On the first possession of the 2018 NFL season, Dan Quinn looked through the Overton window and into the grey area where envelopes are pushed and unorthodox becomes the standard. The Falcons faced 4th and goal from the Eagles 1 yard yard line, and the coach on the opposite sideline has already made his mark on the league by pushing boundaries. No one has been more aggressive on 4th down than Doug Pederson, and the risks he took rewarded him with a Super Bowl win. Quinn followed Pederson’s lead and went for it, and it seemed that Pederson has changed the league.
In Week 1 of 2018, teams went for it on 4th and short (3 yards or less) in the first three quarters (and not counting end of half Hail Marys) more often than they did in in their first games in 2017 (Week 2 was the first game for the Dolphins and Buccaneers after their Week 1 game was pushed back due to Hurricane Irma).
One caveat: the opportunities compared to last year are down significantly.
But they’re taking advantage of them far more.
The jump in attempts from 3 to 2/1 yards makes sense. Every team has a handful of plays for 2 yards, the distance for a 2 point conversion. If coaches are going to crawl out of their 4th down comfort zone, they’ll likely do so by staying in the 2 yard comfort zone.
The NFL has slowly been increasing its rate of 4th attempts, but it needed someone to jump start a revolution. Coaches needed a positive outcome to either turn the light on for them or give them a cover for trying something new. Pederson gave them that. But we’ve seen something like this happen before.
In 2009 and 2010, Mike Smith and the Falcons went for it prior to the 4th quarter 22 times, 2nd most in the league, and converted 77% of attempts, 3rd best in the league. Rex Ryan and the Jets went for it 19 times, 4th most in the league, and converted 79% of them, 2nd best. Smith and Ryan had winning seasons in both years, with Smith making the playoffs in 2010 and Ryan in both seasons. Then in 2011, they stopped. Smith only had 6 pre-4th quarter attempts, Ryan a paltry 3. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but both coaches won fewer games the next season.
In 2013 Ron Rivera won AP Coach of the Year in part because he suddenly became aggressive on 4th down. After a 1-3 start, the Panthers got bold, over the next 10 games they went for it seven times prior to the 4th quarter. The results were fantastic. They converted the first six, three of which were for touchdowns, the other three all led to a touchdown. The Panthers went 9-1 during that stretch, and Rivera was dubbed “Riverboat Ron.” On the 7th try, they failed to convert, and then in the playoffs failed to convert a 2nd quarter attempt. The next season Rivera reverted back to being just another coach on 4th down, with just 5 pre-3rd quarter attempts all year. The riverboat had sunk, and like Smith and Ryan before him, Rivera won fewer games.
Pederson on the other hand came out swinging to begin his career and has never stopped. In his first two games as a head coach he went for it, and went on to lead the league in attempts. That he went 7-9 didn’t discourage him. In 2016 he went for it on 4th and 3 or less between his 40 and the goal line 69% of the time, in 2017 he went 65% of the time and was 2nd in the league in attempts. And then of course, he had the infamous Super Bowl play.
That seems to have encouraged coaches to go for it. But will their failures to execute discourage them from keeping it up? The reversion to risk aversion might already be underway. On the Falcons’ second drive against the Eagles, they faced a 4th and goal from the 3. Quinn took the field goal instead of try for a touchdown. The game ended with the Falcons having the ball in field goal range and losing by 6.
On one hand, you can understand Quinn not wanting to take two consecutive trips to the red zone (and three if you go back to last year) and walk away with no points. On the other, Pederson’s aggressiveness isn’t defined just by his volume of fourth down attempts but by how he uses to keep his foot on the gas.
The true test will come in the next few weeks. In addition to the Falcons, the Titans, Texans, Bears, and Giants all went for it in close games before the 4th quarter, and all lost close games. Will they go for it again in a similar situation?