The distance on 4th-and-1 may be short, but the memories are long
At some point in the upcoming NFL season, every team in the league will find itself trying to convert a critical fourth-and-one situation. Jobs on the line, playoff hopes possibly hanging in the balance, the crowd in full throat and viewers at home sitting on the edge of their seats. SI.com delves here into the emotions involved in such plays (on both sides of the ball), and continues on page two with a sidebar article on why slow-footed Tom Brady may be the best short-yardage converter the NFL has ever seen. (No, seriously).
By Len Pasquarelli, for SI.com
Even from his facedown vantage point, staring at the top of Atlanta tailback Michael Turner's cleats, and nose-to-blade with the ersatz grass on the carpeted surface of the Georgia Dome, Malcolm Jenkins sensed what manner of havoc was transpiring with the canopy about 20 stories above him.
At least figuratively.
"It was like somebody stuck a huge pin or something in the [roof]," recalled the New Orleans free safety in the wake of the memorable fourth-and-one stop in which he played a critical role in the Saints' overtime victory at Atlanta nearly two years ago. "I mean, like, all the air was sucked out of the place." And then this: "Game over."
Sure enough, less than 2½ minutes and four plays after Jenkins and several other New Orleans defenders stuffed Turner cold, John Kasay knocked home the 26-yard winning field goal. Game over, indeed.
Twenty-two months after the play, despite emerging as one of the NFL's best young free safeties, Jenkins' tackle of Turner at the Falcons' 29 remains one of the highlight-reel snippets from the former first-rounder's four-year career. And even though only the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots have registered more than the Falcons' 19 victories (counting playoffs) since that Nov. 13, 2011 loss, that defeat -- or at least coach Mike Smith's decision to gamble on fourth-and-one in his own territory -- is one of the most debated plays in recent franchise history. Definitely, it is one of the most unforgettable, and at the same time ignominious, for players, coaches and fans.
For those who make the play, either on offense or defense, the success is uplifting. For those who fail, it can be an equally defining moment. No, the Teflon and fibreglass that comprise the Georgia Dome roof didn't implode, like a balloon pierced by an ice pick, as Jenkins suggested, on the much debated play. But that short-yardage shortcoming was a depressing moment for the Falcons. "It still hurts," said Turner, released by Atlanta this spring.
Of the 32,000 or so snaps that take place in any NFL regular season, the likelihood is that only a few dozen handfuls are passionately debated after the conclusion of the campaign. But the decisions to go for it on fourth-and-one situations, and the accompanying play calls -- or, in some cases, eschewing the opportunity -- present a disproportionate decibel level. Over the past three regular seasons, there have been 490 attempts to convert on fourth-and-one, according to the league. One can bet the coaches and the players, and, yeah, the fans, too, of the clubs involved, vividly recall every integral detail of those critical plays.
"People still bring it up; they're like elephants," allowed Seattle's Michael Robinson of his team's fourth-and-one failure in a division-round loss at Atlanta last season.
The Seahawks' fullback was stopped on an off-tackle run in the second quarter of the team's NFC playoff defeat at Atlanta on Jan. 13 (see photo below). Seattle trailed 13-0 at the time and was at the Atlanta 11-yard line. Exacerbating the significance of the play was that the Seahawks, who could have kicked a chip-shot field goal instead of opting for the more aggressive gamble by coach Pete Carroll, subsequently lost the game by two points, 30-28.
Of course, not nearly as many Seahawks' fans remember that only a week earlier, in a wildcard-round win at Washington, the Seahawks converted a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter to salt away a 24-14 upset victory. The conversion -- which came 15 plays after Robert Griffin III was famously injured -- saw Russell Wilson and tight end Zach Miller combine on a six-yard completion.
"I'm not sure the situations are exactly similar," Carroll said. "But when you go for it [on fourth-and-one], you obviously think you're going to make it. Either way, you leave yourself open to second-guessing, I guess. It's just the nature of the beast. You feel like you can always get a yard, that your [offensive] line can take the line of scrimmage. It's just that sometimes it doesn't work that way."
And when it doesn't, the spark that coaches hoped to provide on the offensive side often turns into a fading ember.
