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Fourth-down analysis: Chiefs 30, Bills 22

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 is probably hoping that he'll wake up any second, and that Sunday will have all been all been just a bad dream.

That's how bad the Bills coach mismanaged almost every conceivable situation in his team's 30-22 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Fourth downs were part of the problem, as was Ryan's failure to correctly use his challenge flag and his decision to go for two points after a touchdown late in the third quarter.

All of it factored into a loss that makes a 16th straight season without a postseason appearance seem like an inevitability.

In all, the Bills faced fourth down five times (officially) against the Chiefs. Here is a look at each one of the calls, Ryan made, as well as his decision to go for two.

1. Fourth and 4 from the Kansas City 9-yard line, 0-0, 11:57 remaining in the first quarter.

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

What the Times suggests: Go for it! Fourth downs are historically converted from this distance about 40 percent of the time. Kicking a field goal would only be the right call if you felt the Bills had worse than a 28-percent chance of making a first down. Going for it would have increased the Bills' chances to win from 42 to 44 percent.

Our call: This is the rare time where feel wins out over math. This corner had no problem with the Bills taking an early lead. The miserable weather conditions certainly contributed to that.

2. Fourth and 10 from the Kansas City 44-yard line, 10-0 Bills lead, 10:14 left in the second quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. Going for it is successful only about 28 percent of the time with this many yards needed for a conversion. For it to have been the right call for the Bills, they'd have to convert more than 54 percent of the time. Buffalo's win percentage would have dropped from 74 to 71 percent by going for it.

Our call: Punting from the other team's territory is never high on our priority list, but we can see where Ryan is coming from here. The Bills had a two-possession lead and punter Colton Schmidt had not had a touchback since Week One. Of course, Schmidt's streak ended here and the Chiefs quickly marched to their first touchdown, but the decision to punt was defensible.

3. Fourth and 10 from the Buffalo 27-yard line, 16-14 Bills lead, 1:27 remaining in second quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: No suggestion given because of how little time was left in the half.

Our call: Punt. Momentum at this point was squarely in the Chiefs' favor. The Bills' best bet was to punt it away and try to get to halftime with a lead. That's exactly what happened.

4. Fourth and 5 from the 50-yard line, 24-16 Chiefs lead, 6:49 remaining in the third quarter.

Note: This play officially did not happen because of an offside call against Kansas City that gave the Bills a first down. It should be noted that Ryan had his punt unit on the field at the time of the Chiefs' penalty. While its possible the Bills could have faked the punt, it appeared they were ready to punt it away. We would have roasted Ryan for that call.

Two-point conversion attempt: Bills trailed, 24-22, with 3:11 remaining in the third quarter.

What the charts say: Go for two. Teams in the NFL have converted two-point attempts nearly 50 percent of the time in 2015. Going for two is preferred by the mathematical models that factor in the score and time remaining, and it's not really close. The success rate would need to be between 20 and 25 percent to make going for two the right play. That's been blown away by teams this year, and is historically.

5. Fourth and 9 from the Kansas City 42-yard line, 27-22 Chiefs lead, 10:06 remaining in fourth quarter.

Ryan's call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Go for it! The Bills' win percentage would have increased from 20 to 22 percent by attempting a conversion, which is successful historically 35 percent of the time in this situation. The Bills needed a 25 percent or less chance of a conversion to make punting the right call here. This is one of Ryan's biggest errors of the season, mathematically speaking.

Our call: Go for it! The Bills had found a good rhythm, scoring a touchdown on their previous possession and moving the ball on this drive. Willingly giving the ball back to a team that was moving it with ease for large chunks of the game was a huge blunder on Ryan's part. That showed itself to be true when the Chiefs gained 35 yards on their first play after Schmidt's punt. That moved the ball to the Kansas City 46-yard line, or 4 yards from where the Chiefs would have gotten it had the Bills attempted a conversion and been unsuccessful.

6. Fourth and 9 from the Buffalo 21-yard line, 30-22 Chiefs lead, 2:16 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Ryan's call: Go for it.

What the Times suggests: Go for it. Conversions are successful about 33 percent of the time in this situation – well above the needed 22 percent to make it the right call.

Our call: Going for it was the Bills' last, and only, hope.

 

Season totals: 80 fourth downs, 57 punts, 16 field-goal attempts, 2-of-7 conversion attempts.

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