Photo by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol
Gruden joins trend of going for it on fourth down more often
BY TODD DYBAS | OCT. 25, 2018
ASHBURN — Fourth-and-1 at your own 48-yard line, 4:49 to play in the third quarter of a low-scoring game, your team leads by three. What do you do?
Go for it? Get one step closer to midfield and keep the drive alive? It’s fair to anticipate three more possessions remain in the game, so push for a score now knowing there is wiggle room if you fail?
Punt? Your defense has allowed just a touchdown on a single busted coverage by a rookie cornerback. This is a division game against Dallas, of all teams. Your punter has been effective. Playing field position could behoove you in the end.
Jay Gruden punted Sunday. Tress Way’s 41-yard kick put Dallas on its 11-yard line to start what became a three-play drive. Dallas punted back. The next Washington drive started on its own 49, one yard ahead of where it kicked from. The Redskins ended up with a field goal in a game they won by three points.
The analytics suggest they should have gone for it. Even if it was fourth-and-4. The recommendation can get as extreme as this: On fourth-and-1, go for it any place on the field where that is possible, starting at your 9-yard line.
Just reading that can make people shake. Twitter may break if a coach did that and failed. A never-ending loop of Vince Lombardi yelling, “What the hell’s going on out here?” would be dispatched.
We’re not to this place — yet. What we have seen is a definitive uptick in going for it on fourth down, led in part by Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles. What we also have is years of viewing a fourth down attempt as a last gasp as opposed to a useful tool. There is one other layer here: Job security. Going for, and not converting, a fourth down is a perfect setup for simplistic criticism. Everyone can see the choice. Everyone can see the outcome. No all-22 film necessary.
“I know sometimes fourth-and-inches gets a little appetizing no matter what part of the field it’s on,” Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. “That’s just per coach. I think that’s one of those double-edged swords kind of decisions that you make, where if you make it, you’re a genius, if you miss it, you’re kind of the goat. It’s one of those ones your players make your right. I’m always up for putting it in the player’s hands. [Though], I’m more old school. Punt when you’re supposed to punt, go for it if you’ve got to.”
Gruden has become more apt to go for it, his decision against Dallas notwithstanding. In Week 1 versus Arizona, Gruden gave the go-ahead on fourth-and-1 (less than that, really) at the 50-yard line with a 7-0, second quarter lead. Alex Smith gained a yard on a quarterback sneak. The drive ended in a second touchdown.
Despite having a game in hand on most of the league, the Redskins are tied for the league lead in fourth-down attempts this season with 10. Gruden pointed out Wednesday some of those aren’t of the analytics-versus-gut genre. They just are. The Redskins threw a Hail Mary at the end of the first half against Dallas. It was their lone “fourth-down attempt” of the day. Though, this happens elsewhere, too, so it balances out.
Gruden, along with the league, has shown movement toward going for it on fourth down more often. His propensity to do so has risen at a clip higher than the league average increase. Washington has gone from 24th, to 18th, to 12th, to tied for first the last three seasons plus. They are on pace to attempt 27 fourth-down conversions this season. Eleven teams are on pace to crack 20 fourth-down attempts this year. That’s a leap past the seven teams that did so a season ago.
“There is probably a ton of reasons why that trend is happening,” Smith said. “One of the big ones, I think coaches are way more aware of the statistics to play that kind of analytics deal. Then, I think there, it’s situationally knowing those things. Where you are on the field, time of game, all of those things playing into the opponent you’re playing. I think a lot of those things play into that and I think coaches are more aware of those things and therefore obviously, I think playing the numbers it sometimes says to go for it. Also, it could just be trendy; you know? I mean a little bit, it’s going around so probably a lot of reasons for it.”
When asked why this trend is happening, Gruden sounded like a coach more in tune with the analytics without offering specifics.
“Sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks really,” Gruden said. “If you don’t get it you expect your defense to get the stop, and if you do get it, it’s a chance to really change the momentum and field position and get points on the board. It depends on the defense you are going against and the backs that you have or the plays that you might have dialed up for that defense. A lot goes into the thought process there but sometimes like I said it’s worth the risk.”
We saw he believed the attempt worth it against a porous Arizona defense. Last week, he played things tighter against Dallas despite the analytics suggesting he should go for it every time in that situation. For now, Gruden, surprisingly, is among the league’s leaders in taking the fourth-down plunge as the league finally moves forward with the topic.
Todd Dybas is the managing editor and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He has spent 17 years in the sports editorial industry, working as a writer and layout editor, winning multiple awards in both positions. He has been an NFL beat writer, has worked as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for seven years, and is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association.