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Fourth-down analysis: Bills 30, Texans 21

There is a revolution coming in professional football, even if it’s moving at the speed of a glacier. There will be a day when NFL teams recognize their fourth-down decisions must be better. In short, they need to go for it more.

Academic research articles have been written about it, including one in 2006 that appeared in the Journal of Political Economy that stated that “teams’ choices on fourth downs depart in a way that is systematic and overwhelmingly statistically significant from the choices that would maximize their chances of winning.”

Documentaries have been made on those who go against the grain, like Arkansas high school coach Kevin Kelley. A folk hero among those in the sports analytics field, Kelley’s teams at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., have won four state championships since he took over in 2003. Kelly almost never punts and almost always onside kicks after scores. He’s compiled a record of 138-25-1 heading into the 2015 season. His philosophy has been featured on HBO’s Real Sports, and in national publications like the Wall Street Journal, Grantland and Sports Illustrated.

Publications like the New York Times have blogs devoted entirely to the subject, with every fourth-down decision analyzed by the “NYT 4th Down Bot.” The Twitter feed @NYT4thDownBot tweets out reactions to fourth-down decisions made by NFL teams in real time. Using variables like the score differential, time remaining in a particular quarter, field position, yards to go for a first time and historical success rates when teams go for it, a suggestion is made.

Last season, the Bills’ fourth-down decisions under former coach Doug Marrone were heavily scrutinized. So this year, The Buffalo News will track each and every fourth-down call made by coach Rex Ryan and his staff.

We’ll lay out the situation, what the Times suggests, and our own opinion of what the right call would have been. That will be formed by taking into account variables that the math doesn’t always account for – things like weather, quality of opponent and the ever-so-tough to define “momentum” during a game.

Ryan elected to trust his defense Sunday against the Houston Texans.

The decision worked out.

With his offense struggling in the second half, Ryan elected to play the field-position game, trusting punter Colton Schmidt to pin the Texans' deep in their own territory. The Bills' defense answered the call in the second half of a 30-21 victory that kept Buffalo's postseason hopes alive.

The Bills faced eight total fourth downs against Houston. Here is a breakdown of each one:

 

1. Fourth and 10 from the Bills' 19-yard line, 14-6 Bills lead, 9:13 remaining in the second quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. The Bills had a 77-percent win probability at this point in the game. Going for it would have dropped that to 73 percent because teams are successful converting in this situation just about 29 percent of the time. To make going for it the right call, the Bills would need to convert 56 percent of the time.

Our call: We agree with Ryan. It was an easy decision to punt.

2. Fourth and 2 from the Bills' 24-yard line, 21-13 Bills lead, 13:33 remaining in the third quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punting or going for it each resulted in an 81-percent chance of winning. Basically, it was a coin flip the Bills had no risk of getting wrong.

Our call: Tough one. Conversions are successful about 53 percent of the time when 2 yards are needed for a first down, and to make going for it the right call a 54-percent success rate is needed. That said, risking a turnover so close to their own end zone understandably scared Ryan away from going for it. Schmidt had a 44-yard punt with no return.

3. Fourth and 13 from the Bills' 13-yard line, 21-13 Bills lead, 7:54 remaining in third quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. The Bills' win probability would have dropped from 79 to 74 percent by attempting a conversion, which historically is successful only 17 percent of the time when this many yards are needed to move the chains.

Our call: Punt. The Bills' offense was struggling to find any sort of momentum at this point, but the defense was picking them up. The Bills also benefitted when on their previous possession, the Texans punted on a fourth-and-4 play from the Bills' 49-yard line.

4. Fourth and 4 from the Texans' 32-yard line, 21-13 Bills lead, 36 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

 

Ryan's call: Field-goal attempt (no good).

What the Times suggests: Field-goal attempt. Field goals are good 75 percent of the time from this distance. Trying one increased Buffalo's win probability from 85 to 86 percent.

Our call: We're on board with the field-goal attempt, even though Dan Carpenter missed it. As mentioned above, the Bills' offense was struggling in the second half, and a made find goal would have given them a two-possession lead with just over a quarter left to play.

5. Fourth and 10 from the Bills' 19-yard line, 21-13 Bills lead, 12:13 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. The Bills had just a 29-percent chance of converting a fourth down here, and needed a  47-percent chance to make going for it the right call.

Our call: Again, we're on board with the punt. Schmidt has been quietly excellent this season, and his 64-yard punt here might have been his best of the year.

6. Fourth and 5 from the Bills' 46-yard line, 21-21, 6:51 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Go for it! The Bills had a 48-percent chance of winning at this point. Going for it – which is successful 44 percent of the time – would have increased their win probability to 50 percent.

Our call: Bills fans were understandably feeling stressed out at this point in the game. The Bills' first four possessions of the second half all ended in punts. Because of that, Ryan could not have felt much confidence in his offense. Punting in this situation might not feel good, especially considering Houston went on an 83-yard touchdown drive on its previous possession, but the way the game was going, it was an understandable call by Ryan.

7. Fourth and 6 from the Bills' 49-yard line, 21-21, 3:46 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Going for it and punting each received their blessing. The Bills' win probability would have went up slightly, from 48 to 49 percent, by going for it.

Our call: Nobody said these calls are easy. Punting gave the Texans the opportunity to drive for the go-ahead points. Going for it and failing, however, would have meant Houston needed only about 15 yards to get into field-goal range. With conversions being successful only 40 percent of the time, punting here put the game in the hands of the Buffalo defense. It turned out to be a good decision. Had it not worked out, however, Ryan's decision here would have been hotly debated. Given how the game had unfolded to this point, we begrudgingly endorse the decision to punt.

8. Fourth and 8 from the Texans' 18-yard line, 27-21 Bills lead, 37 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

Ryan's call: Field-goal attempt (good).

What the Times suggests: Field-goal attempt. The Bills' win probability was 87 percent at this point. It would have dropped to 86 percent by attempting a conversion.

Our call: Field goal all the way. They are successful from this distance 92 percent of the time, and making it would give the Bills a two-possession lead. The risk, of course, is having the kick blocked, but that's one well worth taking to put the game away.

Season totals: 88 fourth downs, 63 punts, 18 field-goal attempts, 2-of-7 conversion attempts.

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