With NFL teams increasingly going for it on 4th down, are they under-valuing Field Goals? Or are Kickers just too unreliable? Let’s take a closer look at whether teams are making the right decision regarding FGs in 2019.
Firstly, there has to be a recognition that all FGs need to be considered in the context of the game. Teams may choose to attempt a FG to take a lead or tie up the score. Likewise, they may choose to go for it on 4th down for similar reasons.
Secondly, winning the field position battle is everything in the NFL. Missing a FG can give an opponent a much more favourable starting position. Similarly, scoring a FG gives the ball back to them. However, going for it, especially deep in the opposition half, forces them to go for a long drive if unsuccessful.
How Are Points Being Scored?
Over the first five weeks of the NFL in 2019, the majority of drives that haven’t ended in turnovers (including punts and on downs) are Touchdowns. If we consider both successful and failed FGs, TDs make up 58.3% of “scoring” drives, successful FGs are 32.9%, and missed FGs are 8.8%. This would suggest that going for it on 4th down, and converting, gives a favourable chance to score a TD. At worst, you still resort to a FG but from a closer distance.
Yet there is a difference between how winning and losing teams score points. Winning teams scored 257 TDs from Weeks 1-5, while losing teams only scored 140 (5 were scored in the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions Tie). This means teams that lose scored TDs 54.5% of the time that winning teams do. However, some of these come from Defence and Special Teams, but it doesn’t change how games are won.
Similarly, winning teams have scored 126 out of 152 FGs attempted (82.89%). Losing teams have scored just 98 out of 132 FGs (74.24%). So not only is there a discrepancy in attempted FGs (losing teams attempt 13.2% fewer FGs), but in the success rate. 77.8% of losing teams FGs are successful in comparison to those by winning teams.
As said at the beginning it’s hard to know in many cases what is the right thing to do in each situation. Hindsight makes it easier to critique the decisions of teams. But with hindsight, some trends emerge that can inform decision-making.
For teams that won, they had 383 scoring drives, with 26 drives that ended in missed FGs (a total of 409 drives that aren’t turnovers). On scoring drives, 67.1% are TDs, and 32.9% are FGs. Including missed FGs, 62.8% end in TDs, 30.8% end in FGs, and 6.4% of drives are missed FGs. Essentially, TDs are scored on two-thirds of all scoring drives, at twice the rate as FGs.
On the other hand, teams that lose have a much higher FG percentage for scoring drives. They had 238 total scoring drives, with an additional 34 drives ending in missed FGs (272). 58.8% of scoring drives end in TDs and 41.2% end in FGs. Yet when you include missed FGs, drives end with TDs 51.5% of the time, 36% with FGs, and 12.5% in missed FGs. One quarter of attempted FGs by teams that lose are missed, and yet a higher percentage of scoring drives end in FGs for losing teams than for winning teams.
This may seem like common sense – score more points and win, right? But it is a bit more revealing than that. Keeping possession and going for it on 4th down is as effective as 1 out of every 4 FG attempts for teams that lose. And with most teams successfully converting on 4th 50% of the time or more in 2019, it begs the question: when should a FG be attempted?
Teams leading should go for the FG in most situations. Scoring more points extends the lead, and puts more pressure on the opponent. Depending on what point in the game it is, can also help the Defence. If it is late in the game, it forces the opponent to throw the ball more, reducing the need to defend the run as much. Early in the game doesn’t help the Defence as much, except it allows them to take more risks, potentially earning turnovers.
Teams trailing should also attempt a FG in most situations. The amount of situations where they shouldn’t are fewer than when they should. If they are more than three points behind and can take the lead or tie with a TD, unlikely to get another possession, they need to go for it on 4th down. Early in the game, they should go for the FG – getting points is more valuable than field position. On 4th and long, they should also attempt the FG.
However, there is a small window where they should disregard this and go for it on 4th down, regardless of the cost. Most missed FGs are longer attempts, from about 50 yards or more out. Teams who are behind and on their opposition 33-40 yard line should go for it on 4th down, unless they have someone like Justin Tucker as their Kicker.
A punt doesn’t net many yards, and at that distance there’s a greater than 25% chance the FG is missed anyway. If you succeed on 4th down, you maintain possession. If you fail, your opponent is still in their own half. Worst case scenario, they get the ball where they would have with a missed FG anyway.