Further firing the fourth-and-one beast anymore are statistical-based studies such as those by University of California economics professor David Romer and Brian Burke, a onetime Navy fighter pilot and founder of Advanced NFL Stats. Without a degree in statistics -- and a lot of patience, understanding and the ability to digest a ton of high-level metrics and philosophical rationale -- it's daunting stuff to fully present the "advanced analytics" theories of the two men. But reduced to their simplest forms, the upshot is this: Both argue that NFL coaches should be far more aggressive on most fourth-down calls, not just fourth-and-one plays.
|Fourth-And-One Attempts Since 2010|
"The problem," said Burke, of Reston, Va., "is that there's the real world and there's the football world. And the two don't always mix. Plus, the [statistical] information doesn't always trickle down [to the coaches]."
Notable is that the NFL, which has been a laggard when compared to Major League Baseball in its application and utilization of advanced metrics, is slowly becoming increasingly enlightened. Roughly two dozen teams now employ what once might have been regarded as geeks or nerds to pore over data and parse stats. The Sports Solutions Group of STATS LLC provides high-level analysis for about 20 teams. Burke is not technically retained by any league teams, but regularly offers input to four franchises. Romers' analyses have been read and studied by New England coach Bill Belichick, who himself holds an economics degree.
Burke deals in esoteric principles such as "base rate neglect" and "expected points" to help rationalize why punting should largely be avoided. But it's what he terms "prospect theory" that might best describe why so many coaches are risk-averse on fourth down in general, and, more specifically, fourth-and-one. Burke explained the concept of "prospect theory" in this easy-to-comprehend analogy: We are likely twice as upset when we lose a $20 bill as we are excited by strolling down the street and stumbling upon one. Basically, we [and most coaches] react more emotionally when we lose something, or face the prospect of losing it, than when we have a potential gain.
"It's just the way we're evolutionarily wired," said Burke, who pooh-poohed the notion in some quarters that job security is a component of many fourth-and-one decisions. "You remember the failures more. And that takes over in most risk-reward situations. It becomes more about the emotion than the numbers."
The increase in NFL teams' reliance on advanced metrics is attributable to a lot of factors:
•The elevation of many former cap specialists, who by basic definition are numbers-crunchers, to general manager positions.
•Owners seeking any edge that can separate their teams from their competitors.
•Younger head coaches, many of whom are not so married to the conventions of the past, more readily embracing the high-level analytics.
It has always been, after all, a copycat league and the success of some teams employing the high-level metrics has prompted others to join in.
That said, the spread formation is still a bigger part of the NFL than the spreadsheet. And that's because, as Burke pointed out, fourth-and-one decisions are still much more about emotion than statistical studies.
"A coach isn't standing there with a spreadsheet," Burke said. "He doesn't have a lot of time. There's a lot happening on the sideline. It's more a gut call. There definitely are a lot of non-statistical [elements] that come into it. There's a lot of emotion."
There are players on both sides of the ball who have contended that the sack is arguably the most passion-evoking play in a game. Many have compared it to a dunk in basketball in terms of the emotions it can elicit. But the fourth-and-one play might be right there with it. "Especially when it's a run, it's a test of your manhood, who's the tougher guy, and that's essentially what football is about," said Carolina linebacker Chase Blackburn, one of the principals in stopping Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan on two fourth-and-one failures against the New York Giants in the 2011 playoffs. "The feeling of making a [fourth-and-one] stop is about as good as it gets. And, I'm sure for the offense, if they don't get it, it's [conversely] pretty deflating."
For all the forward thinking, football remains a testosterone-fueled exercise, a game filled with machismo, and fourth-and-one plays kind of define that quality.
The Falcons are one of the franchises that employ advanced statistics in a big way, but Smith still acknowledged that fourth-and-one decisions are more "about feeling" than numbers. "There are a lot of variables but, ultimately, it might come down to 'feel' as much as anything," he said. "You want your team to know that you have the confidence in them. Sometimes, that [supersedes] everything else."
For sure, raw emotions trump raw numbers more often than not.
Not to be ignored is that for every fourth-and-one offensive failure, there is a success, too, on the defensive side. Burke asserted that "because a defense doesn't make the decision," the feelings might not be the same. But players who have made fourth-down stuffs have talked about the intensity of the moment. The failure of a defense to stop a team on fourth-and-one isn't nearly as impactful.
