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When should you kick a field goal, punt or go for it on 4th down in plus territory?

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A deep dive into the analytics that should underlie head coaching decisions at critical points - by field position.

Denver Broncos v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Let’s start this by assuming that we have at least an average field goal kicker and an average punter. I’m going to let you be the head coach. It’s the 2nd quarter at sea level, the score is tied at 7 and you have the ball 4th and 4 from your opponent’s 38 with 11 minutes to play in the quarter. There is no wind. A field goal try from this spot would be a 55 yard try.

The league was 10 of 17 from 55 yards in 2018 - 58.8%. 25 different place kickers, including Brandon McManus, attempted at least one kick from 55 yards away or longer in 2018. Overall the league was 26 of 43 on FG attempts from 55 or longer (60.4%). So let’s break this down into four parts

  1. What are the chances of hitting a FG from this distance?
  2. What are your opponents chances of scoring if you turn the ball over on a missed FG from this distance?
  3. What are your chances of converting on 4th and 4?
  4. What are the odds of pinning your opponent deep if you punt from here?

Chances of hitting the field goal

The accuracy of NFL placekickers has been steadily improving year over year during the history of the league. The accuracy of a 50 yard FG attempt in 2010 is comparable to the league-wide accuracy of a 40 yard FG attempt in 1990.

On a more granular level, there is an inflection point (change in accuracy) somewhere around 56 or 57 yards if you look at the data from this century.

So in our hypothetical situation with our average NFL place kicker, we have about a 50% chance (from this century’s data) or a ~60% chance if you go by last year’s data of hitting a FG from this spot.

Opponent’s Chances of Scoring Starting drive at own 45.

According to the statheads who have crunched the data, the chances of scoring either a FG or a TD on drive that you start at your own 45 are 44%. So if we have a 60% chance of getting three points and the opponent has a 44% chance of getting at least three points, We are still coming out ahead. The 44% chance of scoring is 18% chance of a FG and a 26% chance of a TD, based solely on starting field position. So you are betting 2:1, that the next time you get the ball on offense you will have a lead.

However, if you move that ball back to the 40 (making the kick a 57 yard FG attempt), you have reached the break even point. Your chances of hitting the FG drop to 46.3% (this century) and your opponents chances of scoring points starting a drive from their 47 go up to 47%. Also keep in mind that if you give up a TD on the ensuing drive you are down six (probably seven) instead of up three - a ten point swing.

Some NFL head coaches pay attention to data like this. In 2018 there were 17 attempts from 55 yards, 11 attempts from 56 yards, 5 attempts from 57 yards and only one attempt from 58 yards. Full disclosure there were 10 attempts of 59 or longer in 2018 (five were good, including one from 63 by Graham Gano).

Why not just go for it?

On 4th down tries NOT in the 4th quarter or OT (desperation time), teams converted at a rate of 64.7% overall, but the vast majority of those tries were on 4th and 3 or fewer yards needed.

In 2018 there were only 30 attempts in the first three quarters of the game on 4th and medium (4-6 yards needed) compared to 206 attempts on 4th and 0-3 yards. Interestingly, teams converted on 56.7% of their tries on 4th and medium in the first three quarters of the game in 2018 (17/30). If we remove the six fake punts, we find that teams we successful on 14 of 24 (58%) 4th and medium attempts in the first three quarters of the game. Oddly enough, that is almost the exact same success rate as a 2018 FG attempt from 55 yards.

So why don’t you just go for it? The lure of that three points are hard to resist. Conventional wisdom says try the FG or punt. Going for is seen as too risky (for some odd reason) so most coaches don’t do it in this type of situation despite the data.

Should you punt?

Barring a blocked punt or a punt return TD (which both rarely happen in the modern NFL), the worst case scenario is a touchback in which case you gain 18 yards of field position. If you are confident that your punter can force the opponent to start their drive inside the 10, their chances of scoring on that drive go down to 20% or below.

That means that you have a high probability of getting the ball back still tied at 7, but most likely you will have lost some field position in the process. This century there have been 9068 regular season drives that have started inside your own 10.

  • 55.3% of those ended in punts
  • 12.3% ended in touchdowns (for the offense)
  • 13.4% ended in turnovers
  • 7.5% ended in field goals

This century the average drive that started inside your own 10 gained 32.6 yards on 5.9 plays. So while the defense has ~70% chance of getting the ball back without giving up points, you passed on a 50-60% of getting three points to get that 70% chance of getting the ball back still tied (or with a safety which happens on 2.4% of drives begun inside offense’ 10 - up two). So maybe the calculus has a lot more to do with you confidence in your punter’s ability to pin the opponent inside the 10.

The best punter in the league at pinning opponents inside the 10 in 2018 was former Bronco Brett Kern of the Titans. He punted 74 times and 20 of those were downed inside the 10 with only three touchbacks. The average NFL punter, however, was not that good/lucky in 2018. There were 80 punts in edge field goal range (+40 or closer) in 2018. Fourteen ended in touchbacks (17.5%) and 37 (46.3%) resulted in the opponent starting their drive inside their 10.

So what call would you make now that you have seen the data?

It’s the 2nd quarter at sea level, the score is tied at 7 and you have the ball 4th and 4 from your opponent’s 38 with 11 minutes to play in the quarter. There is no wind. A field goal try from this spot would be a 55 yard try.

Poll

Given the situation, what call would you make as head coach?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Attempt the FG
    (280 votes)
  • 51%
    Go for it!
    (488 votes)
  • 18%
    Punt
    (180 votes)
948 votes total Vote Now