In the waning minutes of Sunday night, Jason Garrett faced a quintessential NFL coaching decision: Go for it on fourth down, or punt? With less than six minutes in overtime, the Cowboys faced fourth and 1 on the Texans’ 42-yard line.
A field goal was unrealistic. A punt would improve field position, probably not by much. A conversion would put Dallas in position for a game-winning score, while falling short would still force Houston to convert a first down or two to kick its own walk-off field goal.
For guidance, Garrett could have consulted reams of analytical research suggesting that going for it on fourth-and-short increases a team’s odds of victory. He could have considered the choice Rams Coach Sean McVay had made earlier Sunday, when he sealed a victory in Seattle with a successful fourth-and-1 plunge (from the Rams' own territory, no less). Garrett could have even studied the enthusiastic response of Indianapolis Colts players even in the wake of Coach Frank Reich’s fourth-and-4 try, which backfired in spectacular fashion.
Garrett instead trusted his faith in fossilized convention. He punted. He would later say the yardage remaining was “a long one [yard],” and he hoped his defense would keep Houston pinned deep. The Texans drove down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal. Dallas lost, 19-16, and Owner Jerry Jones publicly chastised Garrett. “It’s time for risk at that particular time,” Jones told reporters.
Jones was right in his conclusion, but misguided in his verbiage. More often than ever, the time is right to go for it on fourth down, and coaches have been complying at a better, if far from ideal, rate. But it’s also time to retire the conflation of not punting and gambling. Yes, it seems risky to give an opponent a short field. It’s also risky, particularly in the offense-heavy NFL, to give an opponent the ball, period.
“I’ve always thought it was the wrong terminology,” Kevin Kelley said. “I’ve made no bones about that.”
Kelley is the head coach at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas. He has gained minor fame as the Coach Who Never Punts. In the mid-2000s, Kelley developed a unique strategy based on his research in win probability. He goes for it on fourth down, every time, except in dire circumstances. He also onside kicks after every score. While the onside kicking has not caught on, football strategy has generally drifted in his direction about punting or going for it. He views himself not as a risk-taker, but as a pragmatist — albeit one with a contradictory bent — who follows the numbers.
“People always say, ‘You’re a gambler,’” Kelley said. “No, I’m not. I’m the house.”
A lot of the probability-based math boils down to this: Coaches who would punt when faced with Garrett’s perceived dilemma or similar circumstances overvalue field position and undervalue possession. Having the ball matters more than where the ball is on the field. In the current scoring environment, that reality has only grown starker.
“One my favorite sayings is ‘fortune favors the bold,’” Pro Football Focus head data scientist George Chahrouri said. “I feel like really in this situation, it’s fortune favors the logical. It would be a risk not to go for it. The idea it’s not a risk to be giving the ball to an opponent is hilarious to me.”
As a collective, NFL coaches have started to come around. Chahrouri said “a tremendous gap” remains between the number of times coaches go for it when probability dictates and the number of times they should. But analytics departments, young coaches with offensive backgrounds and the flow of information has led to more high-profile fourth-down conversion attempts.
Last year, Eagles Coach Doug Pederson frequently went for it on fourth down, including twice in Philadelphia’s Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. His choices stemmed from the Eagles’ extensive analytics department, which ran the odds for scenarios before the season and armed Pederson with information.
“What we found is, there’s been so many decisions over time that are too conservative for the odds of maximizing your chance to win at the opportunity,” Eagles Owner Jeffrey Lurie told ESPN.com last year. “I mean, you’ve seen certain coaches that are deemed more aggressive because the math leads them there. That’s all it is.”
Pederson’s success played a major factor in how coaches have approached fourth-down strategy. It didn’t only show coaches the way. It also enabled coaches to start going for it with less professional risk.
Whether they admit it or not, coaches do not always base decisions on their best chance to win, at least not solely. Job preservation is a powerful, unspoken and maybe unconscious factor. Whatever decision a coach makes on fourth down, whether it’s supported by the odds or not, it could backfire. It’s safer for coaches to be on the wrong side of a choice if they align themselves with convention.
The way fans, media and owners — like Jones — view fourth-down decisions is changing. In 2009, Bill Belichick was pilloried for going for it on fourth and 2 late in the fourth quarter of a prime time game in Indianapolis, in an attempt to keep Peyton Manning off the field.
When the Patriots didn’t convert and the Colts won, NBC analyst Tony Dungy declared, “You have to play the percentages and punt the ball.” Ten years later, after the proliferation of Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and other statistically-minded outlets, a greater percentage of viewers knows what only a sliver of savvier fans realized then: The percentages tell coaches to go for it.
“I do think people who view the game with a mathematical lean to it is still a minority,” Chahrouri said. “But it has to be growing.”
And as it grows, convention is steadily aligning with the math. Chahrouri chuckled at how most network broadcasters remains skeptics — count how many times an announcer praises the soundness of “taking the points” or “playing it safe” with a field goal or punt. But on websites and social media, Garrett’s choice mostly drew condemnation.
“Now, it’s flipping,” Chahrouri said. “It’s totally the other way. He’s getting killed for it, and rightfully so. It’s a really bad decision. Coaches will be quick learning to that reaction curve.”
According to Pro Football Focus’s metrics, Garrett’s punt cost the Cowboys a 10 percent margin in terms of win probability, and that’s without factoring in the particularly skills of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the quarterback-running back duo who had converted 18 of 19 fourth-and-1s.
In contrast, McVay’s choice to go for it earlier in the day gave the Rams an ever larger edge over punting back to the Seahawks. On 4th and 1 at his own 42 with 1:39 left, McVay called for a quarterback sneak. Jared Goff plowed ahead, and two kneels later, the Rams had escaped with a 33-31 victory.
By the numbers, Chahrouri said, it was not a close decision. “It’s funny how many people are giving him a trophy for what he did,” he said. “It was the right call by a mile.”
Even if the odds are close, the intangible benefits should push coaches toward going for it. Players always want to go for it, and the morale boost in going — and converting — on fourth down is immeasurable. When Reich went for it, Colts players uniformly supported him and talked about how it had a galvanizing effect. And that was in a case when the play led to a loss.
“Just the belief,” McVay said, explaining why he went for it. “We talk about attacking. Our guys, you could see, they believed. They wanted to go for it. When you have your players that believe, you want to put your trust in them. They delivered.”
Going for it on fourth and short also makes play-calling easier the rest of drives. If a coach knows he’ll go on fourth-and-1, it means he has more leeway to call running plays on typical passing downs such as second-and-long or, say, third-and-4.
Kelley likes to explain his anti-punt philosophy with a hypothetical. If punting had never been employed, it would seem like crazy strategy if a team suddenly brought a specialist on the field wearing a tiny face mask to voluntarily give the ball to the other team. It would not be about being courageous or cowardly. It would be about reasonable or illogical. More and more, NFL coaches are understanding the difference.
“I’m not happy it’s gone that way,” Kelley said. “Slowly but surely, the more people that do it, I lose my advantage. But as a fan, as a lover of football, that side of me is happy that everybody is coming over.”
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