Once unconventional, go-for-it aggressiveness on fourth down is becoming the norm

USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, coaches who did the thing that seemed unconventional and failed would face the wrath of fans, media, and their owners. Now, coaches who do the unconventional thing are praised — even if they pratfall.

That’s what happened on Monday night. Even though converting fourth and short from the Tennessee two wouldn’t have automatically delivered a win (the Bills still needed to score a touchdown), even though the Bills decided for the one-option quarterback sneak instead of the multi-option shotgun snap to Josh Allen, who could have thrown to one of several receivers or attempted to run the ball, even though the Bills got a little cute with Allen pretending to move to the line of scrimmage to communicate with his linemen before taking a quick snap (along the way, Allen apparently didn’t notice that the defensive line had shifted into sneak-prevention alignment), Bills coach Sean McDermott is being praised for playing the percentages, despite the fact that the outcome of this specific iteration becomes a data point that helps counsel against going for it in the future.

The situation entails so much more than the binary choice between going for it and not going for it. What’s the plan if the Bills had converted? Would there have been enough time to turn the first down into a touchdown? McDermott said he opted to go for it because he trusts his players; how much of the decision was influenced by the lack of trust in his defense to keep the Titans out of the end zone if they’d won the overtime coin toss?

And then there’s this very important (but often overlooked) dynamic when it comes to aggressive decisions that flow from following the formula. If the coach doesn’t do the thing that the analytics would mandate (even if it’s the unconventional thing), the coach has to answer for it internally, sometimes to an owner who may not know Xs and Os but who definitely knows numbers and percentages. Owners are now far less likely to be bamboozled by a tough-talking “football guy,” because owners come to the table with clear and precise talking points prepared by the analytics department.

Pre-analytics, the coach and the owner didn’t speak the same language. Now, there’s a common ground, a same page. And the coach who hopes to remain employed is far better off doing the thing that the analytics dictate, no matter how unconventional (given pre-analytics attitudes) it may seem.

There’s another factor that needs to be considered when making these decisions, a factor specific to the timing of the game. The Bills could have afforded to play another 10 minutes of football, since they’re off on Sunday. The Titans, in contrast, face the Chiefs in five days. So if the Titans were to beat the Bills in OT and in turn to seize the head-to-head tiebreaker, why not make it a little more difficult for the Titans to beat the Chiefs on a short week — especially if the Titans ended up getting the overtime win over Buffalo and securing the head-to-head tiebreaker?

Although the charts and graphs and formulas are now more detailed than ever, that’s another very real factor that a head coach must consider in these situations. The truth is that ALL factors need to be considered, quantitative and qualitative.

That’s not to say that McDermott was right or wrong. He made the decision that he made, and now the Bills will have to move forward. Given their post-bye schedule and the status of the AFC East behind them, they’ll likely be fine. If they’d won last night, of course, they’d be a little better than fine.

39 responses to “Once unconventional, go-for-it aggressiveness on fourth down is becoming the norm

  1. Lamar, Lamar, do you want to go for it? That move was praised and was a bigger risk that this move. It must be fun to work a job where all you get to do is criticize 24/7.

  2. It was a great game and each team is trying to win, not playing not to lose – refreshing!! The last thing The Bills were thinking about was the Titans schedule when they decided to go for it.

  3. It doesn’t take charts and graphs to figure out that if you kick a fg there, you’re hoping that just maybe you’ll get to the goal line with a chance to score and win, but you’re there now. The only way it makes sense to go to overtime is off you’re assured of getting the ball back. You might. You might not. But right now, you’re sitting there with a shot to win the game. If you want numbers, it’s a 37.5% chance of converting there, with about a 37.5% chance of making that fg and winning the coin flip, then you still have to go down and score a TD.

  4. Going for it was absolutely the right call. The play call, probably not. But the numbers are clear. The defense was worn down, so a lost coin flip is likely a lost game. Even a win coin flip followed by a FG may well be a lost game. They were already on the 3 yard line with a chance to win and avoid all that.

  5. Yeah as a chiefs fan I’ve definitely noticed all the teams going for it on 4th down the last couple of years. It’s the smart move a lot of the times. I wouldn’t mind it nearly as much if we didn’t have 3 slices of Swiss cheese for a defensive front.

  6. Obviously not every fourth down is the same, but if you are near midfield and the distance is 3 yards or less, in the modern NFL with athletic QBs and elite WRs and offenses that can score in a flash, going for it should be a no brainer. What different does it make, 9 times out of ten, if the opponent starts at the 10 or the 50? Two plays? Four plays? If they can go 30 yards they can go 60 yards. Possessions are too valuable. “Field position” stopped being important 50 years ago. The days of Vince Lombardi and 3 yards and a cloud of dust died probably before the west coast offense, even Dan Fouts was forever ago.

