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Those pesky fourth downs

By Stephen L. Carter

For the past several years, Gregg Easterbrook, who writes the popular Tuesday Morning Quarterback blog for ESPN, has been criticizing coaches who too readily decide to punt or kick field goals on fourth-and-short in the opponent’s territory. When you do this, says Easterbrook, you tell your offense you have no faith in them. Sunday’s miserable loss in St. Louis will doubtless provide considerable grist for his mill.

Consider just three plays.

Play number one: Trailing 14-10 with just under eight minutes left in the second quarter, the Redskins have fourth-and-2 at the St. Louis 6 yard line. If the Redskins go for it and make a first down, they will likely score a touchdown and take the lead. If they go for it and fail, the Rams will be 94 yards away from the goal line. Nevertheless, in comes Graham Gano to kick -- this when the Washington offense had been steamrolling the Rams all quarter. Coaches, and sportswriters, tend to refer to this move as playing the percentages. But almost everyone who has studied the actual numbers would say that the percentages favor going for it.

Play number two: Early in the third quarter, trailing 14-13 with about eight minutes left, the Redskins face fourth-and-goal at the St. Louis 3. A touchdown would put the Rams completely back on their heels, reminding them that they are not a good football team. Go for it and fail, and St. Louis is 97 yards from the goal. In comes Graham Gano to kick, even though the Redskins had just rolled down the field. Yes, he makes the field goal, for a 16-14 lead, but Washington never scores again.

Play number three: With just over seven minutes left in the game, the Rams, leading 24-16, face a fourth-and-1 at the Washington 43 yard line. St. Louis elects to go for it. Two yards, first down, and a field goal three minutes later means the game is over.

To be sure, coaching football is art, not science, and Mike Shanahan is one of the game’s great artists. Perhaps there were things the offensive staff saw that made them wary of trying to pick up two or three yards on fourth down. Still, on the afternoon, the Washington rushing offense was finally clicking, averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. (Why the Skins, running so well, called only five rushes in the second half, and none in the fourth quarter, is another mystery.)

Still, one should not blame the offense for the loss. Donovan McNabb and his crew moved up and down the field almost at will, except, alas, at the very beginning and very end of the game. But the defense – well, my goodness. Giving up 365 yards to the Rams? Giving up 24 first downs to the Rams? 24?!

Readers of this blog will be aware of my dire warning before the first game of the season. Remember 1993, I wrote. That was the year the Redskins beat Dallas on opening night before a national television audience, and went on to lose the next six in a row. These Redskins are better than those Redskins. Still, the next four weeks (at the Eagles, home to the Packers, home to the Colts, at the Bears) are going to be brutal. We might be able to steal a victory in there somewhere -- but these last two Sundays we lost the games we had to have.

By Box Seats blogger  | September 27, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Redskins, Stephen L. Carter  | Tags:  Redskins-Rams, fourth downs  
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Next: The great debate


The thesis may have merit, but the argument here is weak. You cannot seriously argue that a coach whose team is down by one point should go for a 4th down play instead of kicking a field goal.

Nor is it the case that the Rams coach is a genius by comparison. If the offense is beyond field goal range and in a position where a punt is of neglible benefit (the opponent's 43, for example), a 4th down try is clearly the way to go.

Carter's analysis simply ignores the possibility that a 4th down try might fail. That doesn't seem very useful.

Posted by: rick_desper | September 28, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

>>Carter's analysis simply ignores the possibility that a 4th down try might fail.

Carter explicitly addresses this possibility. "If they go for it and fail, the Rams will be 94 yards away from the goal line." "Go for it and fail, and St. Louis is 97 yards from the goal." Granted Carter doesn't lay out the implied logic of this move: with the Rams pinned deep, you should be able to trust your defense to get the ball back and try again. And one can argue the percentages of that happening. But to say that he does not address it is false.

Posted by: nationalsanthems | September 28, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

It's easy to confirm the logic of going for it.

Say a FG from there has a 99% of being successful. Then the expected Redskins points = 2.97 (=99% * 3).

For it to be a good choice to go for it on 4th down, you'd want to have an expected points value > 2.97. So if the Redskins can get the 3 yards and a TD at least 34% of the time, then it a good choice -- (34% X 6 pts) + (99% * 1pt) = 3.03 pts.

I'd venture to say that any NFL team can score from the 3 more than a third of the time on one play.

If the Redskins can score on that play 50% of the time, then the expected points value is 3.99, a full point better than what they'd get with the 'safe' play.

Kicking a FG when the ball is inside the 5 is silly, unless it's in what you believe is your last possession of the game.

Posted by: matt_w_b | September 28, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree with the thesis ever since I first read about it on TMQ a few years back. However, Matt_w_b's math is flawed. The expected points from going for it is not .34(6) + .99(1) b/c the odds of getting that extra point can only ever be as good as the odds of getting the TD! Thus, the expected points should simply be (% of success)(6.99). {it's 6 for the TD, plus .99, which is the expected points on any field goal attempt}. The logic still works, since teams make 2-yard 2 point conversions roughly 50% of the time, but now the math gets a little tighter. 6.99(x%) > 2.99. Solve for x, and we find that a team must make it 42.8% of the time for it to be "worth it". Of course, and old-schooler will tell you that all this mathing doesn't account for situation, momentum & psychology, but wait - there's more! One must also consider the fact that not making it puts the other team's backs to the wall, and thus gives your team a high liklihood of getting the ball right back in field goal range anyway...

Posted by: Kipster | September 29, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

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