Hoping for a fourth-down shift

Jim Schwartz, center, and Leslie Frazier, right, weren't nearly as frisky as Mike McCarthy was on fourth-down plays in 2012. Getty Images

When the Detroit Lions hired Jim Schwartz as their coach in 2009, hope emerged from the sports analytics industry. Had it gained a patron saint? Schwartz, after all, had acknowledged his interest in the subject during his time as the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator, and some girded for the kind of nontraditional, out-of-the-box thinking it might lead to.

There was an obvious test case. Ever since David Romer's groundbreaking 2006 paper, advanced analysts have encouraged NFL coaches to be more aggressive on fourth down. Research showed that the cost of failing was not as severe as conventional wisdom might suggest, especially when compared to the benefits and likelihood of success.

If anything, however, Schwartz has fallen on the conservative side of his already-cautious NFL brethren, providing us an NFC North illustration of the larger trend. Despite objective research and data, coaches still have relatively little stomach for eschewing field goals and punts in favor of the possibility for a touchdown or continuing a drive.

Our friends at Football Outsiders recently published a ranking of the Aggressiveness Index for every 2012 coach, measuring how often he went for it on fourth down relative to the league average. The study includes fakes but eliminates obvious catch-up situations as well as plays in the final 10 seconds of a half.

As you can see in the chart below, the NFC North's most aggressive coach last season was the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy, who went for it 11 times in 108 qualifying opportunities. Close observers of the Packers' season, of course, would recognize that at least a few of those occasions were partially related to place-kicker Mason Crosby's midseason slump.

Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier went for it four times in 104 opportunities, while Schwartz did so on only two of 98, the second-lowest total in the NFL.

Why am I circling back on this topic now? As NFC West colleague Mike Sando and I discussed during an Inside Slant podcast last November, the NFL arrival of former Oregon coach Chip Kelly could shake up current thinking on fourth downs in the way that Schwartz's mere interest in the general topic of advanced analysis did not.

Kelly's aggressiveness on fourth down at Oregon wasn't necessarily an outlier in the college game but would surely stand out in his new role with the Philadelphia Eagles. (As the Philadelphia Daily News noted, Oregon converted 20 of 31 fourth-down attempts last season, double what most NFL teams tried.)

Kelly has downplayed his potential to carry over those trends to the NFL, telling the Daily News that there is a "fallacy and reality" to what he did. His place-kicker's leg strength played a role in decisions, Kelly said, and rarely did he go for it on his side of the field -- a riskier proposition to be sure.

Regardless, here's hoping that Kelly provides a spark that will spread in a copycat league. Fourth downs are the kind of dramatic and intensely strategic plays that can add another layer of intrigue to a game and spur an entire week of conversation and debate.

Consider one of the simplest examples from the original paper Romer wrote as an economics professor at Cal-Berkley.

It's fourth down and goal at the 2-yard line early in a game, a scenario that provides a near-automatic field goal. According to Romer's research, going for it in that situation historically led to a touchdown 43 percent of the time.

Most coaches look at those odds and choose the 100 percent chance of three points rather than about a 50-50 chance of seven. The analyst would say the expected payoff is about the same.

Why? If you fall short of the touchdown, the opponent takes over inside the 3-yard line. Historically, you're still in pretty good position to get the ball back close to scoring position.

My guess is it will take a long time to drag even the most free-thinking coaches into a more aggressive fourth-down approach. The bottom line is that it's scary to give up a near-certain chance for points at a given moment. But that doesn't mean we can't hope. This season, I'll do my best to track our coaches' decisions in such situations and compare them to the risks presented by historical research. We'll see where it goes.