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By the Numbers

Why Are XFL Coaches Playing Scared?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: February 26, 2020, 12:52 am ET

There were a number of reasons to be excited about the XFL before the season in regards to new rules. We've seen a number of these changes lead to positive returns, notably the new kickoffs and overall quickened pace of play.

Still, coaches and play-caller have been unable to wrap their collective minds around the league's new rules for point-after-touchdown conversions as well as punting.

What follows is a look at how and (potentially) why XFL coaches are making these sorts of "mistakes" through three weeks.

Point-after-touchdown conversions

After a touchdown an XFL team has the option of running a play from the two, five or 10-yard line. These are worth one, two or three points, respectively. The defense will be awarded the number of points the offense was attempting to score on its PAT if they manage to create a turnover and return the ball to the house.

Through three weeks it's clear that teams are better off avoiding the one-point conversion in favor of going for two or (maybe) even three:

  • One-point attempts: 8/27 (29.6% success). Estimated points per attempt: 0.296
  • Two-point attempts: 9/28 (32.1% success). Estimated points per attempt: 0.643
  • Three-point attempts: 2/6 (33.3% success). Estimated points per attempt: 1

Note that one of the three-point conversions came after a penalty and was thus from the five-yard line. Either way, the limited sample size for this type of attempt is too small at the moment to have any real meaningful takeaways.

Of course, all of these sample sizes are somewhat limited. It's been three weeks. Still, historical data from the last decade of NFL play paints a similar picture. The following data is from 3rd- and 4th-and-goal plays from 2010-2019 (via Pro Football Reference)

  • From the two-yard line: 226/494 (45.7% success). Estimated points per attempt: 0.46
  • From the five-yard line: 145/403 (36% success). Estimated points per attempt: 0.72
  • From the 10-yard line: 34/156 (21.8% success). Estimated points per attempt: 0.65

If it's a tie game with limited time remaining, go ahead and attempt the conversion from the two-yard line. Otherwise: It's more clear than ever that teams need to forgo the one-point conversion as a whole in favor of the two-point play.

The good news is that teams appear to be learning on the fly and have (seemingly) adjusted accordingly:

  • Week 1: 58% one-point attempts, 42% two-point attempts, 0% three-point attempts
  • Week 2: 58% one-point attempts, 32% two-point attempts, 11% three-point attempts
  • Week 3: 22% one-point attempts, 61% two-point attempts, 17% three-point attempts

The only exception might be the New York Guardians, who haven't attempted a single two- or three-point conversion this season.

Hopefully teams take a similar approach in becoming more aggressive when it comes to going for it more often on 4th downs.

Punting

The XFL has more changes than just the kickoff when it comes to special teams. Specifically, the punt team can't release past the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked, and punts out of bounds inside the 35-yard line, or into the end zone, result in a "Major" touchback, which puts the ball all the way out to the 35-yard line.

This promotes:

  1. Returners to not fair catch due to the lack of incoming defenders that must wait until the ball is punted before releasing.
  2. Coaches to not punt in an effort to flip field position thanks to the new “Major” touchback rule that eliminates the 'coffin corner' and more heavily penalizes kicks that make it to the end zone.

How bad did the XFL want their coaches to commit to going for it on 4th down more often? They literally passed out a conversion chart to every team *and* notified the public of the same rules.

Per the XFL: "In an attempt to better inform the XFL team and league personnel and partners on fourth-down decision-making, Optimum Scouting built a decision-making model based on NFL expected points added (EPA) over the last decade. This model takes into account the value of (a) converted fourth down, (b) alternative values of punts or field goals, and (c) risk of attempting fourth downs based on NFL averages. Below is a chart that lists the optimum fourth-down option (between “Go For It”, “Punt” and “FG”) relative to distance and field position, based on our projections:"

4th Downs

Let's compare the XFL's takeaways and suggestions compared to what coaches have actually done so far. Note that the XFL always recommends punting or kicking a field goal in situations where the offense needs more than 10 yards to convert a 1st down.

XFL suggestion No. 1: "On 4th and 3 or shorter, teams should be fielding offenses and attempting to gain another set of downs across the board"

Reality: Teams have gone for it on 4th and 3, 2 or 1 on just 18-of-36 chances (50%). The following bullets shows the results from these plays:

  • Failed conversion: 6/18 (33%)
  • Successful conversion: 12/18 (67%)
  • Punts: 14/36 (39%)
  • Field goals: 4/36 (10%)

Note that one field goal occurred with fewer than five seconds remaining in the second quarter.

The D.C. Defenders (66%) stand out as the league's most-aggressive offense at going for it in these situations, while the Dallas Renegades (25%) have been the most risk-averse offense.

