The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Coaches More Conservative Than Ever on Fourth Down

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At Dallas Morning News, I took a look at how the Cowboys’ opponent this week has used shrewd fourth-down play-calling to stay alive in the AFC playoff hunt, showing why NFL coaches in general are too conservative on fourth down.

Despite the evidence, coaches have not increased their rate of fourth down attempts over the past decade. Actually, it’s decreased substantially in the past two seasons.

After a brief increase in aggressiveness from 2007 to 2009, coaches have inexplicably reverted to their conservative ways. Unless there’s an incredible jump in fourth down attempts this year, 2012 will be the most conservative year of fourth-down decision-making in a decade.

It’s somewhat understandable that we see such conservative decisions from coaches; with their jobs on the line, they don’t want to make any choices that seem to put their teams in unfavorable positions, even if the decisions are the right ones. That is, a coach is far less likely to lose his job if he consistently punts at midfield instead of going for it on 4th and 7, despite the fact that his team will win more often by going for it.

At the same time, the primary task of any coach is to put his squad in the best position to win. On top of that, in a league that is so competitive, coaches should be seeking advantages wherever they can find them. When a coach comes around who has the confidence to consistently leave his offense on the field on fourth down (Hi Chip Kelly!) and it works, lots of others will follow suit, albeit at the snail-like pace that accompanies change in the NFL.

Until then, teams like the Cincinnati Bengals will maintain their competitive advantage as it relates to fourth-down play-calling. Yes, I said the Cincinnati Bengals. Amazingly, the Bengals have gone for it on fourth down on 12 occasions in the first half alone this season. While the league-wide rate for total fourth down attempts is just 0.831 per game, the Bengals have averaged one fourth down attempt in the just the first half in 2012. Let’s take a look at Cincinnati’s first half plays on fourth down:

  • 4th and 1 at their own 34-yard line
  • 4th and 3 at their own 29-yard line
  • 4th and 2 at the opponent’s 35-yard line
  • 4th and 2 at the opponent’s 37-yard line
  • 4th and 7 at the opponent’s 36-yard line
  • 4th and 1 at the opponent’s 6-yard line
  • 4th and 1 at the opponent’s 34-yard line
  • 4th and 1 at their own 49-yard line
  • 4th and 1 at the opponent’s 21-yard line
  • 4th and Goal at the opponent’s 1-yard line
  • 4th and Goal at the opponent’s 5-yard line
  • 4th and 3 at the opponent’s 31-yard line

Read the rest at Dallas Morning News.

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