In tied and close games, teams should go for the FG, even from distance. There is a good chance it will be successful, and it could either tie the game up, or put the successful team in front. Alternatively, it can change a 1 point lead into a 4 point lead, forcing the opponent into scoring a TD, instead of a FG. This is the case regardless of whether it is early or late in the game.
In games where points are scarce, it is much more of a situational decision. A long FG is too risky, and carries almost the same risk as going for it on 4th down. A short FG could earn a win – the New Orleans Saints won a game this year without scoring a TD.
So far in 2019, at least 6 games would have ended with a different winner if FGs had been successful. FGs can obviously make a difference. In numerous other games, teams won by a FG. Then there are any number of games where a successful FG instead of going for it on 4th down could have changed the momentum of the game, giving one team a lead instead of trailing. Here are a few examples from Week 5 to further consider why teams should or shouldn’t be averse to attempting FGs in different situations.
The Carolina Panthers walked away 7-point victors over the Jacksonville Jaguars. They never had a big lead, yet had three drives where they could have altered the game in their favour. They had a blocked 56-yard FG on 4th and 24 with a 7-point lead, which led to a Jaguars short drive ending in a FG. They also had a missed 48-yard FG (4th and 8) up by 4, and a failed 4th and 1 attempt up by 4 from the Jaguars’ 5-yard line. This last was followed with a Jaguars’ FG drive to be behind by 1.
The second attempted FG was the right decision – it would have given Carolina a 7-point lead. The first FG attempt was a difficult distance to begin with. Although it was 4th and 24, picking up some of those yards or punting could have helped them maintain the 7-point lead. The 4th down decision should have been to kick the FG and go up by 10, despite the earlier lack of success with FGs. Securing the extra 3 points would have taken the pressure off, instead of having to drive downfield late to close it out.
In their 3-point loss to the Oakland Raiders, the Chicago Bears had two crucial 4th downs in the opposition half. They chose to punt on both of these, and conceded TDs on the following drives. The first was with the game at 0-0, 4th and 8, on the Raiders’ 49 yard line. The second was when they were up by 4, 4th and 6, on the Raiders’ 42 yard line.
Both of these are too far to attempt a FG. With their strong Defence, they also wouldn’t expect to give up 14 points or two 90-yard drives. However, going for it on at least the second punt, could have changed the game. If the Bears converted the 4th down, they maintain possession and are in FG range. If not, the Defence knows they have to make a stand. It’s hard to fault Chicago too much in either situation, but in a tight game, turning over the ball with the latter punt was a poor choice.
New York Giants
The final score suggests the New York Giants were never in their 28-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. But they could have kept themselves in it late in the game with different decisions to finish drives. Down by 15 points, they went for it twice on 4th down and failed, instead of opting for makeable FGs (20 yards, 44 yards). They also chose to punt in the first quarter on 4th and 8 from the Minnesota 39, down by 3 – followed by a Vikings TD drive.
Although no sure bet to convert on the 4th down, it would have changed the approach to the game. A 56-yard FG would have been unlikely, but could have tied the game. Getting some of the yards, or all, either puts the Vikings firmly in their own half, or maintains possession.
Hypothetically, they could have earned a FG from it. Throw in their other 2 chances for FGs, and they end up losing by 9, potentially. However, after the Vikings went up by 10, following the failed 4th down conversion, the Giants mostly abandoned the run. They changed how they were playing, and put themselves in tough positions. Making a different decision early in the game could have meant those later FG attempts were worthwhile.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs lost by 6 points to the Indianapolis Colts in a tight matchup. The Chiefs had chances to be aggressive or add points, but chose not to and were forced into pursuing a TD late in the game, instead of a FG. They punted from the Colts’ 42-yard line on 4th and 6, and failed a 4th and 1 conversion from their own 34-yard line.
When they punted, the game was tied, and on 4th down, the Chiefs trailed by 6. While they shouldn’t have attempted a 59-yard FG, they should have gone for it instead of punting. Maintaining possession in a tight game, even if the drive ended in a FG, would have allowed them to seek a FG late in the game, instead of a TD. If they failed the 4th down conversion, it doesn’t severely change their position. Alternatively, the failed 4th and 1 in their own half was short-sighted. Putting the ball deep in Colts’ territory would have given the Chiefs a chance to avoid conceding a FG on the subsequent drive – putting them down 9, instead of still trailing by one score.
This is all far from an exact science, and is obviously helped with hindsight. But knowing what the trends are in different situations, and what can lead to a more favourable outcome, should inform NFL teams’ decision-making. In most cases, attempting the FG is the better option than punting or going for it on 4th down.