The fourth down makes for some of the most exciting moments in many football games.
It’s a time when the coach’s decision can have a make-or-break impact on the game. As players take their positions, fans wait with bated breath to see what happens.
Will they punt?
Are they setting up for a field goal attempt?
Or will they go for the elusive fourth down conversion?
The conversion was once thought to be the riskiest choice. But recently, teams are going for it more often than ever before.
Learn more about the surprising reason behind this shift and why fourth down conversions are becoming more common.
4th down conversion basics
Before diving in to the background behind this football phenomenon, it’s important to understand exactly what a fourth down conversion is and when it typically happens.
What happens when you get four downs?
The fourth down is the point when an offensive team is on their last chance to gain 10 yards before possession is turned over to the other team.
On a fourth down, the offensive team has three options:
- Punt: The offensive team kicks the ball down the field, which hands over possession but will hopefully gain field position.
- Field goal: If they attempt a field goal and are successful, they earn three points.
- Conversion: The final option is the conversion, which means the team tries to get a first down or score.
What is a 4th down conversion?
When a team goes for a fourth down conversion, it’s basically a regular play but with higher stakes.
The offensive team lines up, snaps the ball to the quarterback, and attempts to pass or run the ball at least 10 yards. They can even go for a touchdown if the opportunity is there.
If they’re successful in gaining 10 yards, they get a first down. That means they maintain possession and get to keep advancing toward the end zone.
What happens when you miss a 4th down?
When a team tries for a fourth down conversion and comes up short, it puts the offensive team in a tough position.
They have to hand over possession, and the opposing team gets the ball where the offense finished.
In many cases, that position on the field is much closer to the opposing team’s end zone than the offensive team would like.
If they had punted instead, the opposing team might be a half a field further back.
When do you go for it on 4th down?
So, how do football head coaches make the call on whether to go for a fourth down conversion?
Option 1: Go for it
There are three scenarios in which a team is likely to go for the fourth down conversion:
- Ahead on the scoreboard
If the team has a comfortable lead, they may decide that going for the fourth down conversion is worth it. If they fail to convert, they can afford to give up a good field position.
- Near the end zone
Teams that are close to the end zone may also decide that a conversion is worth the risk.
If they’re successful, they might get a touchdown. If they’re not, the opposing team will likely be situated far from their own goal line.
- Short-yardage plays
When an offensive team has only a couple yards to go (as opposed to a full 10 yards), they’re more likely to go for it since they’re so close to getting that first down.
Option 2: Play it safe
Teams tend to go with one of the other two options besides a conversion in the following circumstances:
- Tied or trailing
When the score for the matchup is close or the offensive team is behind, they may decide that giving up possession with a punt or attempting a field goal is the safer move.
This eliminates the chance that the opposing team gets a better field position as well as other risky outcomes, like interceptions.
One exception in that scenario might be if the team is trailing late in the game and converting on the fourth down would give them a better chance at scoring before the clocks runs out.
- Within field goal range
Teams might not feel confident enough to go for the conversion, but if they’re in a good range for a field goal, they’ll often go with that option.
This gives them a chance to boost their score without giving the opposing team an advantage.
The safe range for a field goal is around 33 yards or less. Most kickers are able to hit the target consistently within this area.
Is it statistically better to go for it on 4th down?
For decades, fourth down conversions were relatively rare, even in the NFL. Football teams just didn’t think it was worth the risk based on the strategies outlined above.
But then, math experts stepped in to say that maybe these strategies were wrong all along.
NFL teams and college teams began turning to statistical experts to help improve their play strategy. One area that consistently came up was fourth down conversions.
In mathematical models, these experts found that, in many cases, it was better to take the risk and go for the conversion.
Head coaches had often viewed fourth down conversions as risky in most circumstances. As it turned out, it may have been riskier to “play it safe.”
A high-profile example of going for it
The debate about the advantages of going for it on the fourth down didn’t really fire up until November 2019.
That’s when the New England Patriots took a chance by attempting a conversion with just minutes left to go in a matchup against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots needed just two more yard to clinch a first down, and Coach Bill Belichick decided to go for it on fourth-and-two with his team leading 34-28.
Tom Brady made a successful pass to Kevin Faulk, but then the Colts’ Melvin Bullitt pushed him back while making the tackle. The officials ruled that the Patriots were just short of a first down.
Colts went on score a touchdown and extra point with only seconds left in the game, winning 35-34.
Belichick’s call was deemed highly controversial and even cocky. It went against the widely held belief that, in just about every case, it was safer to punt or attempt a field goal instead.
But one fan was actually defending the play. Brian Burke, then a U.S. government contractor who ran a website about football analytics on the side, wrote a piece defending the decision to go for it.
And he could back it up with numbers.
4th down conversion statistics
When you look back at the highly debated Patriots play, the statistics are in favor of attempting the fourth down conversion.
The analytics showed that the Patriots had 79% win probability by going for it.
If they had punted instead, that win probability dropped down to 70%.
Once Burke and other statistics experts started chiming in about the higher-than-expected win probability found in many fourth down conversion attempts, the football world was forever changed.
Analytics weren’t really a part of the game back in 2009. But in the years to follow, more and more college and NFL coaches added a math whiz to their department.
Burke himself eventually became a sports data scientist for ESPN.
The statistical findings were the same almost across the board: all this time, football teams should’ve been going for it a lot more often.
4th down conversions are trending up
Over the years, many teams have taken a more aggressive approach when it comes to fourth downs.
In fact, this past weekend, NFL teams decided to go for the fourth down conversion 51 times. That was the highest ever total in a single week for the league.
The single-week numbers for fourth down conversion attempts have inched up year over year. In 2020, it was 37. Before that, it was 26 in 2019 and 22 in 2018.
It’s not always successful. A number of teams that went for it over the weekend failed, including the Ravens, Bills, Jets, Panthers, and Bears.
But overall, coaches are seeing positive outcomes. That seems to be making them more open to trying to convert—especially as analysts remind them that not going for it may actually be the bigger risk.
4th down conversion FAQs
How often is 4th-and-1 converted?
The exact stats are always shifting, but overall, the rate of conversions is high. In 2020, Michael Lopez, Director of Football Data and Analytics for the NFL, noted that 4th-and-1 conversion attempts were successful 77% of the time.
NFL points are up and there are assuredly several reasons why.
An obvious one: teams are going for it more often on 4th down (69% of the time on 4th-and-1)
A non-obvious one: teams have converted 4th-and-1's at ridiculously high rates (77% so far in 2020) pic.twitter.com/uMoK4eodse
— Michael Lopez (@StatsbyLopez) October 6, 2020
Which team has the most 4th down conversions in the NFL?
This season, the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and New Orleans Saints are tied for the most fourth down conversions according to ESPN.
However, each of those teams has just two of these successful conversions under their belts so far.
In the 2020 regular season, the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, and Arizona Cardinals tied for the most fourth down conversions with a total of 17 each.
Which team has the highest success rate of 4th down conversions in the NFL?
The Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, and Washington are currently tied for a 100% success rate on fourth down conversions so far this season.
Keep in mind, however, that most teams have only attempted a few fourth down conversions at this point.
When looking at the entire 2020 regular season, the Saints led with a 68.8% success rate.
Who goes for it the most on 4th downs?
So far this season, the Lions are in the lead with five fourth down conversion attempts.
In the 2020 regular season, the leaders were the Philadelphia Eagles with 35 attempts.