NFL teams are getting smarter, and better, on fourth downs

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One of the hallmarks of last year’s Super Bowl champion Eagles was their aggressiveness on fourth downs: Eagles coach Doug Pederson listened to the analytics experts who have been saying for years that teams should go for it on fourth down more often, and the result was Philadelphia leading the league in fourth-down conversion and winning the title.

The NFL is a copycat league, so it’s no surprise that this year, more teams are getting smarter about going for it on fourth down — and better at converting when they do go for it.

In 2017, NFL games averaged 1.89 fourth-down attempts per game, and offenses picked up the first down on 46.4 percent of fourth-down attempts. So far this year, NFL games are averaging 2.0 fourth-down attempts per game, and offenses are successful on 62.5 percent of fourth-down attempts.

In other words, NFL teams are getting a little more aggressive about going for it — and a lot better at picking up the first down when they do go for it. That indicates that offenses are spending more time installing fourth-down plays, and getting smarter about calling them at the right time.

Last year most teams failed on most of their fourth down attempts, with only 14 teams converting on at least 50 percent of fourth downs. This year most teams are successful on most of their fourth down attempts, with 25 teams successful on at least 50 percent of fourth downs.

Last year the best team in the league, the Eagles, was also the best team at picking up fourth downs. That’s the case again this year, with the Saints, the team atop most NFL power rankings, also atop the fourth down leaderboard: New Orleans is 11-for-12 on fourth downs this season, making the Saints first in the league in both total fourth down conversions and in fourth down conversion rate.

The Eagles proved it last year and the Saints are proving it this year: Success on fourth down leads to success on the scoreboard.

46 responses to “NFL teams are getting smarter, and better, on fourth downs

  1. Everyone except Mike McNutty!
    He keeps playing the numbers in his head…. the only numbers he’s crunching down are “how many donuts am I gonna eat after this game?”

  2. The Saints were first in 4th Down Conversion Percentage last year (80% to Philly’s 65) & in 2016 (87%)

    This year, Detroit is second in 4th Downs converted with Dallas, Tampa & Washington tied for third. Tampa is also tied for third in 4th Down Conversion Percentage

    Last year, GB (7-9) was second in 4th Downs converted with Cleveland tied for third

    Cleveland was tied for first in 2015 also

    With such small samples, hard to extrude much value from any correlation (if there is one). Total 4th Downs attempted is likely a sign of a team trailing late often who has to go for it (see Cleveland’s ranks above)

    Whereas, teams converting 4th Down at a higher clip could just be a sign that good offenses are better at getting a few yards, which shouldn’t be surprising

    And having a good offense gives a team a decent chance at being a good team with how the rules are currently structured

  3. Pederson is getting a lot of credit for the increase in going for it on fourth down, and that may be accurate. However Belichick was doing it way before it was fashionable.

  4. I think saying teams are getting a lot better at picking it up isn’t necessarily accurate. A lot of fourth down attempts are usually late game desperation attempts by a losing team. Now teams are taking the chance of going for fourth and 1s and fourth and 2s earlier in the game that are going to boost the conversion percentages.

  5. Are they getting better on 4th down or are they getting better on all downs in making positive plays? I’m willing to bet it’s every down, not just fourth.

  6. What about 4th downs when the other team was leading and wanted to stop only the big play and was willing to give up yardage ? In the 4th quarter vs. in the first quarter?

    What about for when the time of possession favored a team and the defence was tired vs. When a defence was fresher than the offence?

  7. That’s because offensive football 🏈 has all the advantages like at no other time in the NFL ,,they should also add it’s never been easier for quarterbacks and their offenses to move the ball in the NFL !

  8. marcuswelby70 says:
    November 24, 2018 at 6:43 am
    Pederson is getting a lot of credit for the increase in going for it on fourth down, and that may be accurate. However Belichick was doing it way before it was fashionable.

    Hate to break it to you but this is (another) Homer myth. The Patriots, with the exception of 2006 have never lead in this category in either attempts or successes. Middle of the pack at best. While I don’t think Pederson should be getting “credit” as you put it, the fact is more teams are going for it because it worked in the SB and analytics are getting better. But BB doesn’t get credit either. Middle of the pack. Those are called FACTS and STATS.

