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Gary Kubiak vs. John Fox: Going for it on 4th and goal

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The Seattle Seahawks made a Tim Tebow-like comeback late in the 4th quarter of the NFC Championship Game to advance to the Super Bowl. But the Green Bay Packers' head coach made some interesting 4th and Goal decision that helped Seattle's comeback.

Go for it!
Go for it!
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Deciding whether to go for it on 4th and Goal is hard. While we all want to point to analytics and make it easy, there are extenuating circumstances one must recognize when considering Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy's 4th-and-Goal decisions. His team was on the road in a very difficult place to play. His team had all the momentum, and he didn't want to risk the momentum shift that can occur if they had been stopped on 4th and goal.

Still, he took the "three points are better than no points" approach, which many have pointed out is kind of silly.

Some conservative coach apologists might say that  McCarthy made the right choice to kick the field goal both times. So let's go look at some historic numbers to see if McCarthy should have chosen to go for it on one or both of those situations and then you can decide what call you would have made.

What happens if you get stopped?

Here are the two game situations in which McCarthy made his choices:

  • 4th and goal from the 1, 8:10 left to play in the first quarter, game tied at 0
  • 4th and goal from the 1, 5:10 left to play in the first quarter, GB leading 3-0

So let's assume that Green Bay tried for TDs in both situations and failed in both. Historically what happens on the drive immediately following a stop on 4th and goal (does the other teams offense gain momentum from it?). The stadium would have been deafening at that point even though the Packers had dominated so there is that angle to kicking (taking the crowd out of the game), but when about the aftermath, does your opponent's offense benefit when their D stops you on 4th and goal?

What about momentum - does a team's offense benefit when its defense stops someone on 4th and Goal?

Since 1998 in both the regular season and playoffs, there have been 1253 drives that started after a stopped 4th and goal try. Only 202 of those drives resulted in points by the team that just got the stop (16%). So even if they had gotten stopped both times, there is an 84% chance that they would have gotten the ball back with the same score. If we narrow our search to what has historically happened after stops on 4th and goal from the 1, there have been 128 drives in the playoffs and regular season that began with a stop on 4th and goal from the 1 since the 1998 season.

Outcome Total Pct
Punt 77 60.2%
Safety 12 9.4%
Touchdown 11 8.6%
End of Game 7 5.5%
Interception 7 5.5%
Fumble 5 3.9%
End of Half 4 3.1%
Field Goal 4 3.1%
Downs 1 .8%
All Turnovers 12 9.4%
All Scores 15 11.7%

Interestingly, the odds of giving up a score on the ensuing drives are almost the same as getting a safety from your defense. Is that a clear argument against momentum? It certainly lends itself in that direction, though one can still argue the nuances of short-term vs. long-term momentum in a game.

From 1998 through 2014, there were 328 tries on 4th and goal from the 1. The TD rate on those tries is  64.3% (211 of 328). So basically the offense "wins" two out of three times when they go for a TD on 4th and goal from the 1. Interestingly in the past 17 years the Broncos have only been able to stop two of eight tries on 4th and goal from the 1 (this year in the games against the Colts and in 2008 against the Saints) while we were only able to score on 7 of 14 tries on 4th and goal from the 1 (most recent instance being the TD on 4th and 1 against WAS in 2013). To put yourself in Mike McCarthy's shoes, you need to know that GB went for it on 4th and goal from the 1 twice in 2014 and was successful once (against the Bears). Their failure occurred against the Lions, a team with a front 7 as good or better than the Seahawks.

Let's also remember that the Packers have a 230-lb. running back in Eddie Lacy that is built specifically for 4th and short, goal line situations.

In light of those numbers, Mike McCarthy made the wrong choices by not going for the TDs. He took the "Foxball" route and his conservative calls ended up hurting the Packers later in the game.

