SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi learned early on in his time working with first-year head coach Brandon Staley to be ready with a fourth-down call in nearly any situation.
Back in Week 3 with the Chargers facing fourth-and-9 in the final minute of a tie game against Kansas City, Staley opted to go for it instead of trying a long field goal.
“When he said, ‘We’re going for it,’ I was a little surprised there,” Lombardi said. "After that, no, I don’t think that I’ll be surprised anymore.”
Teams going on fourth down is much less of a surprise these days than ever, even if it's in the first half in their own territory, in a tie game when a field goal will provide a late lead, or when protecting a lead at the end of the game.
Staley has been among the most aggressive, with that decision against the Chiefs leading to a go-ahead touchdown that left Patrick Mahomes little time to respond. Or last week when Staley went on fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 39 in the final three minutes of a tie game.
“If I feel like it’s an advantage situation, from a data standpoint, modeling standpoint, timing, rhythm of the game, if I feel like that’s what’s best for us, then we’re going,” Staley said. “What we’ve done a good job of is making sound decisions, not reckless decisions. If you study the actual data of the decision making that we’ve had, I don’t think anyone would say that we’re gambling.”
Staley ranks first in EdjSports’ rankings of coaches on fourth-down calls, edging usual leaders like Indianapolis’ Frank Reich and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh.
Bill Belichick, whose memorable decision to go on fourth-and-2 late in a 2009 game against Peyton Manning and the Colts sparked a debate about fourth-down decisions, ranks last on the list.
The analytics company has one of the best models for determining when NFL teams should go and when they should kick on fourth downs, using its win probability model that relies on historical play-by-play data adjusted for variables such as the strength and weaknesses of both teams, injuries and other factors.
Coaches across the league are more willing than ever to keep the offense on the field instead of kicking on fourth down, even in their own territory or in situations their predecessors never would have contemplated.
The shift began in the 2017 season when then-Eagles coach Doug Pederson's aggressive fourth-down strategy helped Philadelphia win the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh and the analytically sound Ravens took it a step further in 2019 when the skills of Lamar Jackson helped deliver 17 successful fourth-down tries. Now, teams are going for it more than ever.
Fourth-down tries jumped more than 10% from 2019 to 2020 and are up an additional 16% through nine weeks this season. Attempts are up more than 73% over 2017 when Pederson first got attention for his success in Philadelphia.
“I think there’s a bit of a herd mentality with coaches,” said EdjSports co-founder Frank Frigo. “There’s definitely coaches out there that have gotten this for a while and been paying attention. Once others start doing it, it kind of snowballs a little bit.”
Teams have gone on fourth down in their own territory in the first half 30 times this year, more than double last year's total through nine weeks (13) and a six-fold increase over the five tries through nine weeks in 2016.
Frigo, who began consulting with NFL teams about 15 years ago, knew this day would eventually come.
“The math was just so clear that this behavior would yield more wins on average,” he said. “If you look at any sort of technology or information, sooner or later if it works and it produces the desired effect, eventually it’ll find its way in. We always wondered how long it was going to take. We thought this was going to happen 10 years ago. There’s definitely a trend going on right now where it’s started to shift and accelerate. But it still has a ways to go.”
While coaches are still far from peak decision making with the models calling for going in most short-yardage situations no matter the field position, the number of glaring errors has been severely reduced.
Ian O'Connor, a senior sports data analyst at EdjSports, said the error rate on their model has dropped by nearly 5 percentage points since 2019. Bad fourth-down decisions cost teams about two-thirds of a win in 2018 and its trending toward about 0.6 wins this season.
While the difference is small, it could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs in a league where the margin between teams is often miniscule.
There is still plenty of progress coaches could make, but there remains some hesitancy.
“I do listen to analytics a ton, and I think it makes a lot of sense, but when it comes down to fourth-and-1, it’s about how you feel in the moment,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who said he considers field position, what plays he has on his sheet, how well his line is blocking, the weather, and all sorts of variables before making a final call.
"I know a lot of people have upped it in the NFL, especially on their own side of the 50, which is somewhat surprising, but I think guys have had some success with it, which has helped them win games. And I think guys haven’t, which has helped them lose games, so there’s never a right or wrong answer until after the play.”