  9. .
    If only Belichick had thought of this. If only Brady made himself into the best QB sneak player in the NFL. Then they wouldn’t have had to wait for Doug Pederson to teach them the art of football.
    .

  10. i have a theory that the better team you are increases the probability of you making it. What are the combined % of the Raiders Cardinals and 49ers and then what it the rate for the saints rams Kc and pitt

  11. Going for it on 4th was a long time coming. Sean Payton Ron Riviera Bill Belichick Mike Shanahan and others had started this trend a while before Peterson and the Eagles.

  12. If only teams were smarter about playing a soft “prevent defense” in the final minutes of games just to end up losing by a field goal.

  13. Except Mike McCarthy, of course. He does dopey things like punt on 4th and 2 with 4 minutes left in the game and no time outs, when his two best defensive line players are out of the game because of injuries and his secondary is playing practice squad guys because of injuries. No — he doesn’t trust Aaron Rodgers in that situation so he punts the ball and then watches Seattle run right through his ravaged defense and never gets the ball back. result? Another loss because he couldn’t coach his way out of a paper bag.
    If they handed out a trophy for making stupid decisions which cost your team a chance to win a game, McCarthy would have lots of those.

  14. The Vikings are 7 for 11 on 4th down attempts this season. Probably the one thing we can be proud of as Vikings fans. A above 60% 4th down conversion rate. I wish Defilppo was head coach.

    Worried as heck about Sunday night against Green Bay. If we lose our season is over. I am in some ways looking forward to the offseason hopes and dreams. We are a better offseason team.

  15. The Vikings are 7 for 11 on 4th down attempts this season. Probably the one thing we can be proud of as Vikings fans. A above 60% 4th down conversion rate. I wish Defilippo was head coach.

    Worried as heck about Sunday night against Green Bay. If we lose our season is over. I am in some ways looking forward to the offseason hopes and dreams. We are a better offseason team.

  16. Don’t worry about it viking111, we may build up a big lead but we will find a way to blow it in the 4th.

  17. Wait, I remember Paul Brown going for it on fourth down. The only thing Bill Belichick was first at was leaving a team as he was hired.

  18. If there was ever a rule to change to balance the offenses of today with the defenses – it would be eliminating the punt option altogether, and forcing teams to to play 4 downs.

  19. What’s killing me about McCarthy is that he used to be a lot more aggressive, unless my memory is having fun with me again. Sadly, it does that sometimes.

    I definitely remember McCarthy saying early on that he loved having Aaron Rodgers running his plays because Rodgers’ abilities allowed him to be much more aggressive than he could have been with other quarterbacks. It really stood out to me because of the stark contrast between that statement and how hard it was for Mike Holmgren to keep Favre from running completely amok.

  20. I’m not sure if coaches are getting smarter, or if the task is getting much easier. I’d say it’s much easier to get 15 yards nowadays than it was to get 10 yards just a few years ago. They might consider changing to 15 yards instead of 10 for a first down. Then we can talk about comparisons. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the offense, just don’t try to make apples to apples comparisons. It just doesn’t work.

  21. Football is finally catching up with baseball on analytics with punting on fourth and short headed to extinction like squandering an out via a bunt.

  22. charliecharger says:
    November 24, 2018 at 11:31 am
    I’m not sure if coaches are getting smarter, or if the task is getting much easier. I’d say it’s much easier to get 15 yards nowadays than it was to get 10 yards just a few years ago. They might consider changing to 15 yards instead of 10 for a first down. Then we can talk about comparisons. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the offense, just don’t try to make apples to apples comparisons. It just doesn’t work.
    **********
    Wrong doug pederson lead the league in 4th down attempts and before he started the trend the league average was the same every year so clelwey it has nothing to do wth that there is a rewind pederson lead the league

  23. ezpkns34 says:
    November 24, 2018 at 6:19 am
    The Saints were first in 4th Down Conversion Percentage last year (80% to Philly’s 65) & in 2016 (87%)

    This year, Detroit is second in 4th Downs converted with Dallas, Tampa & Washington tied for third. Tampa is also tied for third in 4th Down Conversion Percentage

