The biggest flaw in the fourth-and-15 alternative

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Five years ago, Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked which team he roots for. He said the team that’s trailing.

That’s the best approach for the NFL’s business interests. If the losing team closes the gap, the game becomes more interesting. If the losing team falls farther behind, viewers go check what’s new on Netflix.

So with the new kickoff formation making it harder for the team that is losing late in the game to keep possession, the Broncos have proposed the fourth-and-15 concept as a way to keep the ball when a team is desperate to tie or win the game. Seven of eight members of the Competition Committee have endorsed the proposal, giving it enhanced chances of prevailing when the owners vote.

But at a time when members of the Competition Committee like to use the possibility of “unintended consequences” as a fly swatter, there is one specific potential unintended consequence of the fourth-and-15 approach that the owners should recognize before casting their votes. As noted by Chris Simms on Monday’s PFT Live, who was grasping for any reason to disagree with my own support of the idea, the standard fourth-and-15 conversion rate may not be the best way to predict success if fourth and 15 becomes the late-game replacement for the onside kick.

In those situations, the defense will be expected — after a potentially lengthy scoring drive — to suck it up for one more play, with no real break. And if the offense converts, the defense continues to be stuck on the field, perhaps through another lengthy scoring drive. Depending on the depth of the hole that the losing team had dug for itself, this process could lather-rinse-repeat until the defense of the winning team collapses in exhaustion.

While that’s an extreme example, the point is this: The fourth-and-15 replacement for the onside kick won’t be an apples-to-apples simulation of the normal fourth-and-15 play. So if the Competition Committee or anyone else will be using those statistics as a way to sell the approach, the owners need to realize that past success of fourth and 15 will be the floor, not the ceiling, for its conversion rate.

33 responses to “The biggest flaw in the fourth-and-15 alternative

  1. The other thing to remember that isn’t comparable is that a team that runs a 4th and 15 just ran 3 plays for -5 yards.

    A team doing the new conversion just came off a scoring drive.

  2. That’s not a valid argument against the 4th-and-15 option, since the same issue exists with a successfully converted on-side kick, regarding the defense needing to suck it up and play on. I’m sure the NFL would be happy to stick in another commercial break or six, in between the successful conversion and the next play, to help the D catch their breath!

  3. Well, then they can do what they do every year – look at real data and make tweaks for the next season.

  4. I made a similar observation in a different article. It’s just a bad solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. How can you reward a team that is losing? What is the point of playing hard for 55 minutes if the rules change in the last 5 minutes and the losing team gets an advantage? MAYBE more people will keep watching if the game is close, but at what cost to the integrity of the game? There’s something to be said for having your team put a whooping on another team, and being able to enjoy the last five minutes rather than some parent running on the field demanding that his kids team get an advantage so they can catch up and feel better about themselves. That’s what this feels like.

  5. Moronic idea. Just wait for the offensive teams chucking it down the field and telling the receiver to make sure there is plenty of “incidental contact” past 15 yards.

  6. I guess calling 4th and 15 an alternative would be the same manner that giving all of your money away would be an alternative to saving for retirement.

  7. Would the new rule allow a team to perform a surprise onside kick? I seem to remember a Super Bowl where that happened once… and it completely changed the game.

  8. People who suggest this is just another opening for outside parties to influence the game’s outcome have a point worthy of consideration. Remember most money wagered on a game has to do with the point spread and the over-under.

  9. Yeah but I thought the NFL wants all offense and no D with lot of TD’s like watching the Big 12, so it will pass.

    Same thing with overtime, just because Andy Reid failed as a coach (this ins’t the first time, and you can through Payton with his failure last year too) to not have at least a decent D-coordinator and put all his money on offensive players so his defense sucked an he lost. So now we have to change rules for bad coaches, maybe get better coaches and stop recycling the already failed coaches (here is looking at you Jets).

