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Defending Jim Zorn's Fourth Down Calls

I don't want to get all footbally here, but let me have one brief go at the question of going for those fourth-quarter fourth downs. Here's the key point about what Jim Zorn did: It worked. His choice paid off.

What's that, you say? You believe, like Thomas Boswell, that Zorn's choice actually failed? Here was Boz:

Silence, full of the unspoken anxiety of his players, greeted Zorn as he walked into the locker room after his gamble on fourth and one at the Rams 2-yard line with two minutes to play had failed, but his defense had bailed him out on his failed gamble.

Respectfully disagree. The choice to go for a fourth down like that isn't measured by whether or not you gain the yard, it's measured by whether or not you win the game.

[A commenter correctly notes that it's actually measured by whether it was the right choice. That's true, my fault. I should have said the successful outcome we care about is the final score, not the result of that play. Regardless, the larger point is that if Zorn chose a course with a 97 percent chance of success and it failed, he still chose wisely.]

If you go for it and fail, you know that the Rams--having struggled to move the ball much of the day--will take over in the shadow of their own end zone, with no timeouts, against a solid defense. Which they did, and as it turned out, they wouldn't gain another yard. If you take the field goal, the Rams will still be getting the ball back, so in the HE FAILED!!!!! world, Zorn still needs to be "bailed out" by his defense.

If the success of going for it on those fourth downs is only measured by whether or not you convert, it would almost automatically fail at a stupendous rate. But that isn't the point. The point is, if you convert, the game is 100 percent over. If you don't, you're still in great shape, with the Rams pinned deep. If you kick the field goal, you haven't come close to clinching a win, and while the Rams will need a touchdown, they'll almost certainly start off with far better field position.

I loved the call on Sunday, and I love it now. That was the swashbuckling Zorn who was chucking the ball while preserving leads last year. The failed play has obscured that fact, but like I said, the decision ended up paying off.

Anyhow, I'm sure you've by now read the Advanced NFL Stats post that clearly shows Zorn made the mathematically correct decision. If you haven't, you should. See also: Gregg Easterbrook, a longtime proponent of going for it, whose celebration of a bunch of going-for-it attempts this week was illustrated with a huge photo of Jim Zorn .

"Why this sudden burst of manhood?" TMQ asked. "Maybe the statistical arguments in favor of going for it on fourth down are finally catching on."

Since I was curious about the same thing, I asked Jim Zorn whether he was familiar with the statistical arguments in favor of going for it.

"I've read those articles," he said. "Yet I always calculate it based on what were we doing when we got down there, and sort of the attitude and the flow and the momentum, and what's on the other side. So the first one, 4th-and-2, when Clinton was gonna go, that was the play. And even on the 4th-and-1, I thought it was the right play, in that area, at that time. But I called timeout, because you've got to think about it. Unless you know for sure, you've got to make sure. There was a touchy situation there as far as scoring, touchdown, field goal, first down, keep the clock running. There's a lot of issues there, on that situation, so I just took timeout and thought about it, talked about it, and went with it."

So he didn't try to do a quick version of the Advanced NFL Stats calculation in his head?

"No, no," he said, "I didn't have a calculator up in the press box, no."

I'll tell you what he did have up in the press box, though; offensive assistant Chris Meidt, a math major, devotee of using statistics to make coaching decisions, and all-around rational man. I'm not sure how familiar he is with the math on fourth-down conversion, but I'm positive he's read all the right things. My colleague Barry Svrluga asked him about last week's decisions.

"People will say, 'Well, a touchdown's harder to get than a field goal.' Our thinking at that time was, 'One foot,' " Meidt told Barry. "We gain one foot and the game is over. So we have a chance to end the game by gaining one foot. That was really more what it was about....

"In terms of the numbers, yeah, you can go up by five, [and] a touchdown's harder to get than a field goal. We get stopped, yeah, now they only have to get to the 40. They have to go 60 yards to get a field goal to beat us. But we felt like [with] the risk-reward--gaining one foot to end the game--the risk was worth it."

Completely and totally agree. Also, let me repeat this one more time: the Redskins will win this weekend, and I don't think it'll be close.

By Dan Steinberg  |  September 25, 2009; 12:46 PM ET
Categories:  Media , Redskins  
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Next: Jim Zorn Doesn't Seem Too Tight


THANK YOU for making this post. I made the same point to a friend of mine who is not a Redskins fan. He said Zorn would be a "hero" or "zero" for making the call to go for it. We didn't get it, "Zero!"


The idea is that you think you'll make the conversion, and if you don't make it, you think you'll stop them from scoring. We didn't make it, and then we DID stop them from scoring. So his line of thinking was absolutely correct.

This is one of very, very few things I've read from the media all week about the Redskins that I 100% agree with. Good write-up.

Posted by: TotallyTacos | September 25, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and the whole "beating Detroit" thing. Agreed as well. I can't believe so many people have decided that the Lions are going to win this game.

