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Fourth-down analysis: Bills took FG for 17-0 lead, but we would have gone for it

By Jay Skurski

News Staff Reporter

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 is planning to track each and every fourth-down call made by coach Rex Ryan and his staff.

We’ll lay out the situation, what the Times suggest, 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.

Against the Dolphins on Sunday, the Bills faced fourth down five times. Here is a recap of each one:

1. Fourth and 11 from the Buffalo 18-yard line, 14-0 Bills lead, 2:00 left in the first quarter.

Bills’ decision: Punt.

What the Times suggest: Punt. The Bills would have reduced their chances of winning from 66 to 62 percent by going for it.

Our call: Easy – punt. It’s what NFL coaches do more than 99 percent of the time, for good reason. The Bills’ defense had dominated the Dolphins to that point in the game.

2. Fourth and 2 from the Miami 8-yard line, 14-0 Bills lead, 11:54 remaining in second quarter.

Bills’ decision: 26-yard field-goal attempt (good).

What the Times suggests: Statistically, a field goal or going for it still resulted in an 87-percent chance the Bills would win the game. A field goal would be the right call if Ryan and Co. thought their chances of converting a first down were less than 45 percent. Historically, teams convert in this situation 48 percent of the time.

Our call: Go for it! Entering Week Three, the Bills had a 100-percent success rate when running the ball on third or fourth down with 2 or less yards to go. This was an opportunity to put a nail in the coffin early. However, there is no reason to get the pitchforks out. A three-possession lead is also appealing – and field goals are successful 98 percent of the time from this distance.

3. Fourth and 9 from the Buffalo 41-yard line, 17-0 Bills lead, 3:06 remaining in the second quarter.

Bills’ decision: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. The Bills’ chances of winning would have dropped from 88 to 86 percent by going for it, which is successful only 30 percent of the time historically.

Our call: Punting is fine. The Bills’ defense to that point was pitching a shutout. Knowing they were getting the ball coming out of halftime, punting and playing defense with a three-possession lead makes plenty of sense.

4. Fourth and 7 from the Miami 37-yard line, 27-0 Bills lead, 8:57 left in the third quarter.

Bills’ decision: 54-yard field-goal attempt (no good).

What the Times suggests: Nothing. With a better than 99-percent chance of winning at this point, the Bills could do no wrong, according to the math.

Our call: Somewhat surprisingly, punting would have been the call here. With a four-possession lead no matter what happened on the field goal, the risk of giving the Dolphins good field position if Dan Carpenter missed didn’t seem worth it. Carpenter did indeed miss and the Dolphins cashed in the short field for their first touchdown.

5. Fourth and 7 from the Buffalo 5-yard line, 34-8 Bills lead, 8:57 left in the fourth quarter.

Bills’ decision: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Nothing. The Bills’ chances of winning at this point in the game were still higher than 99 percent.

Our call: Punt. It shouldn’t have taken Ryan long to call this one in.

Season totals: 19 fourth downs, 14 punts, four field-goal attempts (three good), one successful conversion attempt.


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