Belichick has noted that momentum plays a big role in the decisions about whether to punt or attempt a fourth-down conversion, and also the selection of the play. Said Belichick last year, after a failed fourth-and-one from his own 12-yard line, late in a loss to San Francisco: "You take a lot of things into account. But you know, one way or another, there's going to be a big [momentum] swing. It's always going to be a difference-maker, it seems."
Belichick has been involved in some of the more notably failed fourth-and-short plays in recent history. In addition to the one against the 49ers last year, there was the fourth-and-two at Indianapolis in 2009, a play that is still much discussed, both pro and con, by New England fans. Never mind that the Pats have converted about 70 percent of their fourth-and-one attempts during Belichick's tenure.
"The one thing you know," said former New England tailback Kevin Faulk, who was stopped a yard short of the first down after his reception against the Colts in the '09 game, "is that, one way or another, a [fourth-and-one] is going to stick with you."
Sometimes for a long time.
It might be a small sample size, but it's still notable that the 2011 failure by Atlanta against New Orleans started the Falcons on a stretch in which they have converted only two of nine fourth-and-one plays (excluding a 10th play, a kill-the-clock kneel-down by Ryan on a fourth-and-one). The Falcons, whose failures in the 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants two months later (see picture below) were almost as notorious in Atlanta as the play versus the Saints, have converted just two of six fourth-and-one running plays since Turner was stuffed by the New Orleans defense.
Before the infamous Nov. 13, 2011 play, the Falcons were 20-for-24 on fourth-and-one conversion attempts under Smith. Counting the play in the New Orleans game, Turner converted only one of his three fourth-and-one runs before being released by Atlanta. Ryan has made just one of his last three. The Falcons were stopped on both of their fourth-and-one attempts in 2012.
"We never thought of ourselves as a [poor] short-yardage team," said former Atlanta center Todd McClure, who retired in the offseason. "But maybe subconsciously, that stuff gets in your head. The [failures] certainly stick with you for a while." (CLICK CONTINUE STORY, BELOW, FOR THE BRADY SIDEBAR STORY)
By Scott Kacsmar, for SI.com
One of the biggest hits Tom Brady ever took came in the 2011 AFC Championship against Baltimore. Down 20-16 in the fourth quarter and facing fourth-and-goal at the one, Brady paid for his plunge over the goal line when Ray Lewis delivered a hit near Brady's lower back as the quarterback fell head-first to the ground.
At a different angle it could have been paralytic, but Brady survived the hit and celebrated the eventual game-winning touchdown that sent him to his fifth Super Bowl. Of his 91 short-yardage runs in a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, none may have been more important than that one.
It has always been smart, of course, to put a game in Brady's hands. But the numbers for the past several seasons indicate that it's hardly imprudent, either, to trust critical short-yardage plays to his feet.
Brady as the greatest short-yardage rusher in league history? Don't laugh. Brady, in fact, converts short-yardage runs at roughly the same rate at which league kickers succeed on PAT attempts.
In his career, on third- and fourth-down plays in the regular season with either one or two yards to make for a first down, Brady is an incredible 88-for-91. That's a 96.7 percent success rate. He has not been stopped in the regular season since 2005, a mind-boggling stretch of 56 straight short-yardage conversions.
"[Brady] just has an [uncanny] knack," acknowledged former New England tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis, now the Cincinnati starter. "Obviously, he's not the biggest, strongest, fastest runner around, right? But he's got a great feel for it, great timing."
Part of that precise timing is that the Patriots frequently quick-snap the ball in short-yardage situations, with Brady rarely permitting the defensive front to get set, or dig in against the rush. There have been a few occasions, though, on which Brady has gone to a long count. Regardless, the results have been the same: Essentially, Brady is the master of the quarterback sneak.
His last 27 short-yardage runs in the regular season have been on the sneak. He was last stopped on one in 2005, by the San Diego defense. The only other two times he was stopped in the regular season happened on consecutive attempts in 2002, against the Vikings and Titans. Last season he willingly gave himself up by design on a third-and-two run against Miami to run clock and set up a field goal. That type of play was excluded for all quarterbacks in compiling the data for this story (see charts below), keeping Brady's streak alive at 56.