I understand we've struggled to put points on the board, but my expectation is that we'll move the ball as effectively against the Lions as we did against the Rams. Inside the 10, there's just no chance of a repeat of what happened in the Rams game. There won't be 2 dropped touchdown passes. People will hold onto the ball. What happened against the Rams isn't the norm, it was a "perfect storm" of mistakes that simply won't be able to repeat themselves again. We will run inside the 5 and gain yards, we will pass and the receivers will catch it . . .

We'll be fine.

Posted by: TotallyTacos | September 25, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

"The choice to go for a fourth down like that isn't measured by whether or not you gain the yard, it's measured by whether or not you win the game."


It's measured by whether or not it's the right choice. You pretty much get there with the TMQ reference, but sometime the best choices do not work. That doesn't mean they're not the best choices.

Posted by: Viktor3000 | September 25, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Kick the FG you are up by 5 and STL neds a TD to win. They would've needed a freak play that went all the way to win.

They didnt kick the FG STL only needed a feak FG to go 60 yds to be in possition to kick a game winning FG.

Mathematically speaking the stats state that getting a TD on a freak lay going all the way is much less likely than getting a freak play that goes 60yds.

Mathematically speaking he should've kicked the FG and handed the game to his defense who had not allowed STL to o much of anything all day.

Sorry, D bailed Zorn out.

Posted by: vmrg1974 | September 25, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

that was brief?

Posted by: superpaqman | September 25, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I had no problem with the 4th down call on the 2. My problem was with the 4th down call on the 25. That was where he should have kicked the field goal. If they didn't get it, the Rams only need 40 yards to win the game instead on 70-80. THAT WAS THE INSANE CALL.

Once inside the two, what type of sense would it have made to not kick on 4 and 1 from the 25 but then kick from 4 and 1/2 on the 2? That would be bi-polar to say the least.

Good post Dan.

Posted by: justmy2 | September 25, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse


FORD STADIUM, MICHIGAN – With more than 10,000 seats left to sell and facing the prospect of thousands of additional empty seats from season ticketholder no-shows for this weekend’s game against the Washington Redskins, the home-standing Detroit Lions have announced a special promotion package for this weekend only.

With the “Maroon and Black” ticket package, the Lions will offer half-price entry to the game and a free beer to any disgruntled Redskin fan who shows up at Ford Stadium wearing maroon and black. The name is an apparent reference to Washington Head Coach Jim Zorn, who is said to be clueless, colorblind and unable to score – particularly when his team enters the red zone.

Many Washington fans have taken to wearing maroon and black in protest against the continued ineptitude of Zorn’s coaching, the blunderment of the Redskins offensive team, and the overall ineptitude of the Redskin organization.

Said one Lions official, “While they may not cheer for the Lions, we’re pretty sure they’ll still curse and boo the Redskins. Either way, it’s all the same to us – and might even give us back some home field advantage.”

In a related development, Ford Field officials said they’ll be working overtime to make sure the air conditioning system at Ford Field is working at peak capacity during Sunday’s game.

Stadium officials are reportedly concerned that by scheduling a afternoon game in a domed stadium between two hapless teams – the Redskins (8-8 last season and fading fast in 2009), and Lions (non-winners since 2007) – the NFL could be held liable for “stinking up the joint” with a toxic and potentially fatal stench coming from both sides of the field.

Posted by: Vic1 | September 25, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse


You obviously didn't give the situation much thought.

If the 'skins kick the field goal, they still have to kickoff, meaning the Rams start with their final possession the with ball around the 30 yard line. This means they have to go 70 yards for a TD. But, even if the 4th down fails, they still have to go almost as far (probably about 60) just to attempt a long field goal, which by the way, from that distance is probably a 50/50 proposition anyways.

So even by the 'skins going for it and NOT making in, they probably left the Rams in a worse situation than if they had actually just taken the 3 points.

Posted by: moliverez | September 25, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this post. I thought this same thing the other day and it is absolutely on the money... that was the right call by Zorn to go for it!

Posted by: Starmann23 | September 25, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

All I will say is this: when this season is said and done Jim will have proven alot of his critics wrong. He is an excellent football coach and if given the time and organizational support that ANY HC needs he will be successful.

What is happening to him in DC is exactly what I thought would happen if the waters got rough. From poor organizational support from the front office on top, to players who are overpaid based on their overall productivity(the only thing they appear to be good at is giving opinions that lack any sound intelligence-for one example see Clinton Portis) to the media and down to the fans just about everyone is ready to run him out of town after a grand total of 18 games coached. Here is a guy who is striving daily to do his very best to help this team be a real winner and to do it the right way. That I know to be the truth.

There is only one thing I would like to see Jim do differently. And that is he needs to "rip" these players on a more consistent basis for their underperforming play. The performance they gave last week there is not a phrase of words that would adequetely describe except for a few that I won't use. He treats these guys with respect and like so-called "real men" and this is the kind of garbage performance he gets along with the kind big mouth talk that he had to deal with like he did last year with Portis.This is one sorry bunch. Right now these players don't need encouragement which he gives a ton of to these guys. What they need is a swift boot in the tail end-period.The excuses for their sorry performances need to end. That and I would like to see him be more hardline with some of the media. He has been more than gracious as he is always with them and alot of their questions or speculation that they ask him about. I realize and fully understand that is part of the job but some of the questions/issues that are brought up is frankly a waste of time. But knowing Jim he will continue to be the positive, encouraging and gracious type of person he has been for so many years no matter what kind of garbage performance he gets from his players or what kind of heat he gets from the media or fans.

