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The rest of the 4th Down Story - Kubiak plays Foxball?

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Last week we heard about how Kubiak compares to Fox in terms of going for it on 4th and goal from the 1 or 2. How does Kubiak handle all other 4th down situations? Let's look at the numbers.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In my last article we saw that Gary Kubiak and John Fox are not that different as head coaches when it comes to the decision of what to do on 4th and goal from the 1 or 2. What about other 4th down situations as a whole? How did Kubiak treat those? Does the punter already have one foot on the field before Kubiak makes his decision, or is the quarterback ready to convert a 4th and short? I set out to investigate.

All data is from pro-football-reference, and it's all regular season data in this analysis. Their database only goes back to the 1998 season.

I'm going to break it down the 4th down data by field position using three sections of the field:

1. Desperation zone (from your own 1 to your own 45). Only teams who are desperate normally go for it on 4th down this far in their own territory (fake punts being an exception). In the past 17 season the Broncos have only gone for it in this area 6 times during some point in the game that WASN'T the 4th quarter. Two of those were fake punts (David Bruton in 2014 and a Britton Colquitt incomplete pass in 2011), two were 4th and 1 (both runs under Shanny - both converted). One was in the blowout in 2011 by the Lions (we were down 24-3 with 5 seconds left in the first half on our own 28, so Foxy was desperate at that point). The last one was a toss-up kind of situation. We were down 17-14 with 2 seconds left in the first half against the Bengals.  Mike Shanahan chose to go for it on 4th and 8 from our own 42, but instead of trying a heave to the end-zone (Jay Cutler has the arm for that), we tried a hook-and-lateral play where Rod Smith flubbed the pitch.

2. Decision zone (from your own 46 to the opponent's 40). This is the zone where a handful of coaches in the NFL have started to go for it. Here you are either out of FG range or you are on the very edge of your kicker's range. Additionally the yardage gain on a punt if a touchback occurs can be minimal. Last season the Broncos had 17 4th down situations in this are of the field and we went for it 4 times.    We converted on two of those 4 4th downs. We were losing at that point in 3 of those 4 games (MIA, NE and STL) - all 4 occurred in separate games.

3. FG zone (from the opponents 39 to the goalline). Decisions to go for it in this zone are rife with second-guessing, but the assumption (often wrong) is that you are "giving away" three points if you go for it and get stopped. We had 37 4th downs in this area of the field last season. We chose to punt once (@KC), we tried 28 FGs and we went for it 8 times (converting on 3). Interestingly all 3 conversion came in wins, while all five failures happened in losses.

Desperation Zone 4th Downs 1998-2014

Play Results Play Types
Tm Plays TD 1st Pass Rush Punt GFI% Success%
NOR 915 1 52 33 35 847 7.4% 76.5%
STL 966 0 35 46 20 900 6.8% 53.0%
DET 1032 0 34 52 18 962 6.8% 48.6%
WAS 1025 0 33 45 21 959 6.4% 50.0%
JAX 987 2 37 39 21 927 6.1% 61.7%
HOU 789 0 30 23 24 742 6.0% 63.8%
KAN 993 1 34 44 15 934 5.9% 57.6%
NYJ 964 0 40 37 20 907 5.9% 70.2%
CLE 1060 0 35 40 22 998 5.8% 56.5%
BUF 1001 0 40 37 21 943 5.8% 69.0%
MIA 990 0 36 39 15 936 5.5% 66.7%
ATL 923 0 32 36 13 874 5.3% 65.3%
OAK 1043 1 41 38 15 990 5.1% 77.4%
CHI 1090 0 32 38 17 1035 5.0% 58.2%
SFO 1055 2 31 35 16 1004 4.8% 60.8%
DEN 921 0 22 34 10 877 4.8% 50.0%
NWE 888 0 24 28 14 846 4.7% 57.1%
PIT 929 2 31 28 15 886 4.6% 72.1%
TEN 1003 0 35 28 18 957 4.6% 76.1%
MIN 940 0 35 25 17 898 4.5% 83.3%
ARI 1057 0 28 28 19 1010 4.4% 59.6%
TAM 1050 0 28 37 8 1005 4.3% 62.2%
BAL 1070 0 29 31 13 1026 4.1% 65.9%
IND 808 0 28 25 8 775 4.1% 84.8%
CAR 1022 0 26 33 8 981 4.0% 63.4%
SEA 1000 1 20 23 17 960 4.0% 50.0%
NYG 971 1 23 21 16 934 3.8% 62.2%
CIN 978 0 27 18 19 941 3.8% 73.0%
PHI 1045 1 28 23 14 1008 3.5% 75.7%
SDG 890 2 25 18 13 859 3.5% 80.6%
DAL 919 0 22 23 9 887 3.5% 68.8%
GNB 906 1 22 17 9 880 2.9% 84.6%
Totals 31230 15 995 1022 520 29688
Pct 0.0480% 3.20% 3.30% 1.70% 95.10% 4.9% 64.5%

