4th down aggressiveness increasing rapidly across NFL

Nov 11, 2021, 12:41 PM | Updated: Nov 12, 2021, 2:43 am
Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley watches action during the first half of an NFL footb...

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley watches action during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

              FILE - Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson keeps the ball for a touchdown on a fourth-down play against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half of an NFL football game Oct. 20, 2019, in Seattle. Coaches across the league are more willing than ever to keep the offense on the field instead of kicking on fourth down. The shift began moving in the 2017 season when then-Eagles coach Doug Pederson's aggressive fourth-down strategy helped Philadelphia win the Super Bowl. John Harbaugh and the analytically-sound Ravens took it a step further in the 2019 when the skills of Jackson helped deliver 17 successful fourth-down tries and now teams are going for it more than ever. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)
            
              FILE - Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah (87) makes a catch on fourth down during overtime in an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. Coaches across the league are more willing than ever to keep the offense on the field instead of kicking on fourth down, even in their own territory or in situations their predecessors never would contemplated. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)
            
              Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley watches action during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi learned early on in his time working with first-year head coach Brandon Staley to be ready with a fourth-down call in nearly any situation.

Back in Week 3 with the Chargers facing fourth-and-9 in the final minute of a tie game against Kansas City, Staley opted to go for it instead of trying a long field goal.

“When he said, ‘We’re going for it,’ I was a little surprised there,” Lombardi said. “After that, no, I don’t think that I’ll be surprised anymore.”

Teams going on fourth down is much less of a surprise these days than ever, even if it’s in the first half in their own territory, in a tie game when a field goal will provide a late lead, or when protecting a lead at the end of the game.

Staley has been among the most aggressive, with that decision against the Chiefs leading to a go-ahead touchdown that left Patrick Mahomes little time to respond. Or last week when Staley went on fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 39 in the final three minutes of a tie game.

“If I feel like it’s an advantage situation, from a data standpoint, modeling standpoint, timing, rhythm of the game, if I feel like that’s what’s best for us, then we’re going,” Staley said. “What we’ve done a good job of is making sound decisions, not reckless decisions. If you study the actual data of the decision making that we’ve had, I don’t think anyone would say that we’re gambling.”

Staley ranks first in EdjSports’ rankings of coaches on fourth-down calls, edging usual leaders like Indianapolis’ Frank Reich and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh.

Bill Belichick, whose memorable decision to go on fourth-and-2 late in a 2009 game against Peyton Manning and the Colts sparked a debate about fourth-down decisions, ranks last on the list.

The analytics company has one of the best models for determining when NFL teams should go and when they should kick on fourth downs, using its win probability model that relies on historical play-by-play data adjusted for variables such as the strength and weaknesses of both teams, injuries and other factors.

Coaches across the league are more willing than ever to keep the offense on the field instead of kicking on fourth down, even in their own territory or in situations their predecessors never would have contemplated.

The shift began in the 2017 season when then-Eagles coach Doug Pederson’s aggressive fourth-down strategy helped Philadelphia win the Super Bowl.

Harbaugh and the analytically sound Ravens took it a step further in 2019 when the skills of Lamar Jackson helped deliver 17 successful fourth-down tries. Now, teams are going for it more than ever.

Fourth-down tries jumped more than 10% from 2019 to 2020 and are up an additional 16% through nine weeks this season. Attempts are up more than 73% over 2017 when Pederson first got attention for his success in Philadelphia.

“I think there’s a bit of a herd mentality with coaches,” said EdjSports co-founder Frank Frigo. “There’s definitely coaches out there that have gotten this for a while and been paying attention. Once others start doing it, it kind of snowballs a little bit.”

Teams have gone on fourth down in their own territory in the first half 30 times this year, more than double last year’s total through nine weeks (13) and a six-fold increase over the five tries through nine weeks in 2016.

Frigo, who began consulting with NFL teams about 15 years ago, knew this day would eventually come.

