Fourth-down myths and trying to bust them

I’ve always been one that hates when a team rushes the ball on fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2.

Is there any worse feeling than seeing a running back get stuffed at the line and immediately thinking, “A pass would have gotten the touchdown easily”?

Well, my friends, let me be the first to admit that I was totally wrong. Bill Connelly has helped to show me the light.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows my open love the college basketball site

So forgive my excitement, because I have found the football equivalent of KenPom: Football Outsiders.*

* — As a side note, I just ordered the PDF version of Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 and have been fascinated by it. For those of you interested in statistical analysis, it’s well worth the $12 (or $5 if you just want the college football analysis).

Anyways, Connelly has been posting college football statistical analysis in his Varsity Numbers blog on the site.

On Dec. 26 of last year, Connelly ran all the numbers from the 2008 college football season up to that point to come up with some interesting findings regarding fourth downs.

Here are the fourth-down statistics. Fake punts and fake field-goal attempts are not included.

Run success rate — 73.8%
Pass success rate — 51.0%

Total success rate — 70.1%
Percentage of times that teams ran the ball — 83.6%

Run success rate — 68.3%
Pass success rate — 44.1%
Total success rate — 56.0%
Percentage of times that teams ran the ball — 49.4%

Run success rate — 55.8%
Pass success rate — 51.7%
Total success rate — 53.0%
Percentage of times that teams ran the ball — 32.1%

The data clearly shows that my gut feeling on fourth-and-short was not only wrong, it was way wrong.

In every situation — fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2 and fourth-and-3 — running the ball, statistically, is the correct call. And on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2, the numbers aren’t even close. Both scenarios see a success rate jump by more than 20 percent when a run is called.

Still, most coaches seem to be stuck like me, hating the thought of a running back getting stuffed at the line and perhaps dreading the second-guessing that will come afterwards. Why else would coaches call passes on 50.6 percent of fourth-and-2s, when overwhelmingly their best chance of success is within a run?

Connelly didn’t stop there, though. Here are the success rates for all fourth-down plays:

Fourth-and-4 – 47.5 percent success rate
Fourth-and-5 — 43.2 percent success rate
Fourth-and-6 — 36.0 percent success rate
Fourth-and-7 — 29.0 percent success rate
Fourth-and-8 — 38.6 percent success rate
Fourth-and-9 — 27.9 percent success rate
Fourth-and-10 — 17.7 percent success rate

So, statistically, Kansas had only a 29-percent chance of getting a first down on its fourth-and-7 against Missouri with under a minute remaining last season.

Of course, Todd Reesing and Kerry Meier did one better, not only converting the fourth down, but also securing the game-winning touchdown on the same play.

One more interesting thought presented by Connelly: the idea that a team should almost never kick a field goal from the opponents’ 1-yard-line.

The statistics seem to back this up.

Fourth-and-1 from opponent’s 1
Run success rate — 69.5%
Pass success rate — 46.2%
Total success rate — 65.3%
Percentage of times that teams ran the ball — 81.9%

Let’s assume that every time you score a touchdown, you get the extra point for the full seven points. That would mean that, on average, you will score 4.571 points by going for it on fourth-and-1 (and 4.865 points if you decide to run it).

If you kick an 18-yard field goal, and make 100 percent of the time, you will average 3 points.

Again, there’s a time and situation for everything (and I wouldn’t advocate going for it if there were three seconds left and my team was trailing by two), but the numbers do seem to indicate that coaches don’t go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 as often as they should.

Thanks to the statistics, I’m starting to second-guess my own second-guessing.