Or they have to change the way they think entirely. Football teams like to believe they’re smarter than ever. In some ways, they are. They are throwing more, playing out of the shotgun and beginning to adopt some of the basic strategies that quants have grown hoarse yelling about.
But what happened this weekend, in both pro and college football, was only the latest evidence that there is still a gaping inefficiency when it comes to one of the sport’s most crucial decisions. The coaches paid millions of dollars to succeed in a multibillion-dollar industry are still too conservative on fourth down.
This is one of the baffling things about modern sports. It has never been easier for coaches to behave rationally, and yet they still manage to be irrational.
It isn’t weird that football coaches are obstinate. The weird part is that they should know by now that their obstinacy is costly. One study in the Journal of Sports Analytics found “no obvious change over time” in the rate of NFL teams going for it on fourth down between 2004 and 2016. This study also quantified just how much teams hurt themselves with their suboptimal decision-making. It suggested that the average team could add 0.4 win per year simply by being more aggressive.
That has finally begun to change in recent years. NFL teams between 2000 and 2017 went for it 32% of the time on fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2. That rate skyrocketed to 45% last year. But the sudden increase had a strange effect. When more teams were beginning to do something smart, it became more jarring when other teams weren’t.
“It isn’t universal,” said Michael Lopez, one of the study’s authors and the NFL’s director of data and analytics. “There are gaps in strategy between the teams.”
The Cardinals inadvertently became the poster child of this curious behavior on Sunday afternoon. They hired Kingsbury, who had recently been fired from his college job, precisely because he’s a progressive thinker and innovative play-caller. And his offense worked against a vaunted Ravens defense. Murray, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, finished with 349 yards on 40 passes, and even those numbers undersell how brilliantly he played at times.
But there was a reason all of that production resulted in only 17 points: The Cardinals were historically timid on fourth down. They were the first team in more than three decades to kick three field goals from inside the 5-yard-line while losing, according to Stats LLC.
Part of what makes these risky decisions on short fourth downs so fascinating is how many ways there are to bungle them. The Pittsburgh Steelers exemplified another type of mistake not long after the Cardinals had their turn. Down by nine with less than six minutes left in their game against the Seattle Seahawks, they punted from near midfield, presumably believing they would get two more possessions.
They didn’t. And that was because the Seahawks faced the same predicament and made the opposite decision.
The strategy began well enough for the Steelers. Seattle fumbled, Pittsburgh quickly scored a touchdown and suddenly it was a two-point game with five minutes to play. But the Steelers never got the ball again since the Seahawks were willing to do what they weren’t. With two minutes left, the Seahawks went for it on fourth-and-1. They converted, and then they could bleed the clock to secure the win. “We all wanted to go for it,” Russell Wilson said.
The Colts faced a similar predicament in an even dicier situation. Leading the Titans 19-17 with just over two minutes left on their own 35-yard-line, they also went for it. Jacoby Brissett’s successful quarterback sneak drained another minute off the clock, forced Tennessee to burn its final two timeouts and led the Colts to their first win of the season without Andrew Luck.
The day was finally capped off by the Falcons, who went for it on fourth-and-3 from their own 46 late against the Eagles. Atlanta didn’t just convert. Matt Ryan hit Julio Jones for a 54-yard touchdown that won the game.
This week was also a reminder of something else: simply deciding to go for it isn’t enough. Teams can make the right decision and then make the wrong decision. The Panthers went for it on fourth-and-1 three times on Thursday night against Tampa Bay. They didn’t run a quarterback sneak on any of the three. They turned it over on downs all three times.
It wasn’t even the most egregious display of strategic ineptitude this weekend by a team called the Panthers. That happened the day before when Pittsburgh went to Penn State. Pitt had a first-and-goal behind 17-10 with 5:50 left in the fourth quarter needing one yard for a touchdown that would tie the game and get the Panthers that much closer to an enormous upset. Three plays later, they were still at the 1-yard line with 4:54 remaining in the game, and Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi made a baffling call.
He sent his kicker onto the field.
It didn’t make sense in the moment, and it wasn’t any less confounding in retrospect. Pitt was down by a touchdown. Why settle for a field goal?
“Because you need two scores to win the football game,” Narduzzi said.
His math was technically sound. His logic was not. It wasn’t like a field goal would have cut the lead to two or three points. Pitt still had to score a touchdown to win. By settling for a field goal, however, they were forcing themselves to get a stop on defense and score another touchdown from somewhere that was almost certainly not the 1-yard line.
But the plan backfired before it could even get that far when Pitt’s kicker missed the gimme field goal from 19 yards. The Panthers managed to get the ball back with 1:39 left still down by a touchdown, and their prayers for a successful Hail Mary as time expired were ignored by the football gods. You might think that Pitt’s coach regretted the strategy afterward. But here’s what he said he would’ve changed about his decision: nothing.
“I don’t question that call,” Narduzzi said.