Stats

Let’s return to the Cowboys’ 4th down play-calls.  We have said that game theory suggests teams should run the ball more in 3rd and 4th and short situations. One of the reasons that Dallas may have failed in 4th and short last year was they tried to get too fancy with their play-calling.  Of the 11 plays on 4th down, an incredible seven of them were out of the Shotgun formation. The Cowboys might benefit from simply lining up in a run formation and pounding the rock on 3rd and 4th and short.

Of course, we believe the ‘Boys should generally go for it (much) more often on 4th down. NFL coaches are incredibly conservative and slow to adjust to new information.

Take a look at the graph to the right.  Notice that, no matter your position on the field, it is almost always smart to go for it on 4th and 1 or 2.  In fact, the graph shows that it is even the best strategy to go for it on situations such as 4th and 10 at your opponent’s 35-yard line or 4th and 5 at their 10-yard line.

Plays like these–4th downs in your opponent’s territory–are crucial to a team’s win expectancy.  Of the Cowboys’ 4th down plays in 2009, only one of 11 was in their own territory.  Two of them were 4th and goal situations (and particularly memorable ones at that)–one at Denver and the other versus San Diego.  The results of both plays (an incomplete pass and a zero yard rush) directly affected the outcome of both contests.

Nonetheless, the ’09 failures of Dallas on 4th down should not affect their willingness to go for it in the same situations in 2010. Many people use outcomes to justify choices, but that can lead to poor decisions.  Instead, good decisions are ones that maximize the probability of a wanted outcome. A sample size of just 11 plays is too small to draw meaningful conclusions, meaning the Cowboys would be wise to take league-wide statistics into consideration–leading them to go for it more often on 4th down, particularly with power runs in short-yardage situations.

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17 Responses to Cowboys Film Study: 4th Down Attempts and Game Theory

  1. john coleman says:

    Seems to me you still would want balance or slightly uneven to the run side. BTW isn’t the shotgun formation pigeonholing yourself. You take away run respect and play action. I say man up, and let those big linemen move their man. Put a OG at FB. See if a LB or CB wants some of that.

  2. There are a lot of things I hate about running out of Shotgun in short-yardage:

    1. You can basically only run to one side of the formation.
    2. The running back gets no momentum, which is crucial in short-yardage.
    3. It is harder for the RBs to read holes when the majority of their carries are straight handoffs.
    4. It takes too long to develop.
    5. The defense probably isn’t going to substitute nickel personnel anyway because of the down and distance, particularly on 4th down.

  3. percyhoward says:

    Our short yardage offense in the red zone ranked 31st. We were 6 of 21 in TD conversions from the 1- or 2-yard line. In the red zone, we only converted 8 of our 18 3rd or 4th down short yardage plays.

    Including playoffs, Choice was 4 for 5 converting short yardage plays in the red zone, while Barber was 5 for 14. Three of Choice’s conversions were runs to the left, and he never once ran right behind Davis. Only 3 of Barber’s 14 runs went to the left side.

    IOW, we consistently failed to convert in red zone short yardage when we tried power runs with our designated short yardage back (Barber) behind Davis and Gurode, while the small measure of success that we did have was when we ran to Kozier’s side–with Choice.

  4. Impressive stats…you must have purchased our stat database haha

  5. percyhoward says:

    Nope, just the gamebooks, pdf search feature, and a thirst for truth. 😉

  6. Haha well that’s really all we can ask from any fan.

  7. Vince Grey says:

    A few points:

    While I’m a fan of the shotgun on obvious passing downs, I agree completely with you that using it on short yardage plays is counter-productive.

    I think a lot of the issues with running the ball on short yardage last season has to be laid at the feet of the O-line and Barber. Personally, I would like to see Felix back there. True, he’s no power back, but on short yardage, if he “pops” the LoS he’s gone for a TD, and I think he’d be more effective than many would believe. I would even be fine with trying Choice. I like his versatility. Heck, let’s cut to the chase: Anyone but MBIII. He used to get hit hard and bounce forward or break a tackle and rumble on. These days, he get’s hit and either goes down immediately or falls sideways. I think he’s lost his will to slam.

    It might well be advantageous to go for it on 4th down, but I honestly can’t blame coaches for being conservative on this one. Far too much 2nd and 3rd guessing going on to do otherwise.

    When it comes to coaches and players taking risks, I’m of the mind that if you lavish them with praise when it works, you should shut up and accept the consequences when it doesn’t. I despise the “If it works he’s a genius, if it fails he’s a moron.” attitude that permeates much of the MSSM (Main Stream Sports Media) these days.

  8. Good point on Felix…I didn’t think about his home-run ability on short-yardage, but even if he would convert, say, 75% compared to Choice’s 85%, it might be advantageous if a good percentage of them go the distance.

    Coaches are conservative because it saves their job. With all coaches basically on a one-year deal, though, I’m not sure why more coaches don’t just say **** it and go for it all.

  9. Vince Grey says:

    I don’t know about that one year deal thing. I mean, sure, if they screw up badly enough, like going 0-fer or something, then you’re right, they’re likely history regardless, but if a guy just signed a multi-year extension for umpteen millions, more than a few owners would ride out a losing season or two just to save the cheese.

    Look at how Belichick got reemed for going for the 1st down against the Colts rather than punt. I thought it was both gutsy and the right call. Not many coaches could ride out that firestorm intact.

    On the RB issue, what do you think about my comments on Barber? Dead on? In the ballpark? Full of beans?

  10. That is what I mean (referring to your Belichick example). He DOES have the security and is in a position to make smart calls, even if they appear gutsy. That 4th down call was undoubtedly the right decision. It would have been a bonehead move to punt there.

    As far as MBIII–I think you are right about his 2009 play, although I don’t think he is finished. He is still relatively young and I do think there’s something left in the tank. With that said, I would prefer that Choice handle short-yardage runs now, but I doubt that will happen.

  11. Vince Grey says:

    Ah, I see now. Gotcha. Well, on that point, I don’t say it would have been a “bonehead” move to punt. While I did, and still do, favor his attempt to go for it, had they punted, Peyton could have easily thrown a pick to end the game. I kind of remember him doing that in another game… can’t recall the specifics… seemed like it was against some NFC squad…

    😉

    In any case, what I’m saying is, I don’t think either was a wrong call, but I do agree with you that what he ran was the better call, even though it failed.

  12. Jonathan Bales says:

    The Colts had been rolling on offense at that point (in the Pats game) and, while you do want to trust your D, it isn’t disrespecting your defense to go for it on 4th down if it is the high-percentage play.

  13. Vince Grey says:

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement that he made the correct call, but I can’t agree that punting would have been a really bad decision.

    There’s just no way you can say the Colts score a TD for sure had the Pats punted, though I’ll concede the odds were very good that they would have.

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