Sean McDermott set a personal record for going for it on the fourth down in 2021.
So did a majority of NFL head coaches.
Fourth-down attempts increased significantly for the fourth year in a row leaguewide, rising 64% compared to McDermott’s first year as a head coach in 2017.
That steep rise still doesn’t do justice to the go-for-it trend. The increase is 128% over the past five seasons, according to Football Outsiders, if you discount “obvious catch-up situations,” such as trailing by nine or more in the fourth quarter or trailing by any amount with five minutes to go in the game.
NFL coaches have caught up with the analytics community, which for a decade or more has advocated the statistical value in going for it more often on fourth down situations.
McDermott went for it a personal-high 22 times on the fourth down in the regular season last year. The Bills converted 11. That doesn’t count the playoffs. The Bills were 4 for 4 on fourth downs in the playoff loss at Kansas City. McDermott went for it 10 times in 2020 and 18 times in both 2019 and 2018.
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On average, every team went for it on the fourth down 24 times last season. In 2017, the average attempts per team was 15.1.
How aggressive was McDermott factoring in the down, distance, score and time remaining in the game?
It depends on the analytics computer program.
McDermott was 13th in 2021 on the Football Outsiders’ “Aggressiveness Index.” McDermott was 16th on the Aggressiveness Index in 2020, 15th in 2019 and ninth in 2018.
McDermott ranked fifth in the NFL in 2021 on the EdjSports head coaching ranking, which factors both offensive and defensive performance and a “Critical Call Index,” a measure of a coach’s fourth down decisions.
How aggressive should a coach be? It’s debatable. If a team is weak at the quarterback position or a team’s defense is awful, maybe being aggressive is a bad idea. If the team has an elite, mobile quarterback, taking a more aggressive approach no doubt is warranted.
Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson is 16 of 17 converting fourth downs for his career when he runs on fourth and short.
Josh Allen is 19 of 21 on fourth-and-short rushing attempts for his career, according to Buffalo News charts. Allen was 5 of 6 in 2021, with the lone failure coming on the decisive, final offensive play in Tennessee when he was stopped short of the goal line.
ON THE RISE
NFL FOURTH-DOWN ATTEMPTS FOR TEAM
On the Football Outsiders ‘Aggressiveness Index, the Chargers’ Brandon Staley was the most aggressive, followed by Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury, Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski, Detroit’s Dan Campbell and Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur.
The least aggressive were Seattle’s Pete Carroll (at No. 32), the Giants’ Joe Judge, Houston’s David Culley and New England’s Bill Belichick. Carroll went for it a league-low 11 times last year and on only 3 of 10 fourth-and-1 situations not in obvious catch-up mode, according to Football Outsiders.