Why this matters to the Broncos

We just hired a coach in Gary Kubiak, who is thought to be less conservative than John Fox. Kubiak hopefully is more aware of historic success rates and things like EPA than our previous troglodyte of a head coach who coached "from his gut". Does GK's record as head coach of the Texans show that he is, indeed, more willing to go for a TD on 4th and goal? During GK's tenure as head coach of the Texans, they faced 4th and goal 57 times. Kubiak opted to kick the FG on 48 of those 57 situations (84%).

How does this compare to John Fox? Overall as head coach, Foxy has faced 4th and goal 96 times and chosen to kick 77 times (80.2%). So overall, Fox has been less conservative than Kubes. Still, during his four seasons as our head coach, Fox was in the bottom half of the league in what I'm calling the Go-For-TD% (GFT%) - tries for TD on 4th and goal divided by total number of 4th and goal situations.

All NFL teams' 4th and Goal decisions during Fox's Tenure as Broncos head coach

2011-2014 Play Results Play Types
Tm Plays TD FG Int Fum Sack Pass Rush FG GFT%
JAX 26 1 14 2 0 1 10 2 14 46%
CIN 29 5 17 0 0 1 4 6 19 34%
STL 22 4 13 0 0 0 5 2 15 32%
OAK 19 2 13 0 0 0 4 2 13 32%
TEN 24 4 17 0 0 0 6 1 17 29%
IND 32 3 23 1 0 0 5 4 23 28%
NOR 25 3 18 0 0 0 3 4 18 28%
MIN 20 2 14 0 0 0 3 2 15 25%
MIA 33 3 24 0 0 1 5 3 25 24%
NYJ 22 1 16 0 0 0 2 3 17 23%
KAN 27 1 19 0 0 0 5 1 21 22%
NWE 41 6 32 0 1 0 1 8 32 22%
CLE 28 2 20 0 0 0 6 0 22 21%
PIT 28 3 22 0 0 0 4 2 22 21%
ATL 38 5 30 1 0 0 6 2 30 21%
BUF 19 2 15 0 0 1 4 0 15 21%
DEN 34 4 27 0 0 0 5 2 27 21%
CHI 30 1 22 0 0 0 2 4 24 20%
DET 30 5 24 1 0 0 4 2 24 20%
SDG 30 2 24 0 0 0 3 3 24 20%
NYG 31 2 25 1 0 1 6 0 25 19%
WAS 26 2 19 0 0 0 4 1 21 19%
BAL 32 1 26 0 0 0 3 3 26 19%
CAR 27 2 22 1 0 0 3 2 22 19%
DAL 27 3 22 0 0 1 2 3 22 19%
SFO 35 2 27 0 0 0 2 4 29 17%
PHI 35 2 30 0 0 0 1 4 30 14%
GNB 31 1 26 0 0 0 2 2 27 13%
SEA 34 1 28 0 1 0 2 2 30 12%
TAM 17 0 15 0 0 0 1 1 15 12%
ARI 26 1 21 0 0 0 3 0 23 12%
HOU 29 2 26 0 0 0 2 1 26 10%
Totals 907 78 691 7 2 6 118 76 713
Pct 8.60% 76.20% 0.80% 0.20% 0.70% 13% 8.40% 78.60% 22%

So Kubiak might be more willing to "go for the jugular" when faced with a 4th and goal from the 1, but on other 4th and goal situations, Kubes was one of the most conservative head coaches in the league during his tenure with the Texans.