It's scary to go for it on 4th and short deep inside your own territory, but the success rate in these situations is tough to ignore. Coaches across the board should be more aggressive and keep their offenses on the field in these situations.

XFL suggestion No. 2: "From your own 32 to the opponent 38, outside of field-goal range while also driving closer to the enemy end zone, offenses should be gradually getting more aggressive on fourth down."

Reality: Teams have gone for it on 4th and 10 or fewer on just 19-of-54 chances (35%) when between their own 32 and the opponent's 38. The following bullets shows the results from these plays:

  • Failed conversion: 4/19 (21%)
  • Successful conversion: 15/19 (79%)
  • Punts: 34/54 (63%)
  • Field goals: 1/54 (2%)

The Tampa Bay Vipers (60%), Houston Roughnecks (50%) and New York Guardians (50%) were the only offenses to make the analytically correct decision on more than even 40% of their chances. Meanwhile, the likes of the Seattle Dragons (22%) and St. Louis BattleHawks (14%) have emerged as the most-conservative offenses in these situations.

It's ridiculous to see teams punting in over 60% of these spots. While picking up more than five yards on 4th down might seem like a rough idea depending on the field position, one of the hidden benefits of being more aggressive in play-calling as a whole is that offenses can then approach 3rd downs differently. This was one of the key attributes from the Super Bowl winning 2017 Eagles.

XFL suggestion No. 3: "From the opponent 37 to the opponent 14, as field-goal percentage increases, offenses should be getting gradually less aggressive on fourth down.

Reality: Teams have gone for it on 4th and 10 or fewer on 12-of-31 chances (39%) when between their opponent's 37 and 14. The following bullets shows the results from these plays:

  • Failed conversion: 7/12 (58%)
  • Successful conversion: 5/12 (42%)
  • Punts: 1/31 (3%)
  • Field goals: 18/31 (58%)

The Los Angeles Wildcats were the only team to punt inside of their opponent's 37 yard line. Sad! The most-aggressive teams in terms of going for it have been the Seattle Dragons (75%), Tampa Bay Vipers (50%) and St. Louis BattleHawks (50%), while the Houston Renegades and New York Guardians have yet to do anything but kick a field goal in these situations.

The tendency to simply take the field goal in these situations is particularly perplexing considering the three-point play is worth less in the XFL compared to the NFL due to each offense's opportunity to consistently pick up two or even three points on the point-after-conversion attempt. Sure, game flow and the scoreboard come into play here, but teams are still simply being too conservative for their own good.

XFL suggestion No. 4: "Inside the opponent 14, when the odds of scoring a touchdown with just one more set of downs dramatically improves, the analytics suggest teams go for it on 4th and 4."

Reality: Teams have gone for it on 4th and 10 or fewer on 6-of-14 chances (43%) when inside their opponent's 14-yard line. The following bullets shows the results from these plays:

  • Failed conversion: 5/6 (83%)
  • Successful conversion: 1/6 (17%)
  • Field goals: 8/14 (57%)

There haven't been many instances of 4th down attempts deep inside of enemy territory regardless of the distance needed to pick up a 1st down. Only the Tampa Bay Vipers have had more than two-such attempts this season, and they've been fairly aggressive with a 60% attempt rate.

Again, teams have been kicking more field goals than they probably should be. It wouldn't be at all surprising to see this trend continue even after the sample size of 4th and 4 situations rises.


The XFL's final suggestion noted that, "These numbers will change within the context of the game, but the general rule of thumb is that teams should be getting more aggressive late in the game as they chase points, or should be getting less aggressive late in the game as they hold a lead."

Obviously a team's own offensive ability, as well as the specific defense they're facing, also plays into the above figures. Not every 4th-down attempt is created equal.

Still, it's clear that teams have been too conservative in these situations based on the XFL's own data-driven guide. The following list denotes each team's rank in aggressiveness at going for it on 4th-down based on their average rank in the league's specific top-four recommendations (1 is most aggressive, 8 is most conservative:

  1. Tampa Bay Vipers
  2. New York Guardians
  3. Los Angeles Wildcats
  4. Seattle Dragons
  5. D.C. Defenders
  6. Houston Roughnecks
  7. St. Louis BattleHawks
  8. Dallas Renegades

As a whole the XFL is doing a porous job at being aggressive, going for it on 4th down on just 42% of the situations in which the league recommends doing so. The rate rises to just 54% if we eliminate field goals from the equation.

Even if you don't trust what the XFL and analytics have to say, teams have converted these specific situations on 33-of-55 4th-down attempts (60%). Both the numbers, and on-field evidence, says that teams are not going for it on 4th down nearly enough.

There is plenty of talent in this league.

Here's to hoping that XFL coaches realize their conservative nature isn't giving their team the best chance to win and that they will adjust accordingly moving forward.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.