  7. I think it was a bad call last night. It’s one thing to go for it 4th and 3 on the 30-yard line at any given point of the game, but the Bills put the entire game on the line for a single play.

    As a Titans fan, I’m glad they did, but I think the Bills had a significant advantage in overtime considering how beat up the titan secondary was last night.

    The Bills coaching staff basically showed they didn’t believe they could keep the Titans out of the end zone in OT if they lost the coin flip. That seems absurd considering they have the number one defense in the league. However, that seems to be the justification for putting it all on the like 4th and half-yard.

  8. Both defenses were weak as shown by the few punts in the game. OT would likely be decided by the coin flip. Why not use all four downs to hold serve and win?

    You play to WIN the game! Herm Edwards

  9. going for the field goal would have been the conservative approach, going for the first down was the riskier appoach. coach said he had confidence in his players. begs the question, he had confidense in his offensive players, OK, how about confidence in defensive players to keep the other team from scoring in OT? not so much? we’ll never know until the next time.
    as for owners coming to the table more knowledgeable these days, maybe some owners, Bills owners have demonstrated locally they are clueless about hockey and football many times.

  10. “The Bills coaching staff basically showed they didn’t believe they could keep the Titans out of the end zone in OT if they lost the coin flip. That seems absurd considering they have the number one defense in the league. However, that seems to be the justification for putting it all on the like 4th and half-yard.”
    ____________________________________________

    I think there is more to it than that. You have a chance to pick up a yard and potentially end the game. Put it in OT, and anything can happen. The Bills may have had the advantage in OT, but it just takes one flukey play.

    And really, they couldn’t stop Henry. The D was getting worn out.

    Very good game. Best of luck to the Titans the rest of the way.

  11. people that tell you batting average, hits and rbi in baseball are meaningless stats are not fun people to be around…i see it’s come to football…btw the astro’s led mlb in the old meaningless stats and that seems to be working out ok for them

  12. As a Bills fan, I loved the call. A jacked up Titans team, and an off night for the Bills for sure. Allen slipped on the field paint, and it happened. So what, we lost.
    On to Miami.

  13. Going for it was the right call. The next gen stats said so, and more importantly, the Bills own data says so. They were 13 of 14 on those plays previously, with the only miss being a botched snap. Those are pretty great odds. Much better than the odds of kicking a FG and hoping OT goes your way.

    If they kick the FG then lose in OT, is it all good? It was the right decision, wrong result. If Allen doesn’t slip, they most likely convert like the other 13 times they tried it in 14 attempts. The only time it doesn’t work is when something fluky happens.

  14. Yards in the NFL are so much cheaper than they were 25 years ago. In the mid-90’s if you rolled up 400 total yards on offense, you most likely dominated the other team. Now 400 yards means you get beat 27-21.

  15. I think it’s foolish to leave points on the field. By going for it the Bills put everything on one play, while going to OT it would be multiple plays. They drove to the goal line, so why wouldn’t they be able to get within FG range in OT?

    Taking a game to OT isn’t “playing not to win”, it’s giving your team a chance to win that isn’t based on the outcome of a single play.

  16. I normally love 4th-down boldness, but this one felt like too much of a reach to me. On the goal line, it would feel more realistic. It felt too far, especially with a gimme option to go to overtime readily available.

    The downside was big – a conference loss to a likely division winner. Odds are it won’t hurt them come playoff time but it was more than just a lost game.

    As for overtime – it’s lousy, but it should be. It should be dangerous and a bit unfair. There shouldn’t be a reward for not winning in regulation.

    But in this case, it made sense. The team made it nearly to the goal line. You have to believe in their ability to prevent a TD and then score.

  17. 12brichandfamous says:
    You play to WIN the game! Herm Edwards
    ==

    While I agree with your general premise, that quote reminds me of the old M*A*S*H episode “5 O’Clock Charlie.” When General Clayton describes a tactic by explaining “We learned it from the Germans,” Hawkeye responds with “Great, now we’re taking lessons from the losers.”
    When the subjects are football and success I know I always think Herm Edwards, a brilliant tactician and a legendary winner who has more championship rings than fingers. 🙂

  18. Can’t discount having a feel for your team. Sometimes the percentages don’t mean a thing if your personnel isn’t up to the task. Here McDermott felt he could make it and was wrong. Not the wrong call, just didn’t get the outcome. That is sports. Sometimes, believe it or not, the game is decided by a player making a play rather than some scheme or analytics study.

  19. McDermott forgot about week 1 … twice the Bills turned it over on downs in the 3rd Quarter when they were winning against the Steelers. In fact Steelers scored on every drive FG, TD, blocked TD and FG after stopping the Bills the first time on 4th down.
    Just because the Bills D make the Steelers punt 5 straight times does not mean it will be an easy game. The Bills by not punting gave the Steelers life.
    The Bills should be 6-0 but they can thank McDermott for being 4-2.