Posted by: afriendofzorn | September 25, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Steinz, you are trying to make logical points to illogical people. It's a tough sell when so many of them don't have the intelligence it takes to understand the points you are making.

Posted by: Barno1 | September 25, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Not for nothin', but this was the same team that hit not one, but two, freak plays last year in the same stadium. Pete Kendall inexplicably trying to advance that batted ball that he caught, resulting in a fumble being returned almost 90 yards for touch. Then, the long pass to Donnie Avery that set up the field goal to win.

Everyone saying that it would have taken a freak play to score a touchdown and win is forgetting that anything can happen on kickoff returns. Also, there's only so far Bulger can go from the 2 yard line. Giving Bulger the ball on the 25 or 30 gives him more room to make a mistake and get away with it.

Posted by: Cavalier83 | September 25, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

You obviously didn't give the situation much thought.

Rams having to go 70yds for a TD is a longer distance than 60yds for FG.

Hence, take the FG, and make them go 70yds for a TD, or if your special teams are any good, or kick it out of the endzone, that is 80yds they have to go for a TD, and I do believe 80yds is a longer distance to cover than 60.

Math buddy, math. You should not have skimped on those classes in grade school.

Posted by: vmrg1974 | September 25, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Dan, again you bring a fresh (and correct) perspective on what happened. That's one of the reasons you're my favorite.

Posted by: trolly_time | September 25, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse


A couple things.

1) you think Suisham can kick the ball out of the endzone on demand? Not a chance. The average starting field position after a kickoff is the 31. THAT'S the number you have to use when making your decision. So it ends up being 69 yards the Rams will have to travel for the winning TD.

2) Obviously 70 yards (or 69 if you want to get technical) is more that 60. That is clearly NOT the point. The point is that even after those 60 yards, the Rams STILL have to make a 53 yard field goal!!! Having to go 60 yards AND make a 53 yard field goal is just as difficult, if not more so, than having to go 70 yards for a TD.

3) And all this only even matters if the 4th down fails! I'm sure the average conversion rate for 4 and a foot is well over 50%. So even if you fail on the attempt (which the stats suggest otherwise) you've left the Rams in arguably a WORSE situation than if you had taken the field goal and kicked the ball back to them.

Going for it on 4th and 1 was a decision with a HUGE upside and a very marginal (if any) downside. I'm not even sure how you could even suggest otherwise

Posted by: moliverez | September 25, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Totally agree that going for it was the right decision.

I hope Zorn stays aggrssive in making deciions like this but matches it with more savvy play calling.

Zorn has to realize that this team isn't good enough to execute when he calls the obvious play that the Ram's defense and everyone else watching is expecting (run Portis to the left).

He needs to run more from pass formations and pass more from run formations until there is enough doubt in what to expect in the opponent's minds that his "best plays" will start to work in crucial situations.

Posted by: hapster | September 25, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone know a good bookie? I'm betting on the Lions. I'm a long time fan, but money says more than blind loyalty.

Posted by: orneryone2 | September 25, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Go for it! I was more upset they took a knee at the end of the game. They've got to start showing some killer instinct.

Posted by: orneryone2 | September 25, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone know a good bookie? I'm betting on the Lions. I'm a long time fan, but money says more than blind loyalty.

Posted by: orneryone2 | September 25, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Ever heard of this thing called the
"Internet"? It's this place where you can do all kinds of things, like gamble on sports.

Posted by: Barno1 | September 25, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Ive seen your stuff before Jimzornsfriend! But really this quote!

"What they need is a swift boot in the tail end-period."

Wow...let em have it Pastor!!!! Just stop making excuses for "your friend Zorn..He did it to himself with his crap coaching...And you need a swift boot in your mouth.Period

Posted by: ocskins | September 25, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

THANK YOU DAN STEINBERG!!! have been echoeing my exact sentiments all week long...I can't wait for this week to be over either!!

Posted by: SkinsWizStangs | September 25, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

i agree that the 4th and 2 call at the 20 was the wacky one. i liked it b/c they made the first down, but it was definitely way more risky than 4th and a foot at the 2.

i really hated the PLAY they called on 4th and inches. everyone knew they were running left. they always run left (when they go right, it is an option pass...) in fact, they just ran left on 4th and 2 to pick up a first. if they ran a bootleg, campbell limps into the endzone untouched- sprained ankle and all.

Posted by: dcalize | September 25, 2009 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Another thank you for your post. This was probably the best thing written in the post regarding the Redskins this week.

To me it was a no-brainer. Also Chris Meidt when he was coach of St. Olaf went for it on 4th down a lot.

Posted by: tedunni1 | September 26, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

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