    Last year, GB (7-9) was second in 4th Downs converted with Cleveland tied for third

    Cleveland was tied for first in 2015 also

    With such small samples, hard to extrude much value from any correlation (if there is one). Total 4th Downs attempted is likely a sign of a team trailing late often who has to go for it (see Cleveland’s ranks above)

    Whereas, teams converting 4th Down at a higher clip could just be a sign that good offenses are better at getting a few yards, which shouldn’t be surprising

    And having a good offense gives a team a decent chance at being a good team with how the rules are currently structured
    ***********
    Wrong when Cleveland lead the league it was because they converted they didn’t lead the leaugue in attempts you dope. When you go for it on 4th down one time and you convert than you are 100% on conversations but the reality is you only went for it once. Pederson chnaged football in that he attempted it way above normal

  24. Belichick went for it 4th and 1 first drive of the game against Manning’s Colts 2004 AFC divisional. The touchdown it produced put the Colts on their heels and was a real catalyst in the victory.
    He did it again 4th and 2 on MNF and failed, and lost.
    The point being it’s better to live on your feet than die on your knees. Go down swinging, this hoping not to lose is sad for grown men.

  25. I love when Pats fanboys always chime in hot air on articles totally unrelated to their coach or QB. Someday I’m gonna read an article about global warming & a Pats fan is gonna mention how BB & Brady warned us about it back in 1999.

  26. osubrndn says:
    November 24, 2018 at 12:06 pm
    Counterpoint: NFL teams are getting worse at defending the 4th down.
    ******
    You must have missed the part where attempts have been up you dope nothing to do with defense teams are being more bold

  27. Successful attempts are up because teams are going for it in more makeable downs rather than only going for it when they are desperate typically later in the game. 4th and 1 or 2 is a lot more likely to be successful than 4th and 12.

  28. osubrndn says:
    November 24, 2018 at 12:06 pm
    Counterpoint: NFL teams are getting worse at defending the 4th down.
    ***********
    Fool attempts have been up nothing to do with other teams stopping 4th down attempts have been up

  29. Wow!! Several Vikings fans are actually worried about playing the Packers this week. Why? You’ve been telling us for two years how much better the Vikings are than the Packers and now this Packers team has a lot of guys hurt.
    So why worry? Answer: You finally realize your Vikings aren’t as good as you thought they were.
    By the way — my prediction: Vikings 27 Packers 17

  30. “Daniella Smith says:
    November 24, 2018 at 12:21 pm

    Wrong when Cleveland lead the league it was because they converted they didn’t lead the leaugue in attempts you dope. When you go for it on 4th down one time and you convert than you are 100% on conversations but the reality is you only went for it once. Pederson chnaged football in that he attempted it way above normal”

    GB attempted more 4th Down Conversions than Philly last year. And Philly even attempted more 4th Down Conversions the year before last, when they went 7-9

    Oh, and when Cleveland led the league in 4th Down Conversions in 2015, they also were tied for first in 4th Down Conversions Attempted

    Really, it takes like 2 minutes to look up these things. I know it’s a post-fact world, but geez

  31. These stats need a lot more dicing and slicing, like:

    1) Attempts made while losing the game with less than 5 minutes remaining (or pick a number, or plot them against time remaining).

    2) Attempts vs field position.

    3) Attempts vs yardage remaining.

  32. TruFBFan says:
    November 24, 2018 at 8:04 am
    marcuswelby70 says:
    November 24, 2018 at 6:43 am
    Pederson is getting a lot of credit for the increase in going for it on fourth down, and that may be accurate. However Belichick was doing it way before it was fashionable.

    Hate to break it to you but this is (another) Homer myth. The Patriots, with the exception of 2006 have never lead in this category in either attempts or successes. Middle of the pack at best. While I don’t think Pederson should be getting “credit” as you put it, the fact is more teams are going for it because it worked in the SB and analytics are getting better. But BB doesn’t get credit either. Middle of the pack. Those are called FACTS and STATS.
    ——

    Please reread what I stated in second sentence. I said he was doing it long before it was fashionable. Nowhere did I say the Patriots led in this category…read and comprehend.

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