Embracing Data, NFL Coaches Becoming More Aggressive on Fourth Down

NFL teams were going for it on 14.5 percent of all fourth downs through Week 10 of this season

NFL Coaches Becoming More Aggressive On Fourth Down
Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden signals a touchdown. (Nhat V. Meyer/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty)
By Evan Bleier / November 15, 2019 2:25 pm

For years, data has shown that going for it on fourth down instead of punting the ball is a strong formula for success.

Though some forward-thinking coaches like Doug Pederson of the Eagles embraced the analytics and got more aggressive, most continued to punt or kick a field goal on fourth down as standard practice.

That trend has started to change this season, as NFL teams were going for it on 14.5 percent of all fourth downs, the highest rate in more than two decades, through Week 10 of this season.

It’s surprising that the number isn’t higher, considering running or passing on fourth down resulted in a first down (or touchdown) 59.4 percent of the time last season (the highest success rate since 1998), according to FiveThirtyEight.

Though that success rate had dipped all the way down to 50.2 percent this season, being aggressive on fourth down is still a sound strategy that more and more coaches are employing.

Teams may continue to get more aggressive on fourth-and-short as they get more data than ever before about how much yardage they actually need to get for a first down.

Using new tracking technology gleaned from chips implanted in the footballs, teams are getting a better idea of how many actual inches (it could be one or 36) they need for a first down, which should affect play-calling, The Wall Street Journal reports.

“For example: analyses have consistently shown the success of quarterback sneaks on fourth-and-1 and urged teams to run that more often. But the numbers show that logic may be flawed: sneaks have been so successful not because it’s a foolproof play, but coaches called them more frequently when they only had only inches to go,” according to The WSJ.”

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