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NFL

The Fourth-Down Revolution Must Not Lose Momentum

Austin Ekeler runs the ball
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Correction (12:11 p.m. ET): I messed up the math pretty badly on the projection for the rest of the 2021 season, making it seem as though the trend was slowing somewhat from last year. What follows is an edited version of the original blog that removes that mistake.

Football has entered a new age of fourth downs—one in which a team’s failure to convert on third down no longer means a near-automatic summoning of the kicking unit, no matter where they are on the field or how far they have to go to get the first. Don’t believe me? Simply listen to any analyst on any network during any Sunday go, “Well, this is what the numbers say you should do nowadays, and more and more guys like COACH X put their trust in those numbers.”

Don’t believe the analysts? Well, here’s a frickin’ graph I made for you. Per Pro Football Reference and my own handy calculator, out of all the seasons since the NFL became a 32-team league, the last two seasons have seen the most attempts on fourth down.

It’s exciting, isn’t it, to be part of such an enlightened age of mathematics and instantly available win probabilities? Isn’t it neat that more and more decision-makers in this billion-dollar game are using logic instead of fear? Isn’t it just nice to have fewer pointless punts and boring field goals cluttering up your life?

I’ll answer for you: Hell yeah it is! It’s so invigorating, in fact, that I took the liberty of adding to my beautiful graph more data from 2021. The fact that this is a 17-game season we’re in the middle of skews things a little. So what I did is take the number of fourth down attempts so far this season (386 through 135 games) and projected what that would look like across a “normal” 256-game year. Let’s take a look.

Pretty unprecedented, huh? There remain, however, a few lily-livered franchises like the Seahawks and the Patriots that sit near the bottom of the fourth-down conversion rankings. What gives!? Don’t they know how awesome fourth-down conversions are? Don’t they want to be like the cool and good teams that are setting a brave example for everybody else?

Take the Chargers, for instance. They have more fourth-down conversions than anybody else in the league this year, as they’ve gone 11-for-17 in these do-or-die moments, and their resolve to do what’s right no matter how matter how scary the risk helped win them a road game against the Eagles on Sunday. With the score tied at 24, Los Angeles got the ball with 6:07 remaining and did not give up possession until there were two seconds left on the clock. They did this with a 15-play, 64-yard field-goal drive that involved not one, but two fourth-and-short conversions, including one where a lesser team definitely would have kicked early and given Philly time for one last drive. On both nerve-racking occasions, the Chargers followed the math and found themselves handsomely rewarded for it.

The Titans, at 10-for-14 on the season, are another squad that is killing it on these high-pressure plays, and they had a couple of sweet fourth-down conversions in their win over the Rams on Sunday night. With the score 14-3 near the end of the first half, the Titans first passed up a field goal on the Rams’ 9, electing instead to run a successful Ryan Tannehill sneak on fourth-and-1. Then, on a fourth-and-goal right up against the end zone, Tennessee fooled the defense with a play-action bootleg that had Tannehill briskly jogging in for the touchdown.

This is the good shit. This is what the most pathetic of the old-school playcallers want to take from us. These intelligent and inspiring first downs and touchdowns are what we lose if the slope on my expertly made graph wavers downward. They are replaced, instead, with dull, yawn-inducing field goals, or even worse, midfield punts that make your skin crawl. We cannot let those white-flag plays regain any kind of foothold in the sport’s psyche.