NFL teams are getting smarter, and better, on fourth downs
One of the hallmarks of last year’s Super Bowl champion Eagles was their aggressiveness on fourth downs: Eagles coach Doug Pederson listened to the analytics experts who have been saying for years that teams should go for it on fourth down more often, and the result was Philadelphia leading the league in fourth-down conversion and winning the title.
The NFL is a copycat league, so it’s no surprise that this year, more teams are getting smarter about going for it on fourth down -- and better at converting when they do go for it.
In 2017, NFL games averaged 1.89 fourth-down attempts per game, and offenses picked up the first down on 46.4 percent of fourth-down attempts. So far this year, NFL games are averaging 2.0 fourth-down attempts per game, and offenses are successful on 62.5 percent of fourth-down attempts.
In other words, NFL teams are getting a little more aggressive about going for it -- and a lot better at picking up the first down when they do go for it. That indicates that offenses are spending more time installing fourth-down plays, and getting smarter about calling them at the right time.
Last year most teams failed on most of their fourth down attempts, with only 14 teams converting on at least 50 percent of fourth downs. This year most teams are successful on most of their fourth down attempts, with 25 teams successful on at least 50 percent of fourth downs.
Last year the best team in the league, the Eagles, was also the best team at picking up fourth downs. That’s the case again this year, with the Saints, the team atop most NFL power rankings, also atop the fourth down leaderboard: New Orleans is 11-for-12 on fourth downs this season, making the Saints first in the league in both total fourth down conversions and in fourth down conversion rate.
The Eagles proved it last year and the Saints are proving it this year: Success on fourth down leads to success on the scoreboard.