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"The Analytics" are Winning: A Look at Historical Trends of Going for Fourth Downs

Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) and quarterback Justin Herbert (10) celebrate after a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in the second half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL season has been like no other. We’re experiencing a lot of things as fans and observers of the league that we’re not used to, including (but not limited to) Patrick Mahomes struggling for an extended set of games, the Tennessee Titans playing an NFL-record number of players (and still leading the AFC South) and the addition of the league’s 17th game (along with the seventh playoff spot a year ago).

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Another thing that has changed: Teams are going for fourth downs more often — so often that people are starting to take notice and get upset. The Los Angeles Chargers have been the most high-profile of such teams, and on Thursday night they missed three critical fourth downs in Kansas City Chiefs territory in an important divisional game. This led to many questioning the decision not to “take the points” in a game they eventually lost in overtime. Some of these detractors were high profile, including failed Cleveland general manager Mike Lombardi:

These screeds are misguided for a few reasons, the most explicit of them being:

1) To one person, forgoing the opportunity for a (Chargers, mind you) kicker to kick a field goal is turning down the opportunity for three points.

To another person, attempting a field goal is turning down an opportunity for Justin Herbert to earn seven points with a touchdown. That's why it’s important to know how each side of the decision affects a team’s chances to win.

2) Each game is different, and so is each situation, which is why each win probability model worth anything takes into consideration down, distance, yards to go, time left in the clock, the score, number of timeouts, etc. Most, including Ben Baldwin’s fourth down bot, ESPN’s win probability model, Deck Prism’s live odds (which power sportsbooks like Pinnacle’s) and PFF's win probability models, which are used on NBC’s Sunday Night Football as well as other broadcasts, also include team-level strengths. So the idea that these models aren’t taking into effect the difference between Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley, for example, is false. To imply anything different is acting in bad faith.

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3) Lombardi, a Bill Belichick disciple, said nothing when his mentor opted to kick a field goal when trailing by 13 against the Colts on Saturday, a game in which New England ended up losing because it never got within three points of Indianapolis (but would have eventually led at one point with a converted fourth-down in said situation). 

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