Over the past several years, I've warmed to the academic side of the fourth-down debate, accepting that in many cases the rewards of an unconventional decision can outweigh the risks. I understand the hesitation of coaches, whose jobs are rarely secure enough to withstand high-profile departures from custom, and have figured it would take one outlier achieving success over time for more coaches to go for it on fourth down.
At one point, supporters puts their hopes behind Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, whose offense at the University of Oregon was so explosive that the down made no difference to him. As it turns out, however, new Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman might be the true patron saint.
In the final moments of the Bears' victory Monday at Lambeau Field, Trestman demonstrated the reward available to coaches who can withstand the risk of aggressive fourth-down calls. Rather than punt on fourth-and-1 at his own 32-yard line, with seven minutes, 50 seconds remaining and a four-point lead, Trestman called for tailback Matt Forte to slam the middle of the line. Forte eluded Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk in the backfield, gained three yards and provided the Bears a fresh set of downs to continue draining the clock.
The risk seemed substantial. A punt probably would have meant the difference in at least 40 yards of field position for a Packers offense that was struggling without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If Hawk had tackled Forte in the backfield, the Packers would have gained possession 30 yards away from taking a lead.
What often gets lost in these discussions, however, is the value of the reward. The conversion raised the Bears' win percentage from 63.4 percent if they had punted to 72.5 percent, based on a win probability model used by ESPN Stats & Information. Even had it failed, the Bears still would have had a pretty decent chance to win (52.4 percent).
In other words: Can you absorb the risk of lowering your chance to win in exchange for the reward of increasing it? Very few coaches have such risk tolerance and, based on the pro-football-reference.com database, Trestman was the first coach since 2009 to go for it on fourth down so deep in his territory while holding a fourth-quarter lead.
Remember, there was only one yard to gain. Over the past five years, NFL teams have converted two-thirds of their fourth-and-1 plays away from the goal line. That's probably a higher percentage than you realized, and it should moderate some angst over the risk factor. The result of failure is significant, but the chances of it are not nearly as high.
Every situation is different, of course, and no approach is airtight. The right call does not always work, and execution lies with the players. But over time, a more aggressive mindset in such situations -- especially considering the high percentage of such conversions in recent history -- should pay off. Had the play failed, we might still be discussing Trestman's "poor" choice. It worked, of course, and it propelled what turned out to be an 18-play drive that consumed nearly nine minutes and ended with a chip-shot field goal to extend the Bears' lead to 27-20.
Will other coaches notice? Sure. Will they be more apt to follow suit? I'm not sure. For what it's worth, the chart shows that coaches are actually going for it less on fourth down overall this season than they were as recently as 2009. Here's hoping …
(Special thanks to Alok Pattani of ESPN Stats & Information for his assistance with this post.)