Say “Fourth-and-2” to a more-than-casual NFL fan and there’s a good chance their mind will fly to one particular play.
The failed fourth-down gamble in Indianapolis on a Sunday night in 2009.
The decision by Bill Belichick to try and convert from his own 28 with 2:08 remaining and a 34-28 lead was an in-the-moment decision.
The Patriots' 31-14 lead at the start of the fourth had been sliced by two stunningly easy Peyton Manning touchdown drives. The New England defense was flagging and confused and Belichick could smell it on them.
Belichick asked himself: What would more likely lead to a win, a short flip to Kevin Faulk for a measly 2 yards or punting it away and giving a height-of-his-powers Manning the ball 60 yards away? Belichick decided the flip to Faulk was the better option. We all know how it went.
Initial outcry was predictable. It was such an unconventional and risky call that even former players like Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi believed it a sin against coaching.
But as the week went on, a more reasoned discussion took shape as to whether Belichick’s decision was actually inspired. This blog in the New York Times checking win-probability declared that going for it was overwhelmingly the right play.
That quick blog didn’t factor in particulars relative to how the Colts were playing offensively (well) or how the Patriots were playing defensively (poorly) or the venue or momentum or any of it. If those intangibles could have been quantified, it would have made the decision to go for it even more overwhelmingly logical.
Interestingly, Belichick made another fourth-quarter, fourth-down decision in Indianapolis the year before when Matt Cassel was his quarterback.
Trailing 18-15 with 4:40 remaining, the Patriots faced a fourth-and-15 from the Colts 45. He went for it. Didn’t work out. The Colts held the ball until 21 seconds were left, ballgame.
While the 2009 decision was based on fear of Manning scoring quickly, the 2008 gamble was based on the big-play impotence of the Patriots offense that night.
The Patriots had three possessions in the first half of that game and were in the midst of their third possession of the second half. Everything was taking forever.
The reason I bring this up now is two-fold.
First, fourth-and-2 actually started an earnest conversation about rolling the dice on fourth down and – because it was Belichick doing it on a national stage – it loosened the floodgates a little for coaches to be more adventurous, because the best coach in the league had done it and analytics backed him up.
Second, when you look at the two occasions mentioned, you get a sense of how many factors play into the decision. Score. Time. Field position. How the respective offenses and defenses are performing. And whether or not the other team is playing aggressively.
Last Saturday, the Chiefs put their AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Colts on ice early helped in part by fourth-down conversions in the first quarter.
On their first drive, KC didn’t even face a third down before scoring a touchdown. On their second drive, they faced fourth-and-1 at the Colts 47 and picked up 11. On the next play, they scored a 36-yard touchdown on a Tyreek Hill end around. On their third drive, they picked up a fourth-and-1 at the Indy 35 and went on to kick a field goal.
They went 3 for 4 on the day and are now 12 for 15 on the season.
“I liked it last week,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. “I can’t tell you I’d do that this week. Every game and situation’s different so it depends on matchups. It depends on what you have left on the gameplan sheet, situation and field position, time on the clock.
“All those things you kind of calculate in there and obviously what the other team does schematically,” he added. “So where you might have done it last week, you might not do it this week, that type of thing. So it’s kind of game-to-game, situation-to-situation.”
Opponents went 6 for 16 against the Patriots this season when they rolled the dice on fourth down. But Kansas City is a little more challenging than the rest of the league because of the diversity of weapons and mobility of quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
What will be interesting to see is how the Patriots play it on fourth down when they have the ball.
This year, they were 7 for 14 on fourth down. While we may have the perception of the Patriots as a team that will go for it often, they actually do so far less than a decade ago. From 2006-2009, they attempted 86 fourth-down conversions and succeeded 59 times. In the last four seasons they are 32 for 54.
Apprised of the numbers, Tom Brady said, “I think sometimes you get in the games and offensively you’re doing really well and you feel like if we have that extra down, we can get it,” said Tom Brady. “Sometimes it’s not going as well and you feel like they’ve been stopping us and then you punt.
“I don’t know what those particular reasons were,” he added. “I’m sure there was a reason for all of those, why we would go for them, why we wouldn’t. How many times did we go for it this year?”
Told the numbers, he said, “Fifty percent. That’s not very good.”
Would Brady ever feel emboldened to lobby for taking a risk?
“Whatever the situation presents, I think we’ll try to do what’s best or what we think is best or gives us the best opportunity to win,” he said. “It’s one game. If you don’t win, that’s it. That’s what the playoffs are about. You’re right – they’ve got a great offense. We’re going to need to score a lot of points.”
This will be another element of the chess match between the sidelines that’s going to go on. If one offense is cashing in, the heat on the opposing offense goes up considerably to match points. Which means more decisions to push for retaining possession which also means more risk.
With both head coaches being a little older and perhaps a little bolder and both quarterbacks having unique skills that make one the reigning MVP and the other the soon-to-be MVP, expect the Patriots and Chiefs to use every down possible on Sunday to get to the Super Bowl.
FOURTH DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR PLAYOFF TEAMS
Chargers: 7 for 8
Saints: 13 for 16
Chiefs: 12 for 15
Seahawks: 11 for 14
Texans: 8 for 12
Bears: 9 for 15
Eagles: 14 for 23
Ravens: 13 for 22
Cowboys: 12 for 21
Patriots: 7 for 14
Colts: 7 for 15
Rams: 6 for 15
PATRIOTS ON FOURTH DOWN
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