Further Review

Steve Hummer's Further Review blog offers comments, asides and quick hits on the state of sports

We all support going for it on fourth down - so long as you make it


Going for it would seem to be a Dan Quinn thing. “You spend five minutes around Dan, you know that’s the way it’s going to be,” said his quarterback, Matt Ryan.

Only one other NFL team has gone for it on fourth down more than the Falcons thus far the season – Baltimore is 4-for-11 in fourth-down conversions, the Falcons 6-for-10.

Sixty percent. Hmmm. Not a bad success rate (the NFL average this season is 50 percent, a coin flip). A person could do OK in with those kind of odds – in Vegas, if not on the operating table.

But when the Falcons opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 45 in overtime Sunday against San Diego – rather than to punt and optimally pin the Chargers back near the goal line – the decision left the coach with some “splainin” to do. Devonta Freeman was stuffed, and the Chargers made use of the short field to eventually kick the winning field goal.

In general, the people in the seats applaud when their team boldly attacks fourth down. Punting is so unsatisfying. It’s empty calories. It’s the Michelob Ultra in the NFL tap room.

Except when the bold play doesn’t work, and armed with the gift of retrospect, those same fans roast the decision.

There is a school of thought out there that you should never punt. That school is called Pulaski Academy outside Little Rock, Ark., where coach Kevin Kelly has gotten semi-famous by almost completely shunning the punt. No matter the field position, no matter the score or the game situation. Better never to give up possession of the football earlier than the rulebook requires, Kelly figures. He’s won five state titles doing it his way.

Given that the punting is a tad better in the NFL than at the Arkansas private school level, this all-or-nothing approach may not play to the same results.

There also are those in the analytics field – and here bear in mind the disclaimer: There are lies, damn lies and analytics – who also feel that aggression on fourth down is the proper approach.

Among those proponents was a Cal-Berkeley economist who veered into the study of NFL trends on fourth down a few years back.

"Teams should be a lot more aggressive on fourth down," David Romer told ESPN, and he had the scholarly paper to prove it. "On average, you'd be better off going for it, essentially, in any short-yardage situation. And then there are some cases even in longer yardage when you're in that position where neither punting nor a field goal looks very attractive.”

Nevertheless, the Falcons probably aren’t going to cut punter Matt Bosher and just go without.

But their quarterback does expect them to continue to be daring on fourth down.

“(Quinn) puts the ball in your hands. That’s all you want. You just want the opportunity to extend the drive, to keep playing to make it work,” Ryan said.

“I certainly believe we’ll continue to attack and as we move forward, I 100 percent believe we’re going to make those plays in those situations.”

In the end, it’s not the decision to go for it on fourth down that is so maddening, as it is the play chosen to achieve this noble goal (see Georgia-Vandy).

Daring without execution is just foolish risk, like playing poker with a guy named Slim.


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About the Author

Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.