Because of the risk involved (giving the other team great field position if you get stopped), only about 1 in 20 4th downs in this zone doesn't lead to a punt. The vast majority of the go-for-it decisions in this zone occurred in the 4th quarter (when losing teams become desperate). The only real take-away from this table is that the most risk-averse team (GB) went for it less than half as frequently as the most risk-taking team (NO).  Interestingly, the Broncos have one of the worst records at converting on 4th down in this zone in the past 17 season (50%). Only the Lions were worse. The three best teams at converting on 4th down in the desperation zone are three of the teams that have had to attempt to do so the least (GB, SD and IND).

Comparing the Broncos under Fox and the Texans under Kubiak we see that Fox was extremely conservative in the desperation zone

Desperation Zone 4th downs Head Coach Comparative

Play Types
Plays 1st Down? Pass Rush Punt GFI% Success%
HOU under Kubes 432 16 12 11 409 5.3% 70%
DEN under Fox 234 1 3 1 230 1.7% 25%

Admittedly the Broncos under Fox in his final three seasons were rarely in desperation mode, but his GFI% of 1.7 is lower than the lowest franchise value over the past 17 seasons.  Kubiak was much more willing to go for it on 4th down in the desperation zone during his previous head coaching tenure. Two of the times that the Texans "went for it" were punt screw-ups (bad snap and fumbled snap). On the 21 times that Kubes had the Texans got for it in the desperation zone, 10 of them were on 4th and 1 (9 of those were converted). Interestingly, 5 of those 10 attempts on 4th and 1 in the desperation zone were NOT in the 4th quarter. Going for it on 4th and 1 in this zone of the field in the first half is gutsy unless you are down big at that point and even then most coaches would still punt.

Decision Zone

This is a little bit more interesting, because head coaches are much more willing to go for it when there is less risk involved (thanks, Captain Obvious). Another factor here is that head coaches with "big-leg" kickers generally are more willing to try a FG from 53 or longer. FYI - add 17 to the field position to figure out the FG distance, so if the ball is on the 39 that would be a 56 yard FG attempt. To that end I have included a number which is the % of the time that each team has decided to try a long FG on 4th down in this zone (long FG try % = LFGT%). The NFL average success rate on all field goals last season was 84%. The 2014 average NFL success rate on 50+ yard FGs was 61%. Keep that in mind when you look at the 4th down conversion success rate. There were only 5 FG attempts from 60 or more last season and all missed (two from 60, one from 64 and and from 68). FWIW, there have only been 57 FG attempts from 60 or more in the past 17 seasons. Only 10 of those 57 were good (16.9%). There were 5 attempts from 60 plus last season - two were blocked and the other three missed. So FG accuracy from 50-59? >> accuracy 60+.

Decision Zone 4th Downs 1998-2014

Play Results Play Types
Tm Plays TD FG 1st Pass Rush Punt FG GFI% Success% LFGT%
NOR 377 0 7 45 56 37 274 10 24.7% 48.4% 2.7%
JAX 474 4 14 53 68 45 344 17 23.8% 50.4% 3.6%
TEN 470 3 9 46 61 40 357 12 21.5% 48.5% 2.6%
CIN 451 2 6 52 55 41 344 11 21.3% 56.3% 2.4%
MIN 416 1 15 47 64 24 304 24 21.2% 54.5% 5.8%
DET 478 5 14 54 78 21 356 23 20.7% 59.6% 4.8%
WAS 478 2 6 52 72 27 368 11 20.7% 54.5% 2.3%
BUF 434 1 8 40 61 27 335 11 20.3% 46.6% 2.5%
SFO 426 1 10 51 56 29 324 17 20.0% 61.2% 4.0%
PIT 426 2 3 42 46 37 336 7 19.5% 53.0% 1.6%
NWE 450 0 7 52 40 47 352 11 19.3% 59.8% 2.4%
DEN 425 1 16 38 52 30 316 27 19.3% 47.6% 6.4%
STL 426 2 20 42 55 26 314 31 19.0% 54.3% 7.3%
OAK 455 3 19 43 53 32 336 34 18.7% 54.1% 7.5%
GNB 406 6 14 45 51 24 304 27 18.5% 68.0% 6.7%
CHI 485 1 10 41 54 35 382 14 18.4% 47.2% 2.9%
PHI 474 3 3 44 51 35 377 11 18.1% 54.7% 2.3%
CLE 487 1 7 45 58 27 389 13 17.5% 54.1% 2.7%
KAN 443 2 5 42 39 38 357 9 17.4% 57.1% 2.0%
ARI 472 3 8 44 55 27 372 18 17.4% 57.3% 3.8%
DAL 429 1 6 37 47 27 345 10 17.2% 51.4% 2.3%
IND 419 0 4 45 34 38 336 11 17.2% 62.5% 2.6%
NYG 446 0 3 30 47 29 364 6 17.0% 39.5% 1.3%
HOU 366 0 12 29 35 26 287 18 16.7% 47.5% 4.9%
TAM 463 0 15 40 47 30 361 25 16.6% 51.9% 5.4%
SEA 469 2 7 39 38 36 382 13 15.8% 55.4% 2.8%
MIA 471 1 11 41 41 32 371 27 15.5% 57.5% 5.7%
ATL 413 0 6 32 42 22 337 12 15.5% 50.0% 2.9%
CAR 442 3 14 44 42 26 351 23 15.4% 69.1% 5.2%
NYJ 458 1 9 29 40 26 378 14 14.4% 45.5% 3.1%
BAL 532 1 8 37 51 21 443 17 13.5% 52.8% 3.2%
SDG 384 1 6 24 30 12 329 13 10.9% 59.5% 3.4%
Totals 14245 53 302 1345 1619 974 11125 527
Pct 0.40% 2.10% 9.40% 11.40% 6.80% 78.10% 3.70% 18.2% 53.9% 3.7%