By comparison, Minnesota star tailback Adrian Peterson, the league's reigning most valuable player and widely regarded as the NFL's premier runner, has converted 71.4 percent (75 of 105) of his short-yardage rushes in his six-year career. Another of the league's most physical runners, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, has converted only 36 of 68 short-yardage tries (52.9 percent). Since 2000, there are 31 quarterbacks (see chart below) with better conversion rates than Peterson owns.
And as further indication that speed is little factor in the conversion rate, there is this nugget: Peyton Manning, who will never be confused for quick, has converted on 13-of-16 short-yardage runs since 2000. The conversion rates for a few other quarterbacks never noted for their quickness: Chad Pennington, 93.9 percent; David Garrard, 92.3 percent; Jay Fiedler, 88.2 percent; Carson Palmer, 87.2 percent; and Philip Rivers, 86.2 percent.
"There's never a sure thing," conceded former NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart, who converted 71.4 percent of his short-yardage rushes during his career. "But the [quarterback sneak] might be about as close as you can come."
Given the quarterbacks' collective conversion rate, and the fact that simple physics position them much closer to the line of scrimmage than any running back, at least when they are aligned under center, it's a little surprising that coaches don't rely even more on the sneak. Although it's a fallacy that there are a few franchises that don't even have a quarterback sneak in their playbook, some coaches simply don't call them. Since 2009, quarterbacks have carried the ball on just 9.2 percent of third-and-short plays and on only 19.2 percent of fourth-and-short snaps since 2000.
Anyone can romanticize a short-yardage run as a clash of titans dripping in "who wants it more?" bravado, but the best conversions might just come from the quarterback falling forward to gain just enough for the first down. And with rules for forward progress and at the goal line -- where the ball only has to break the plane to be a touchdown -- it's like stealing candy for quarterbacks. They can stick the ball out with little concern of a fumble due to the rulebook.
It stands to reason, then, that teams must have some strong excuses to not use the quarterback more in short yardage. One of the biggest would be the risk of injury, of which there have not been many examples of on such plays. But it did effectively end Alex Smith's tenure in San Francisco last season. Against the Rams, Smith ran a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one in the second quarter. That's when he suffered the concussion that would eventually knock him out of the game and put backup Colin Kaepernick in the spotlight as the starter for the rest of the season and the future. Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub could have suffered a similar fate had rookie T.J. Yates been more impressive in Schaub's absence. In 2011, with the Texans picking up steam on a four-game winning streak, Schaub's season came to an end after suffering a dreaded Lisfranc injury on a quarterback sneak, when Tampa Bay's Albert Haynesworth fell on the quarterback in the pile of players.
That's reason enough not to run the quarterback sneak on every one-yard-to-go situation, but perhaps teams should use it in moderation and definitely use it when they must have the conversion. Look what Vince Lombardi had dialed up in "The Ice Bowl" for the Packers. With the game on the line, Bart Starr converted the most famous quarterback sneak in NFL history.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Using NFL Game Rewind to break down every short-yardage quarterback run from the last four seasons to pinpoint the difference between the sneak and other types of quarterback runs, the following types of plays were excluded: kneel downs, spikes and intentional safeties. Only quarterbacks were considered for quarterback runs. Any team using the Wildcat with a direct snap to a player like Brad Smith or Ronnie Brown went under regular runs. While technically there can be a short-yardage situation on any down, only third and fourth down were studied since those are the plays that usually decide if an offense will maintain possession.
|Summary of third- and fourth-down plays with 1-2 yards to go since 2009|
|If a team wants to move the chains and keep the drive going, it's pretty indisputable what the best call is to do so. Yet the sneak is used just 6.9 percent of the time.|
|Short-Yardage QB Runs Since 2000 (Minimum 20 Carries)|
|The breakdown of the 163 quarterback runs on 4th-and-1 since 2009|
Scott Kacsmar is an Assistant Editor at Football Outsiders. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback. Research for this study was compiled from Pro-Football-Reference, official NFL game books and Pro Football Focus.