All NFL 4th and Goal decisions during Kubiak's tenure as Texans head coach

2006-2013 Play Results Play Types
Tm Plays TD FG Int Fum Sack Pass Rush FG GFT%
WAS 59 9 37 0 2 0 8 11 40 32%
JAX 55 3 36 3 1 2 13 4 38 31%
KAN 54 4 37 0 0 1 10 5 39 28%
STL 52 6 36 0 1 1 9 4 39 25%
TAM 39 5 27 1 0 0 8 4 27 31%
MIN 40 6 28 0 0 0 5 6 29 28%
TEN 50 7 35 0 2 0 10 4 36 28%
NOR 57 4 40 0 1 0 6 9 42 26%
NYJ 52 2 37 1 1 0 3 7 42 19%
ARI 56 6 40 0 0 0 9 5 42 25%
OAK 49 7 35 0 0 0 9 5 35 29%
MIA 55 5 40 0 0 1 8 5 42 24%
ATL 67 8 49 1 0 1 8 8 51 24%
NWE 68 11 50 0 1 1 3 13 52 24%
CIN 54 6 40 0 0 1 4 6 44 19%
PIT 62 7 46 0 0 1 7 8 47 24%
CHI 70 6 52 0 0 0 9 7 54 23%
DAL 60 6 45 0 0 1 5 10 45 25%
CAR 54 2 41 2 1 0 7 6 41 24%
CLE 54 5 41 0 0 0 10 2 42 22%
DEN 57 6 45 0 0 0 8 4 45 21%
DET 48 5 38 1 0 2 7 3 38 21%
SEA 53 2 42 0 2 0 5 4 44 17%
IND 62 3 50 1 1 0 8 4 50 19%
SDG 65 4 53 0 0 0 4 8 53 18%
BUF 44 5 36 0 0 1 6 1 37 16%
SFO 53 3 44 0 0 0 3 4 46 13%
GNB 59 2 49 0 0 0 4 3 52 12%
PHI 69 6 58 0 0 0 3 7 59 14%
HOU 57 3 48 0 1 0 4 3 50 12%
BAL 63 2 54 1 1 1 5 4 54 14%
NYG 61 2 53 0 0 1 4 4 53 13%
Totals 1798 158 1362 11 15 15 212 178 1408
Pct 8.80% 75.80% 0.60% 0.80% 0.80% 11.80% 9.90% 78.30% 22%

In other words, Kubiak and Fox were two of the more conservative coaches in football in their respective tenures when it came to going for it on 4th and Goal. But let's take a closer look at the distance-to-go.

Sixteen of Kubiak's 57 situations were 4th and goals from the 2 or the 1 - keep in mind that while Houston was a good running team, one of the failings of the ZBS is that it employs lighter quicker lineman who generally do not fare well in brute power situations such as trying to run it in on 4th and goal from the 1. Of those 16 situations for Houston on 4th and goal from the 2 or 1, GK opted to go for it 6 times with a 50% success rate. So GK went for it 38% of the time while he was a head coach on 4th and goal from the 2 or closer. If we narrow that to 4th and 1 only, then GK went for it 50% of the time (with a 50% success rate).

Of Fox's career 96 4th-and-Goal situations, 37 were 4th and goal from the 2 or 1. In those 37 situations, Fox opted to go for it 12 times (although one was a kneel-down with a big lead so it was really 11 of 36 - 30.6%). That explains it, Fox was more willing than Kubiak to take the field goal over his career on 4th and close from the two - admittedly with a much larger sample. Fox historically has played it safe and taken the field goal.

Narrowing the criteria to just 4th and goal from the 1, Fox went for it nine of 22 times (40.9%), so Fox was more conservative on 4th and goal from the 1 than Kubiak (while noting that the sample size is not comparable here - 22 for Fox and only 8 for Kubiak). While the head coach of the Broncos, Fox opted to go for it 3 of 9 times on 4th and goal from the 1 situations (33.3%) - we scored on 2 out of 3. On 4th and goal from the 2, Fox had the Broncos go for it 1 time in 5 situations (20%) - we did score in that situation (down 7 to the Falcons in 2012).

Situation John Fox Gary Kubiak
Total plays Went for it Kicked FG GFT% Total plays Went for it Kicked FG GFT%
4th and Goal from 2 or 1 36 11 25 30.6% 16 6 10 38%
4th and Goal from 1 22 9 13 40.2% 6 3 3 50%

So what about 4th and 1 from midfield where Fox was generally apt to punt? Has Kubiak been more apt to trust his offense to gain one yard in those situations than Fox has throughout his career as a head coach? Kubiak-ball vs. Foxball overall on 4th downs, at any position of the football field, will be one of the next topics I explore.