Note that the team with the highest LFGT% over the past 17 seasons, OAK, has had one of the strongest legged kickers in the NFL for many of those seasons. Sebastion Janikowski owns the record for longest FG attempt in NFL history - 76 yards. Oakland has generally had a difficult time putting points on the board so they are more apt to let the fatboy try a long FG attempt. Janikowski is 2 of 9 on FG attempts from 60 or more, but that's better than average. Over the past 17 seasons, the Broncos have gone for it in the decision zone a little bit more than average.

Decision Zone Comparing Fox, Kubiak and Shanny (98-08)

Play Results Play Types

Plays TD FG 1st Pass Rush Punt FG GFI% Success% LFGT%
HOU under Kubes 150 0 0 10 11 6 132 1 11.3% 59% 0.7%
DEN under Fox 77 0 1 5 6 3 67 1 11.7% 56% 1.3%
DEN under Shanahan (98-08) 188 0 0 14 20 12 154 2 17.0% 44% 1.1%


Notice that, despite playing half of our games at elevation, Both Fox and Mike Shanahan were generally not going to attempt long (53 or greater) field goals (Shanny may have been more willing in his three seasons as our head coach prior to 98). The league average for going for it on 4th down (GFI%) in this zone over the past 17 seasons was 18.2%. Shanny was close to average in his last 11 years as head coach here. Kubes in HOU and FOX in DEN were both ultra-conservative in this part of the field, choosing almost always to punt instead of going for it or trying a long field goal. Our success rate when Shanny did opt to go for it on 4th down in the decision zone was poor relative to the rest of the league during this whole time period (44% conversion).

The Field Goal Zone

From the opponents 39 or closer the head coach must decided whether to kick a FG or go for it on 4th down. While head coaches do opt to punt from this close, it is infrequent (see the table below). When evaluating the numbers above keep in mind three things:

  1. For the past 4 seasons, the success rate on 50+ yard FGs has been above 60%
  2. The success rate on 40-49 yard FGs has been increasing gradually to the point where it hit an all-time high in 2013 - 83.0%
  3. For the past 9 seasons, the success rate on 30-39 yard FGs has been hovering around 90% - so if you are in the red zone getting 3 points is almost a given as long as you don't turn the ball over.

