News & Analysis

NFL teams that gained, lost the most value on fourth-down decisions in 2019

In a week where some college football conferences are deciding to go for it as others punt, I wanted to take a look at the NFL teams that stood out — either good or bad — in terms of fourth-down decision-making in 2019.

The difficult part about these analyses is that sample sizes are low and situations matter. The Baltimore Ravens trailed less than any team in the NFL in 2019, meaning that they likely had less motivation to go for it on fourth down late in games. Additionally, the decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the opponent’s 23-yard line is an easier decision to make than fourth-and-4 from the 34, so we need a way to measure how good a decision was.

To these aims, we looked at all fourth-down plays in the first three quarters during the 2019 season that met the following criteria: 1) there were four or fewer yards to go for a first down or a touchdown, and 2) the expected points when going for it were higher than when kicking a field goal (with 35 or fewer yards to go to the end zone) or punting (36 or more yards). These cutoffs are crude in the sense that they don’t apply to every team equally (see Tucker, Justin, and his Ravens) but are reasonable given where we are in the game of football.

[Editor’s Note: PFF’s advanced statistics and player grades are powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]

Teams that took advantage of fourth downs in 2019:

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles were a regular winner of our decision of the week award last year, and for good reason. They made the correct decision on 72% of fourth downs a season ago when going for it was the better of the two choices, generating 10 additional expected points as a result.

Things didn’t always work as expected for the Eagles on this money down, though, as Carson Wentz was the victim of three dropped passes — the most of any player on fourth down — and he converted only three of his seven rushing attempts when asked to carry the ball for a first down or touchdown in 2019. Those things are more likely to improve than not in 2020.

The Eagles' 2017 run during both the regular season and the playoffs will forever change the league, and while the results on the field haven’t been replicated since, they continue to hack basic strategy by playing more downs than other talented teams.

Baltimore Ravens

Notwithstanding the two high-profile misses in the playoffs against Tennessee, the Ravens continue to make the right choice on fourth downs. What’s impressive about them is that they are correct in a decent amount of the borderline choices — of their 23 qualifying decisions a season ago, the edge they gained was just under one-third of an expected point. That means they were going for it in situations where very few would blame them if they had punted or gone for a field goal. 

Jan 11, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) reacts after getting tackled in the first quarter against the Tennessee Titans in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at M&T Bank Stadium. Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It helps to have Lamar Jackson, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry on his five fourth-down rushes during the regular season. Three of his four designed fourth-down runs during the regular season resulted in a first down or a touchdown.

Buffalo Bills

We give the Bills a lot of flack, mostly regarding quarterback Josh Allen, but it’s unmistakable that they are a well-run franchise with a bright future. Allen led the NFL during the regular and postseason in rushing attempts on fourth down (8), and he converted five of them. The Bills, in general, went for it almost two-thirds of the time in 2019, generating more than 11 extra expected points in the process.

If Allen’s outcomes regress in 2020, the Bills might be able to stay afloat due to extracting 33% more downs than their opponents, a tactic that has kept teams like the Eagles relevant despite perturbations in 2018 and 2019.

Atlanta Falcons

The PFFalcons have given us fits in the past, but it’s clear that they have improved in terms of their on-field decision making. It was never more apparent than when they used a screen pass to Julio Jones to beat the playoff-bound Eagles on Sunday Night Football in Week 2 last year, earning our decision of the week award.

The Falcons are behind the eight ball in the NFC South, projected to finish third in the division by almost everyone. With head coach Dan Quinn probably coaching for his job early in the season, look for the Falcons to continue to throw misplaced caution to the wind in 2020.

Honorable mention: New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts

Teams that left points on the table on fourth downs in 2019:

Seattle Seahawks

Seattle dropped almost 10 additional expected points on qualifying fourth-down decisions in 2019, continuing to befuddle analysts of the game by going 11-5 with a plus-seven point differential, poor early-down decision making and a bevy of points left on the board on the fourth down.

The Seahawks made the right choice on only one-sixth of their qualifying fourth downs in 2019, almost 7 percentage points below than the next-worse team. If Seattle is looking for ways to increase its stature fundamentally — with the goal to replicate the 11-5 record — this is the place to do so.

Chicago Bears

Regression hit the Bears in many places in 2019, but one area where they didn’t give themselves any help was on fourth down. They made the correct choice on less than one-fourth of admissible fourth downs, dropping more than 12 additional expected points in the process.

Dec 29, 2019; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy looks on during the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Nagy might be coaching for his job in 2020, and with many people believing the Lions are better than what they are being handicapped at right now, he might need to make some decisions simply to keep what was once a 12-4 team out of last place in the NFC North. Here’s to him doing so.

Washington Football Team

Jay Gruden finished his tenure in Washington as one of the lower-rated playcallers in the game, and this extended to his decision-making on fourth downs.

In comes Ron Rivera, who — with the help of an improving Dwayne Haskins — should give Washington the extra downs it lacked in 2019. Rivera was always one of the more aggressive coaches in the NFL when he was at the helm in Carolina; such actions would give the Football Team a decent shot at going over their season win total of five.

Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders did not win a game by more than one score last year despite dropping almost seven points on fourth-down decisions in head coach Jon Gruden’s second year.

Much like Seattle, if the Raiders want to even get back to their win total of 2019, they are going to have to improve fundamentally. I don’t see it happening, but extending a few more drives by virtue of going for it instead of kicking would give them a fighting chance.

Bets I Like Based on This Information:

Las Vegas UNDER 7.5 (-115 at FanDuel) and Washington OVER 5 (-120) wins have both been printed but are still playable.

Chicago UNDER 8 (-125)

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