  20. Please people. teams do go for it on fourth down when a, they are on their side of the field, they have nothing to lose and three points wont win the game for them. How hard is that to fathom. Not to mention its keeps your D off the field longer if you make it and if said D sucks, its a good play.

  21. This wasnt Allens best game. The O line caved often and the Titans did a great job preventing him from his run up the middle for big gains. They took his normal game away and the result was they couldnt get a big lead and play defense.

  22. The issue of analytics is a red herring. The best owners sign the checks, ask the football people “What do you need?”, provide it, and stay out of the way. The best GM’s handle contracts, salary cap issues and the mechanics of roster moves, hire the best coach they can, ask “What do you need”, and stay out of the way. The best football coaches are in charge of all things football. Meddlesome owners and GM like in Philly (Lurie and Roseman quizzed Doug Pedersen every Tuesday on the play calls) are a recipe for disaster. Analytics are used by the worst franchises as an excuse to meddle

  23. I’m a Titans fan, and things worked out in our favor, but my personal analytics tells me that one thing made me fear losing more than the other, and that was going for it on 4th and inches (not kicking the FG). If I were a Bills fan, I wouldn’t second guess the decision at all.

  24. If you don’t get the first down, there is a 99.99% you will lose. So yes you should follow the analytics and kick there, bad call.
    Kick and there is like a 95% chance you don’t lose in regulation with somewhere close to 50% chance you win in OT, barring a tie.

  25. Mike Zimmer has not embraced this. His philosophy is ‘why get 7, when you can shank going for 3 and get 0.’

  26. Coaches feeling being put under the analytics microscope by the media but not knowing what it really means. Also provides a built in excuse for failure – wasn’t me, the analytics told me to do it.

  27. Everyone has to stop with the Herman Edwards quote. He had a 54-74 record as a head coach. He had that .422 record for a reason.

  28. Everyone has to stop with the Herman Edwards quote. He had a 54-74 record as a head coach. He had that .422 record for a reason.
    ==========

    He was nearly .500 with the Jets.

    Thats like winning 3 Super Bowls.

  29. arealisticpackerfan says:
    October 19, 2021 at 12:55 pm
    Mike Zimmer has not embraced this. His philosophy is ‘why get 7, when you can shank going for 3 and get 0.’
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Zimmer’s problems is going for 2 pts instead of kicking for one point. If he does that Vikings don’t need OT plus didn’t he lose at least 2 games last year by going for 2pt too early.

  30. If you don’t get the first down, there is a 99.99% you will lose. So yes you should follow the analytics and kick there, bad call.
    ==========

    That isn’t taking into account Josh Allens conversion percentage on 4th-and-short, which I’m guessing, is/was pretty dang high.

  31. I believe Sean Payton started the go-for-it aggressiveness on fourth down when he joined the Saints. It was pretty unconventional and he was questioned a lot for the decision, especially when in his own territory. I believe he did it in over time against the Vikings in the NFCCG with Pierre Thomas. Generous spot IMO; I don’t think they converted the 4th down, but Payton did have the aggressiveness on fourth down and it paid off.

  32. Tabasco says:
    October 19, 2021 at 11:59 am
    I think it’s foolish to leave points on the field. By going for it the Bills put everything on one play, while going to OT it would be multiple plays. They drove to the goal line, so why wouldn’t they be able to get within FG range in OT?

    Taking a game to OT isn’t “playing not to win”, it’s giving your team a chance to win that isn’t based on the outcome of a single play.

    9 11 Rate This
    —————————————————————————————-
    “One play” that had previously worked 13 of 14 times, so well over 90% of the time. Versus what could be a coin flip if the game goes into overtime. Which, is no given in the first place, since the kicker still has to actually make the field goal kick. It’s basic math, and reason, which I understand is difficult for a lot of people. Tying with a field goal (again, not guranteed) only to go to overtime and a coin toss, is not better than a play that has worked 13 of 14 times.

  33. How is rolling the dice on one play “trusting the players”? Trusting the players is saying we can beat the other team if we play it out in overtime.

    This aggressiveness is not bold or courageous, it’s cowardly. If it doesn’t work, they hide behind “the analytics” or false concepts of “trusting the players” when really the courageous decision is to go against the analytics and give your team a legitimate chance to win the game.

  34. Analytics say 4th and 5 or less pretty much from like your own 25 onward is the spot to start going for it on 4th downs. Was it right there? I don’t know. How aggressive do you want to be?

  35. I think most the people that say it was the the wrong decision base it entirely on whether it worked or not. Since they didn’t execute, it was wrong. And if they kicked the FG, lost the coin toss, and Ten score a TD…the same people would say they should have went for it when it was right there for the taking.

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