FG zone 4th Downs 1998-2014

Play Results Play Types
Tm Plays TD FG 1st Pass Rush Punt FG Punt% GFI% Success%
JAX 673 19 342 95 110 88 47 428 7.0% 29.4% 57.6%
NWE 712 27 400 113 91 101 56 464 7.9% 27.0% 72.9%
CIN 649 12 344 75 104 67 52 426 8.0% 26.3% 50.9%
BUF 688 23 365 80 110 66 63 449 9.2% 25.6% 58.5%
CHI 670 17 353 81 97 71 62 440 9.3% 25.1% 58.3%
NOR 595 14 336 57 90 59 33 413 5.5% 25.0% 47.7%
STL 655 27 374 84 91 69 43 452 6.6% 24.4% 69.4%
MIN 601 23 331 71 87 59 54 401 9.0% 24.3% 64.4%
DAL 625 27 329 70 74 77 53 421 8.5% 24.2% 64.2%
TEN 669 26 367 72 105 56 78 430 11.7% 24.1% 60.9%
ARI 634 24 351 66 100 51 62 421 9.8% 23.8% 59.6%
NYG 661 15 360 64 97 59 72 433 10.9% 23.6% 50.6%
DET 643 26 364 64 106 45 54 438 8.4% 23.5% 59.6%
KAN 610 21 323 70 85 58 62 405 10.2% 23.4% 63.6%
HOU 523 14 301 75 55 67 38 363 7.3% 23.3% 73.0%
ATL 648 25 369 77 87 64 52 445 8.0% 23.3% 67.5%
SFO 644 16 365 78 91 58 44 451 6.8% 23.1% 63.1%
OAK 616 22 367 69 80 58 30 448 4.9% 22.4% 65.9%
CLE 600 14 340 66 92 42 60 406 10.0% 22.3% 59.7%
DEN 664 20 390 73 78 67 51 468 7.7% 21.8% 64.1%
TAM 663 17 357 64 80 64 77 442 11.6% 21.7% 56.3%
SEA 654 12 375 66 72 69 66 447 10.1% 21.6% 55.3%
NYJ 693 16 379 69 82 67 75 469 10.8% 21.5% 57.0%
WAS 639 18 341 57 91 44 58 446 9.1% 21.1% 55.6%
CAR 603 18 361 58 70 57 47 429 7.8% 21.1% 59.8%
PIT 689 18 387 69 68 74 74 473 10.7% 20.6% 61.3%
SDG 629 16 375 62 74 54 52 449 8.3% 20.3% 60.9%
MIA 660 13 389 66 68 61 52 479 7.9% 19.5% 61.2%
GNB 652 14 384 56 85 41 50 476 7.7% 19.3% 55.6%
PHI 638 11 398 72 64 57 46 471 7.2% 19.0% 68.6%
BAL 709 13 431 62 74 52 82 501 11.6% 17.8% 59.5%
IND 572 19 374 56 52 48 40 432 7.0% 17.5% 75.0%
Totals 20581 597 11622 2257 2710 1970 1785 14116
Pct 2.90% 56.50% 11% 13.20% 9.60% 8.70% 68.60% 8.7% 22.7% 61.0%

Here's a coincidence that I could not have scripted if I chose to - the success rate on all 4th down tries in the FG zone over the past 17 seasons, is exactly the same as the FG accuracy last season from 50-59 yards - 61.0%. (The accuracy on FGs from 60+ last season was 0%). Two of the best teams at converting on 4th down in the FG zone during this time period are the Colts (mostly with Peyton Manning) and the Texans (7 of the 17 seasons with Kubes as their head coach). I don't think that it is a coincidence that the franchise with the lowest GFI% in the FG zone also owns the highest 4th down conversion rate. Belicheck might have figured something out as well since he not only opts to go for it at one of the highest rates in the NFL in the FG zone, but the Patriots also have the second best conversion rate when they do go for it on 4th down in the FG zone.

Overall I was surprised to see how often punts occur in the this zone. Punting from inside the opponents' 40 is the kind of folly that defines ultra-conservative coaching.

FG Zone Comparing Fox, Kubes and Shanny

Plays TD FG 1st Pass Rush Punt FG Punt% GFI% Success%
HOU under Kubes 334 6 197 44 34 43 23 234 6.9% 23.1% 57%
DEN under Fox 139 5 90 16 17 10 6 106 4.3% 19.4% 59%
DEN under Shanahan (98-08) 443 13 250 50 51 47 39 306 8.8% 22.1% 51%

I was not expecting Fox to be the least conservative in this zone - in terms of punting - but he was. Fox did follow his "script" by having the lowest GFI%. I was really surprised to see how often Shanny had the Broncos punt from this close (opponent's 39 or closer) - almost 4 times per season.  Even more disgusting is that of those 39 punts, more than a quarter (11) resulted in touchbacks (What were you thinking, Mike?). Shanny once had the Broncos punt from the opponent's 31 (in 04 against TAM). Maybe Elam was hurt? Fox never had the Broncos punt from closer than the 38. Kubes worst 4th down decision in the FG zone was calling for a punt from the 34 against CAR in 07.

Now that Kubes is calling the shots in Denver, I would like to see that punt% be at least equivalent to the 4.3% that Foxy had while here. Considering that the league average for punting in the FG zone over the past 17 seasons is 8.7%, expecting Kubes to be equivalent to Fox is not a big ask. That being said, the Texans only punted in the FG zone 38 times in 17 seasons, but 23 of those times occurred in the 8 years when Kubes was head coach.  So maybe we have to hope that history is not predictive in this case. It will be interesting going forward, because Kubes should have an offense that is as potent as the one he presided over during his time as our OC. Having confidence in your offense' ability to gain two yards on 4th and 1 from the opponent's 20 probably makes it much easier to got for it regardless of the score at that point.