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NFL Teams Continue To Go For It More Often On Fourth Down

September 25, 2021
why are they going for it on fourth down?

With just over a minute to play in the Ravens-Chiefs Sunday night primetime NFL game in Week 2, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 43-yard line. The decision paid off as QB Lamar Jackson gained two yards and what would result in a game-ending first down. Jackson took a knee on the game’s final play giving the Ravens a 36-35 win over Kansas City.

In a different era, Harbaugh would have punted the ball away attempting to pin the Chiefs deep in their own territory and force them to drive the length of the field in order to win. That was then. This is now. NFL head coaches choose to go for it on fourth down much more than in the past. Why?



Like anything, football changes over time. The single wing was a huge hit as an offense at the outset of the NFL in the 1920s. Then, along came the T, the Wing-T, the I-Formation all the way through to today’s modern offenses. 

Defenses have changed as well as have coaching philosophies. The “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach to football has been gone for a long time. It took a little longer for coaches to realize that fourth down doesn’t always mean punt the football.

Here’s an interesting stat. Through the first four weeks of the 2019 season, there was a total of 547 punts. Over the first four weeks of last season, there were 435 punts. Through two weeks and a Thursday night game this season, there have been 226 punts, an average of about 6.8 per game. That’s on pace to record fewer punts this season than last.

There’s only one reason for that. Teams are going for it more on fourth down.


The Numbers

The average NFL football play lasts between five and six seconds. That average play gains 4.6 yards. If you’re following along with your math skills, you can figure out that an NFL offense can almost gain a first down in two plays. We know, of course, that not every play is a winner and there will come times when a team faces a fourth down.

Teams are more likely to go for it on fourth down and short, meaning 4th-and-1, 4th-and-2, or 4th-and-3. For example, in 2010 NFL teams chose to go for it on 4th-and-1 less than 50 percent of the time. Last year, that number was closer to 75 percent. 



What NFL coaches today have that helps them make fourth down decisions are analytics. There are a number of companies out there providing information to NFL teams regarding things like when to go for it on fourth down.

The idea is pretty simple. When going for it on fourth down will lead to more points, it makes sense to attempt to gain a first down. Achieving a first down extends a drive and presents an opportunity for the offense to score rather than turn the ball over to the opponent.



That coaches are using analytics is evident throughout the league. Take Cincinnati’s Week 1 win over Minnesota. Facing a 4th-and-1 at his own 30-yard line, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor made a decision that would make guys like Tom Landry and Chuck Noll roll over in their graves. He elected to go for it.

Even within the last decade, that situation is an easy decision for most coaches. Punt it. Not today. The Bengals led 21-7 at the time and would go on to win 27-24. The decision was based on math. Ironically, the Bengals didn’t get the first down and Minnesota used four plays to cut Cincy’s lead to 21-14. Ultimately though, it was decisions like Taylor’s that led to a Bengals win.


Week 1

In the first week of the 2021 NFL season, teams went for it on fourth down 51 times. That is the highest ever total for a single week in an NFL season. Go back to 2018. In Week 1, fourth down attempts were just 22. Only eight of those were tried prior to the fourth quarter. Just last year, NFL teams went for it 37 times on fourth down in Week 1. 

The numbers are on the rise and will continue. The Saints went for it on fourth down twice in the same drive…in the first half! That helped lead to their 38-3 blowout of Green Bay. Denver went for it on 4th-and-7 in the first quarter of their win over the Giants. The Browns said no to two field goals in their Week 1 game with Kansas City. Instead of six points, Cleveland scored 15 and had a chance to upset the Chiefs.

And that is why NFL coaches will go for it more often on fourth down. The reward is worth the risk.