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Fourth-down analysis: Patriots 20, Bills 13

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.

Sometimes, all it takes is one play to question a coach’s entire philosophy when it comes to fourth down.

That moment came for Ryan on a fourth-and-2 play from the Bills’ 47-yard line with 10:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, with his team trailing, 20-10 to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football.

Ryan elected to punt.

His reasoning after the game was that he “couldn’t lose the game on this call” and that he “trusted” the Bills’ defense.

Forget the math for a second. That goes against the very philosophy that Ryan proclaimed to have when he took the Bills’ coaching job in January, when he said the team was going to be aggressive on fourth down.

Yes, the Bills were stopped for a loss of 1 yard on a third-and-1 play. But willingly giving the ball back to Tom Brady when trailing by 10 points with just over 10 minutes left to play is absolute lunacy.

Ryan exposed himself as just another NFL coach – one who refuses to acknowledge when going for it is mathematically the correct decision.

The decision was a damning indictment of his offense, and a lack of faith in his defense to be able to stop Brady on a short field.

In all, the Bills faced fourth down 10 times against New England. Here is a look at some of the more questionable calls involved.

1. Fourth and 5 from the Bills’ 25-yard line, 0-0, 13:35 remaining in the first quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. The Bills’ win percentage would have dropped from 21 to 19 percent by going for it.

Our call: Punt. Opening the game with a three-and-out is the last thing the Bills wanted to do, but needing 5 yards at that spot on the field was simply too much to make going for it worth it.

2. Fourth and 8 from the Bills’ 48-yard line, 3-0 Patriots lead, 2:14 remaining in first quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. The historical success rate when needing 8 yards is about 36 percent. It would need to be about 62 percent to make going for it the right call.

Our call: Even though it’s awfully close to mid-field, punting it away was the right call here. Going for it became less of an option when a penalty on Seantrel Henderson turned a third-and-3 play into third-and-8, on which the Bills threw an incomplete pass.

3. Fourth and 4 from the Patriots’ 34-yard line, 3-0 New England lead, 9:32 remaining in the second quarter.

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

What the Times suggests: Both going for it or a field-goal try left the Bills with a 26-percent chance of winning, so the paper was good with either one.

Our call: Even though the Bills were on an extended drive and it would have been nice to see it continue, we didn’t hate the field goal here. A field goal of this distance is good about two-thirds of the time, so the Bills played the odds and were rewarded.

4. Fourth and 6 from the Patriots’ 30-yard line, 3-3, 50 seconds remaining in second quarter.

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

What the Times suggests: Nothing. This game circumstance does not present a good recommendation.

Our call: Go for it! If the Bills fail to convert, New England gets the ball at its 30-yard line (barring a sack or turnover). By trying the field goal, the Bills gave them 8 yards of free field position. Carpenter hitting from 52 yards earlier in the game likely gave Ryan confidence in the kick here, but the Bills still would have been better trying to maintain possession so that Brady did not see the ball again before halftime.

5. Fourth and 2 from the Bills’ 47-yard line, 20-10 New England lead, 10:12 remaining in fourth quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Go for it!

Our call: Go for it! Historically, teams are able to gain 2 yards on 53 percent of plays. The Bills needed to show they were serious about trying to leave New England with a win. Punting was coaching not to lose.

Season totals: 76 fourth downs, 54 punts, 15 field-goal attempts, 2-of-6 conversion attempts.

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