  10. skmad2014 says:
    March 25, 2019 at 10:14 am
    Moronic idea. Just wait for the offensive teams chucking it down the field and telling the receiver to make sure there is plenty of “incidental contact” past 15 yards.

    ———

    While I like the idea, the PI is a valid argument against it. On the 4th & 15 attempt, PI could just be a 10 yard penalty. So now it’s 4th & 5. I don’t know, but PI does worry me. Because they call it ALL THE DAMN TIME now. But if that winds up being reviewable, that could kill that problem.

  11. bluecat says:

    it’s “a bad solution to a problem that doesn’t exist”

    Nailed it. Nothing more need be said.

  12. Consider this scenario: The Patriots are down by 4 with 59 seconds to play and buried on their own 5 yard line facing a 4th-and-15. What do they do to get out of this jam? Take an intentional safety and then “kick off” with a 4th-and-15 play from the 35. That’s the unintended consequence to this stupid proposal that no one in charge seems to have noticed.

  13. The author makes a good point about this, but then there’s also the issue of pass interference (offense and defense) and other penalties that don’t normally come into play.

    How will defensive penalties be enforced, especially considering that outside of the offsides / encroachment penalty, every other defensive penalty results in a automatic first down.

    What happens if PI is committed by the defense on this play? Does the offense keep the ball as if they had recovered an onside kick, or does the play get repeated and played over as a 4th and something shorter? That is the biggest reason I oppose this idea, and I have seen nothing that addresses this concern. If this rule goes through as is, the penalties on the defense will result in a conversion rate much higher than the original onside kick rate up through 2017.

  14. Two issues that could be tweaked:
    (1) 4th and 15 seems too easy. I don’t know what the conversion rate for onside kicks was before the 2018 kickoff rule changes, but the distance of the 4th and ___ should be t least that unlikely. To me, 4th and 15 is more makeable than a traditional onside kick.
    (2) The proposal says if the offense is penalized, they can’t then change their mind and kick. Even with that caveat, offenses will be tempted to try to get away with fouls (OPI, maybe?) knowing that it is worth the gamble that the refs will swallow their whistle. One solution would be stiffer penalties on the 4th and ____ play.

  15. Someone was all for a onside kick alternative when it seemed most owners would be against it. Now that it seems it has a chance of passing, he is trying to knock it down.

    Typical.

  16. Question. If offense is penalized, can they revert to a kickoff or must they play 4th and 20 or 25?

  17. Maybe the NFL should focus on fixing the flaws of inconsistencies when throwing yellow flags. A couple situations come to mind: when a team is fighting to stay in a game and finally get a big play, only to have it negated by a holding penalty. A type of hold that could be called on every single play on any given Sunday in the NFL. Scenario #2: a defense finally gets a stop but a flag comes out for a “touch” PI call. First get the refs consistent and you will not have to go searching for artificial solutions to keep games competitive.

  18. skmad2014 says:
    March 25, 2019 at 10:14 am
    Moronic idea. Just wait for the offensive teams chucking it down the field and telling the receiver to make sure there is plenty of “incidental contact” past 15 yards.

    This. And given a nudge by the league front office to make those calls to benefit their favorite teams.

  19. skmad2014 says: “Moronic idea. Just wait for the offensive teams chucking it down the field and telling the receiver to make sure there is plenty of “incidental contact” past 15 yards.”
    =========================

    There were 278 Defensive Pass Interference calls on 17,671 pass attempts last year. That’s only 1.57% of ALL pass plays or in other words, 1 DPI for every 64 pass attempts.

    Do you really want to gamble like that? Go for 1.57% chance of a DPI or a more realistic 12.5% chance of, you know, completing a 15-yd pass???

  20. The biggest flaw is that it’s a gimmick.

    Instead, change back the kicking formation rules for onside kicks only. If a team declares onside kick, the pre-2018 rules apply. If the ball travels further than 20 yards in the air, it’s a penalty against the kicking team.

