NFL Teams Are Still Too Conservative on Fourth Down

Data suggests the average team could add 0.4 wins per year by being more aggressive

NFL Teams Are Still Too Conservative on Fourth Down
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury was very conservative on Sunday. (Kevin French/Icon Sportswire via Getty)
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
By Evan Bleier / September 17, 2019 11:48 am

During their six-point loss to Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals became the first team since the NFL moved the goalposts in 1974 to attempt three field goals from inside their opponent’s 5-yard line while trailing.

Considering the final margin of the 23-17 game, it is fair to second-guess Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury about his decision not to go for it on at least one of those fourth downs instead of settling for three points.

In fact, according to a math-based argument presented in The Wall Street Journal, there’s really no excuse for Kingsbury — or any other NFL coach — to be so conservative on fourth down.

A study by The Journal of Sports Analytics found that the average team could add 0.4 wins per year simply by being more aggressive and going for it on either fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2.

When teams opt against going for it on fourth down, it can negate a day of good offense as it did on Sunday for the Cardinals. Rookie Kyler Murray passed for the second-most yards in Week 2 of the season (349) against a strong Baltimore defense, but Arizona walked away with just 17 points.

And Kingsbury, who got his job because he’s a progressive thinker and innovative play-caller, sustained his first loss as an NFL coach.

One coach who has consistently been aggressive is Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock. Kelley employs an offense that doesn’t punt and led his team to a 165-25-1 record in his first 14 years as Pulaski’s head coach. Over that 14-season span, Pulaski made it to the state semifinals 12 times and won six state titles in eight attempts.

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