In fairness to John Fox, it’s rare for teams to keep their offense on the field in the situation the Bears found themselves in during the second quarter of Saturday’s 20-10 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. With the ball on their on 45-yard line and facing a fourth-and-one, Fox elected to punt — a decision that backfired when the Lions drove 97 yards for their first touchdown of the game. 

Here’s why Fox, most likely, decided to punt: It’s what almost every other coach would do in the same situation.

There have been 75 instances this year of a team facing a fourth-and-one in its own territory in the first half. Sixty-eight of those fourth-down plays were punts; only seven were conversion attempts (9 percent), according to Pro Football Reference’s Play Index. Going for it is a little more prevalent when you look at first half fourth-and-ones between a team’s 40 and 49-yard lines, with conversion attempts on six of 22 plays (27 percent).

All six teams that went for it in a similar situation to the Bears converted the first down. There’s not a correlation to winning from that, though: Those teams went 3-3 in those games).

But still, when Fox said he didn’t consider going for it on fourth down, he was following the conventional wisdom of most coaches around the NFL.

“You do got something to lose, that’s called field position,” Fox said. “We failed to have that much of the day, largely to some of our inability to move the ball, in particularly the first half. I think, sure, you can go for that, but it can bite you too.”

 

The Bears’ offense hadn’t inspired much confidence to that point in the game, gaining 33 yards on 12 plays with two first downs on its first three drives. The immediate execution that triggered last week’s expansive, aggressive gameplan in Cincinnati wasn’t there, with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen rushing for four yards on five carries prior to that fourth-and-one (two plays before it, Cohen was dropped for a loss of three when Dontrelle Inman whiffed on blocking safety Glover Quin). Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was successfully run-blitzing the Bears to muzzle their ground game, which has proved to be the most effective way to shut down this offense in 2017.

So yes, in the vacuum of Saturday’s game, punting on that play made sense (the Bears defense wasn’t playing its best, but it was limiting the Lions to field goals, before that drive). But from the wider scope of a 4-10 season, with an 0-5 record against NFC North opponents, and a 13-33 record in Fox’s tenure, it’s fair to ask: Why stay shackled to conventional wisdom?

In the grand scheme of things for a franchise that’s now lost double-digit games four years in a row, would risking field position be worth it to see what Mitchell Trubisky and the offense could do in that situation? The downside, from that 30,000-foot view, doesn’t seem to outweigh the upside.

Trubisky did convert a fourth-and-three last week, for what it’s worth, although it was in Bengals territory and was thrown to Adam Shaheen, who was inactive Sunday due to a chest injury. But that was an aggressive call, and Trubisky delivered on it.

For an offense that didn’t have much of a spark on Saturday, perhaps converting the fourth down would’ve provided it. Not going for it also led to this question, that wound up being answered with “nothing” as the game went on: If the Bears can’t trust Howard to gain a yard, what can they trust offensively?

And even if the Bears ran the ball and got stuffed on the play, there could be coaching points for a young player like Howard or Cody Whitehair. Throw the ball, and Trubisky has to test himself.

Instead, Fox played things by the book, which would’ve been more defensible if the Bears were favored to win and were in the thick of a playoff race. But for a team that’s been mired in losing for so long now, it’s hard to find a defense to sticking with conventional wisdom.