  21. akira1971 says:
    March 25, 2019 at 10:52 am
    skmad2014 says: “Moronic idea. Just wait for the offensive teams chucking it down the field and telling the receiver to make sure there is plenty of “incidental contact” past 15 yards.”
    =========================

    There were 278 Defensive Pass Interference calls on 17,671 pass attempts last year. That’s only 1.57% of ALL pass plays or in other words, 1 DPI for every 64 pass attempts.

    Do you really want to gamble like that? Go for 1.57% chance of a DPI or a more realistic 12.5% chance of, you know, completing a 15-yd pass???
    _________________________

    Ok so tell us how many defensive holding, illegal contact, hit to defenseless receiver, roughing the passer, hands to the face, etc. You can’t just say “DPI” in a vacuum. Every one of these fouls results in an automatic first down for the “kicking team”.

    Now compare that to an onside kick where the only way you can get the ball is to recover it. Even a personal foul would just result in a re-rick.

  22. Why not just push the starting position for the receiving team back 5 or 10 yards to more evenly balance the odds of recovering an on-side kick?

  23. @ Steaksandwich- the reason they want 4th & 15 is because it was closest standard play to onside kick.
    Remove last year & the rate for recovery by kicking team was roughly 15%, while 4th & 15 was around 12.5%.
    This past year was about 8%.
    Funny how taking away the “games most dangerous play” also took away the games “most exciting play”.
    Remember when people argued about the kicking team getting a second chance to kick if a player was offsides? The badge allowed that because they knew everyone loved watching an onside kick.
    Also, what’s the scoring on a pick for TD?
    Regular score, unlike a pick return on 2-pt conversion.
    Defensive penalties accessed & charged the same?
    “Illegal contact- 5 yards & Automatic FIRST DOWN!”

  24. Hate this gimmick. Let’s compare not recovered onside kicks, but recovered onside kicks when the receiving team knows it is coming pre-2018. I’ll bet that makes it lower than 12%. Then as has been pointed out, 4th and 15 after unsuccessful plays is way different than 4th and 15 against a tired D while O has 5 minute TV timeout after the score to come up with a play. And then if successful drive against a tired D. And of course a team down by 6 or less can take an intentional safety on 4th down if backed up in their territory. This all just seems to reward a team that was losing for most of the game but somehow scores late to make it close. Terrible.

  25. They created a problem by changing the kickoff rules. Now rather than change the kickoff rules back to when they worked, they want to change a different rule. None of it makes sense from the standpoint of putting a quality product on the field for consumers to enjoy. The kicking game is fun and exciting and the league hasn’t presented any evidence that it should be changed, and yet, they keep on messing with it.

  26. If they go ahead with this, I hope high powered offensive teams take the ball, go down and score.

    Then choose the 4th and 15. Convert. Go down and score. Then take the 4th and 15. And continue.

    I hope we get scores of 70-17 because the offensive powerhouse just kept going for it, again and again.

    Sometimes if people are determined to overlook the risk, you just have to let it burn.

  27. The NFL could avoid this 4th-and-15 gimmickey foolishness with a simple tweak to the kickoff rule. Just have the receiving team line up 15 yards from the ball on all kickoffs instead of 10, but only require the kick to still travel at least 10 yards. There now would be the possibility of plenty of action in that 5-yard no man’s land between the two teams since the receiving team’s best receivers could no longer literally lie on the ground and wait for the ball to arrive and then easily cover it up. They’d have to move toward the ball creating exciting pinball possibilities without significant increased injury risk since everybody would still be moving toward the ball from a standing start, just as they do on every play from scrimmage.

  28. Another chapter in the seemingly endless drama of “Rule changes intended to derail the patriots but sure to be rescinded after NE figures out how to beat you with that very rule change”.

  29. It’s pretty simple- allow the onside kick like the old way where they can line up behind the ball- the difference is that you have to for sure do the onside kick if you line up that way…

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