Is the NFL Ready for 4-Down Football? Nope.

"You could get embarrassed," says Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "Could get?" Try "already are."

Fear of embarrassment is what may be keeping 4-down football from the NFL. The bottom line is that coaches prefer to almost certainly lose a relatively close game than to have a good shot at winning in exchange for the potential of a lopsided score. Newsflash, Bob-- Marvin Lewis and his staff, including yourself, need to be updating resumes anyway.

The coach who actually tries it could be the next Bill Walsh, or even Knute Rockne. What if it works? Let's be conservative and say there's only a 25% chance "4-down ball" would work. I'd take a 25% shot that I'd be immortalized as a bold innovator over a 99% chance of going down as just another Bengal coach who got fired.

Among Bratkowski's more rational concerns is his worry that a 4-down strategy would put too much of a burden on his defense. This is a legitimate concern, but the likelihood is that defenses would benefit. Offensive drives would actually be much longer, both in terms of duration and distance. Yes, the lack of a punt would sometimes give the defense a short field to defend, but they would be far more rested. Yes, you'd give up more points, but not as many as you might think.

How many times a game is a team punting from its own territory? Say 4 to 6 perhaps. If you just handed the ball over to the other team each time you faced a 4th down, it would be easy for the opponents to score frequently. But it's not going to happen that way because at least half of those occasions will actually turn out to be 1st downs for your own team. Imagine the demoralizing and fatiguing effect the strategy would have on the opposing defense.

Plus, you're only going to face that situation 2 or 3 times a game. Sometimes it would be more often, but sometimes it would be even less. It could be costly, but this is in exchange for a 33% increase in usuable offensive downs for the offense.

Imagine an offensive coordinator knocking on the office door of his defensive counterpart. "Hey, the League called. They agreed to give us an extra down on offense in exchange for you guys having to defend a short field 2 or 3 times a game. Whaddaya' think?"


Hat tip-FO.

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8 Responses to “Is the NFL Ready for 4-Down Football? Nope.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    One of the problems in getting people to buy into a system like this is that the human brain doesn't think in terms of statistics. People are usually results oriented. If there's a 90% chance that positive event A happens and a 10% chance that negative event B happens and B happens in the first 2 or 3 trials then lots of people are going to give up. Likewise, if the Bengals actually attempted this and it didn't work out in the first couple of games the fans would say it failed.

  2. Brian Burke says:

    Just ran some numbers. Over the past 8 seasons, a team can expect to face a 4th down in its own territory 4.3 times per game. Say about half would be converted to 1st downs playing with a 4-down strategy. That leaves only about twice per game where you'd have to hand the ball over on downs in your own territory.

    Remember, that's in exchange for an additional useful down on offense, on every series of every drive.

    Further, it is relatively rare to have to punt from within your own 20. It happens only .7 times per game. In many of these cases, it may be smart to punt.

  3. Doug says:

    I would love to see this used, but wouldn't the effects last for only a few games or one season at most? If other teams saw a team like Cincinnati having success with the 4-down strategy I think they'd jump on it pretty quick. Much like we've seen how many teams this year run the Wildcat or a variation of it...it only took one or two Dolphins games before everyone was jumping on board.

    So your defense would be rested...for a few games. Then the other teams would start converting 50% of their 4th downs and your defense would be back out there on the field again.

    Maybe it could be compared to mutually assured destruction? The "we won't bomb you if you don't bomb us" of the NFL..."we won't go for it on 4th down if you don't go for it on 4th down against us".

  4. Doug says:

    Sorry to post twice. Just, after posting that last comment, I realized that this go-for-it-on-4th-down strategy could be called the "Nuclear Option". Catchy, eh?

  5. Steve H says:

    I don't think it would catch on widely. The differences were not huge in expected wins (Romer claimed 1/2 win per season), and much of the gains would likely be attributed to "luck" on 4th down. I doubt it would generate a sea change and adoption rates wouldn't be that high.

    I am curious about whether it would improve competitive balance or not. More downs implies that better offenses / worse defenses will do better over a longer time horizon to a first down opportunity, but more variability in 4th down plays helps low quality teams.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Ive always thought that NFL coaches were too conservative on 4th downs (and 2 point conversions) and its interesting to read articles like this with that in mind. I honestly think the author here is on to something that forward thinking coaches could exploit just that it probably needs slightly more sophistication included (like taking the actual field position into account and the number of yards required for a 1st down etc.) My gut feeling is that if this was incorporated too, it would proove more beneficial then is hinted at here although it would be used in less circumstances.

  7. Anonymous says:

    College is the place to field test this. Has it really never been attempted? I don't buy that, Romer has been around for awhile. Find a college team that tried it for a few games or an entire season and lets see how they performed.

  8. Brian Burke says:

    Some colleges are more aggressive. Texas Tech for one. But no one has done it as a matter of doctrine.

    Except Pulaski Academy High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They almost never punt. They're 9-1 heading into the playoffs again this year. They were 9-1-1 last year, and in 2006 they were 14-2, losing by a point in the state championship.

    From their coach, "It's like brainwashing, people believe you are required to punt." Players and the home crowd needed to get acclimated to it. "When we first started going on every fourth down," he says, "our home crowd would boo and the players would be distressed. You need to become accustomed to the philosophy and buy into the idea. Now our crowd and our players expect us to go for it, and get excited when no punting team comes onto the field. When my 10-year-old son sees NFL teams punting on short yardage on television, he gets upset because he's grown up with the idea that punting is usually bad."

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