“The math was just so clear that this behavior would yield more wins on average,” he said. “If you look at any sort of technology or information, sooner or later if it works and it produces the desired effect, eventually it’ll find its way in. We always wondered how long it was going to take. We thought this was going to happen 10 years ago. There’s definitely a trend going on right now where it’s started to shift and accelerate. But it still has a ways to go.”

While coaches are still far from peak decision making with the models calling for going in most short-yardage situations no matter the field position, the number of glaring errors has been severely reduced.

Ian O’Connor, a senior sports data analyst at EdjSports, said the error rate on their model has dropped by nearly 5 percentage points since 2019. Bad fourth-down decisions cost teams about two-thirds of a win in 2018 and its trending toward about 0.6 wins this season.

While the difference is small, it could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs in a league where the margin between teams is often miniscule.

There is still plenty of progress coaches could make, but there remains some hesitancy.

“I do listen to analytics a ton, and I think it makes a lot of sense, but when it comes down to fourth-and-1, it’s about how you feel in the moment,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who said he considers field position, what plays he has on his sheet, how well his line is blocking, the weather, and all sorts of variables before making a final call.

“I know a lot of people have upped it in the NFL, especially on their own side of the 50, which is somewhat surprising, but I think guys have had some success with it, which has helped them win games. And I think guys haven’t, which has helped them lose games, so there’s never a right or wrong answer until after the play.”

___

More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. reacts after scoring a 3-point basket against Stanford during the first...
Associated Press

Jaquez Jr helps No. 21 UCLA rout Stanford 80-56

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 27 points to help No. 21 UCLA open up Pac-12 play with an 80-56 win over Stanford on Thursday night. The Bruins (6-2, 1-0 Pac-12) have now won three straight after dropping back-to-back games to No. 6 Baylor and No. 16 Illinois in Las Vegas. Tyger Campbell […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Boone scores 17, Pacific knocks off UC Davis 74-72

DAVIS, Calif. (AP) — Keylan Boone’s 17 points off of the bench helped lead Pacific (CA) to a 74-72 victory over UC Davis on Thursday night. Boone had seven rebounds for the Tigers (3-5). Tyler Beard was 5-of-11 shooting (2 for 4 from distance) to add 14 points. Greg Outlaw recorded 10 points and finished […]
22 hours ago
Montreal Canadiens' Cole Caufield, center, celebrates his goal against the Calgary Flames with Mike...
Associated Press

Cole Caufield breaks tie in 3rd, Canadiens beat Flames 2-1

CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — Cole Caufield broke a third-period tie on a power play, Sean Monahan had two assists against his old team and the Montreal Canadiens beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 on Thursday night. Rookie Juraj Slafkovsky, also scored for Montreal and Jake Allen made 45 saves. The Canadiens have won seven of 11. […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Ashworth scores 27 as Utah State defeats Utah Tech 86-81

LOGAN, Utah (AP) — Steven Ashworth scored 27 points off of the bench to help lead Utah State over Utah Tech 86-81 on Thursday night. Ashworth shot 9 for 14, including 7 for 12 from beyond the arc for the Aggies (6-0). Taylor Funk added 20 points while shooting 6 for 12 (5 for 10 […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Harrell puts up 18 as Texas State beats Lamar 65-55

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) — Mason Harrell’s 18 points helped Texas State defeat Lamar 65-55 on Thursday night. Harrell also had seven assists for the Bobcats (5-3). Davion Sykes scored 12 points and added eight rebounds. Drue Drinnon finished 5 of 7 from the field to finish with 11 points. Nate Calmese led the way for […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Friberg scores 20 as Belmont takes down Valparaiso 76-64

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Drew Friberg had 20 points in Belmont’s 76-64 win against Valparaiso on Thursday night. Friberg shot 7 for 14, including 6 for 11 from beyond the arc for the Bruins (5-3). Cade Tyson scored 15 points and added eight rebounds. EJ Bellinger shot 5 for 6, including 4 for 4 from […]
22 hours ago
4th down aggressiveness increasing rapidly across NFL