Clubs Stay Conservative In No Man's Land

Initially, I was surprised Bill Belichick elected to punt last Sunday on a 4th-and-8 from Baltimore's 34-yard-line. Belichick's Patriots were up by six, and Belichick of all coaches should understand a six-point lead in today's NFL is far from safe. The decision was far from a no-brainer, as Keith sketched out last week.

But those calculations use generic odds; Belichick had his staff's play calling and Tom Brady's arm on his side. As well as his defense had played in the first half, it was still the 29th-ranked squad by efficiency entering the game. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense, although mediocre overall, showed an ability to pick up large plots of yardage in just a few plays. The difference between handing the Ravens the ball at their 34 or around their 10 (Baltimore fair caught the eventual punt at the 13) seemed worth risking for the Patriots in order to maintain possession.

Of course, the Ravens proceeded to drive 87 yards as Joe Flacco dissected New England with a 13-play no-huddle masterpiece of a drive. Baltimore took a 14-13 lead and wouldn't relinquish it.

Belichick is a risk-taker, indeed -- even if he softens up between now and his retirement (assuming whatever form he takes on this earth is subject to human aging), his famous decision to go for it on a 4th-and-2 in his own territory against Indianapolis in 2009 cemented that legacy. If Belichick wouldn't try in that situation -- one we suggest is a toss-up, slightly favoring a conversion attempt -- who would?

Unsurprisingly, attempting to convert a 4th-and-8 between the 30 and 40 outside of the fourth quarter isn't just outside the limits of Belichick's courage. NFL teams faced the situation 15 times this season (including playoffs) before Belichick faced it last Sunday, and 15 times the teams kicked -- four punts and 11 field goals, with just six successful.

4th-and-8 happens to be a convenient example -- teams at least tried once on everything else from 4th-and-1 through 4th-and-11. But coaches shy away from attempting any fourth down longer than one yard, and anything longer than three is treated like the plague (looking at just the first three quarters to try and eliminate desperation attempts).

Coaches tried for the first down over 75 percent of the time on 4th-and-1, but an extra yard scared away half those brave souls. For some reason, teams almost never attempted with between six and nine yards to go, but were more willing to risk the fourth down attempt (although I would suggest punting is a risk as well, as the Patriots found out) with 10 or 11 to go.

Here are the plays separated out into individual blocks, with wide blocks representing successes and narrow ones representing failures. You can mouse over the individual blocks for a description of the play:

Teams effectively stopped going for it after 4th-and-3, but they were reasonably successful on the few occasions they did try. From 4th-and-4 through 4th-and-11, NFL teams succeeded on seven of 14 attempts between the 30 and 40 yard lines. Obviously the sample size is small, but there's no reason to believe NFL teams will play the type of lockdown defense required to believe going for it is a no-win situation as the coaches at large seem to do.

There's little reason to believe this pattern will change in the Super Bowl. It's not that the Harbaugh brothers are necessarily conservative, although they attempted just one fourth down conversion on six opportunities with a fourth-and-3 or longer between the 30 and 40. It's just that the Super Bowl has never been a time of great innovation, particularly in this area. According to Pro-Football-Reference's Super Bowl Play Finder, just eight times have teams attempted to convert any fourth down between the opponent's 30 and 40.

Just once did it resemble the decision Belichick faced last Sunday -- first three quarters and greater than two yards to go. In Super Bowl XIV (1979), Rams coach Ray Malavisi let Vince Ferragamo throw for a 4th-and-8 from the Steelers' 37. He hit Billy Waddy for a 10-yard gain and a first down and the Rams managed a field goal to take a 13-10 lead. It wasn't enough -- the Steelers dominated the second half behind Terry Bradshaw to win 31-19 -- but it looked like a genius call at the time.

One of the Harbaugh brothers very well could be the next to break the mold and take a bold shot from no-man's-land in this year's Super Bowl, to be sure. But the smart money is on the game's conservative nature  taking over on its grandest stage, as usual.

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4 Responses to “Clubs Stay Conservative In No Man's Land”

  1. Ed Feng says:

    Great to see you mention that the identity of a team's offense and defense matters in 4th down decisions. As awesome as Brian's 4th down analysis is, it could use improvements to account for strengths and weaknesses of the team. Maybe an off season project?


  2. Unknown says:

    Thanks for the post. To me what is striking is how much difference there is between 4th and 1 and 4th and 2. That extra yard is scary. It is also revealing how the extra yard causes teams to start passing so much more than 4th and 1. This goes to a point I think Brian made a point that teams are so predictable on 4th and short. They generally hate going for it on 4th down, but if they do they want to mechanically call a dive run.

  3. Eric Moore says:

    It's not that the absolute value of a conversion is higher here. Rather it's that the values of punts and FGs are at their mutual low in this no-man's-land which calls for a generally more aggressive strategy on 4th down than elsewhere on the field.

    With this in mind, maybe coaches should seek out a more aggressive strategy on 1st-3rd down in this area as well. If it's 3rd and long at the 38 yard line, a sack is really no different than an incompletion and an interception thrown to the 5 yard line is quite likely better than either a sack or an incomplete pass.

  4. Anonymous says:

    How about fake punts? Neglactable?

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