A hot topic of conversation in football is coaches’ fourth-down decisions throughout a game.
Throughout the season, we will dive into the most impactful fourth-down decisions made in the prior week and how they shifted the game’s outcome using Sports Info Solutions’ (SIS) win probability model.
The SIS win probability model estimates how likely a team is to win from a given game state. This takes into account just the key elements of the game state — time left, score, field position, yards to go, timeouts, etc. No additional contextual factors — specific players, momentum, schematic matchups — are considered, for better or worse.
Win probability is perhaps best used to evaluate tactical decisions like what to do on fourth down. We can take the expected win probability when a team takes each fork in the road and compare what they actually chose to what might have been optimal.
This means we’re working in terms of expected win probability added (xWPA), evaluating the decision based just on the choice made and not on what happened afterward. You wouldn’t regret punting from your 20 on fourth-and-10 just because the punt was blocked, and you shouldn’t regret going for it on fourth-and-3 from the red zone late in a tie game just because the pass fell incomplete.
As we head into 2023, let’s look back at some of the biggest fourth-down decisions that shaped the 2022 season.
2022 Key Fourth-Down Calls
Week 1 Eagles at Lions, 1:06 left in the Fourth Quarter
Eagles: Fourth-and-1 from Lions 40, leading 38-35
The Philadelphia Eagles got the ball back with 3:49 left in the fourth quarter after the Detroit Lions cut the lead to three points. Up by 17 points earlier in the game, the Eagles were in danger of giving up the lead entirely if they couldn’t get two first downs. They were able to pick up one first down before the two-minute warning, but the Lions had two timeouts left. On third-and-1 at the Lions 40, Detroit stuffed Boston Scott for no gain, and the Eagles needed to make a decision.
Attempting a field goal would increase the lead only to six, keeping it a one-score game. Punting could pin the Lions deep, but their offense found its groove late.
According to the SIS Model, the Eagles already had an 87 percent chance to win the game, but by deciding to go for it, they had a 91 percent chance. On the contrary, this number would drop to 77 percent if they chose to kick the field goal or punt. The 14 percent gain in xWPA from that choice was in the top 30 for the highest of the season.
So, with the best offensive line in football, coach Nick Sirianni decided to run a quarterback sneak and pick up the first down. Sirianni is second in our coaching rankings regarding fourth-down decision-making. This is largely due to the aggressiveness he displays to win games like this one.
Week 1 Broncos at Seahawks, 0:20 left in the Fourth Quarter
Broncos: Fourth-and-5 from Seahawks 46, trailing 17-16
Fans of the 2022 Denver Broncos will want to forget this past season as quickly as possible, knowing early on what kind of season this could have been. In Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos’ offense struggled to get anything going. Their only touchdown was a 67-yard catch and run from Jerry Jeudy.
The Broncos, who were 6.5 point favorites, were in danger of dropping the game outright after getting the ball back with 4:02 left in the fourth quarter, trailing 17-16.
After dinking and dunking their way down the field, the Broncos’ offense found itself in a fourth-down situation on the Seattle 46-yard line with 20 seconds remaining. This was when coach Nathaniel Hackett took Denver’s first timeout of the half so that the Broncos could set up Brandon McManus to attempt a 64-yard field goal.
The Broncos would have had an xWP of 30 percent if they went for it. By deciding to kick a field goal of this length, they decided to surrender 27 percent xWP. This was the largest loss of the season by a whopping nine percent. The Broncos opted to send McManus out for very long field goals in the past, but these mainly occurred in Denver with the thin air. This decision came in one of the most hostile environments in the NFL.
McManus missed the field goal, and the questions around Hackett’s decision swirled throughout the coming weeks. Ultimately, the Broncos hired Jerry Rosburg to assist with these decisions in Week 3. Little did they know they also found their future interim head coach.
Week 16 Buccaneers at Cardinals, 0:56 left in the Fourth Quarter
Buccaneers: Fourth-and-2 from own 42, tied 16-16
Todd Bowles ranks 28th in our fourth-down decision-making coaching rankings because of decisions like this one. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to punt the ball in a tie game, facing a fourth-and-2 from their 42. He took the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands in a pressure situation and ultimately decided that going to overtime would be a better option to win the game.
By not going for it, Bowles surrendered 17 percent xWPA, which was the fourth-highest amount surrendered among all fourth-down decisions last season. The Buccaneers eventually won in overtime, but stacking negative win equity positions on top of each other has led to a negative impression on this team going into 2023.
Super Bowl LVII: Eagles v. Chiefs, 10:33 left in the Fourth Quarter
Eagles: Fourth-and-3 from own 32, trailing 28-27
In this case, we revisit our aggressive friend, Sirianni. However, in this specific instance, he left win equity on the table in the season’s biggest game.
The Kansas City Chiefs scored touchdowns on their previous two drives, sandwiched by an Eagles field goal. Down by 1, the Eagles got the ball back on their 25 and managed to get to a third-and-3. On third down, Jalen Hurts missed DeVonta Smith deep left, and the Eagles were facing fourth down and a 37 percent chance to win the game. With an xWP of 42 percent to go for it and 37 percent to punt, Sirianni still decided to punt the ball away and surrender the edge.
The result? Kadarius Toney took it back 65 yards to the Eagles’ 5 yard-line, where the Chiefs scored three plays later. A tough decision ended up backfiring worse due to a long punt return. Everyone knows the result, but this certainly felt like a momentum-shifting point of the game.
The story was authored by James Weaver.