RENTON — The ever-growing football analytics community would have loved Jack Patera.
The Seahawks’ first coach was known for his swashbuckling ways, never afraid to call a fake punt or field goal from just about any yard line.
And in 1978, Patera decided to go for it on fourth down 31 times. That not only remains a team record but last year would have tied for second in the NFL in a season when teams went for it on fourth down more than any other year.
The Eagles led the NFL last year with 35 fourth-down attempts in a season when there were a record 660 fourth-down attempts overall, or an average of 20 per team, with coaches more than ever seeming to heed the advice of analytics that show teams are better off going for it on fourth down more often than may have been assumed throughout much of the NFL’s history.
The 1978 Seahawks, who finished with a 9-7 record that was the best at that time for any third-year expansion team, converted on 20 of those fourth-down attempts, which also remains a team record.
And it stands in stark contrast to the 2020 Seahawks, who are one of just three NFL teams so far not to convert a fourth down and have attempted just two, fewer than just one other NFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs, who have just one.
Kansas City, Seattle and the Seahawks’ opponent this week — the Pittsburgh Steelers — are the only teams not to convert a fourth down so far, the Steelers standing 0-5.
Going for it on fourth down, of course, isn’t about just offensive aggressiveness but also the need to do it.
During the Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks have been pretty middle-of-the-pack in going for it on fourth down, in part because during some of the glory years of the Legion of Boom, the Seahawks weren’t often trailing late and needing to do whatever it took to keep hope alive.
Last year, while NFL teams were going for it more than ever, Seattle had 14 fourth-down attempts, fewer than all but two other teams. But Seattle hit on eight, a 57.1% rate that was 15th in the league. The high during the Carroll era is 18 attempts in 2012, the low nine in both 2015 and 2017.
Carroll’s fourth-down decision making was debated anew on social media during last Thursday’s 26-17 loss to the Rams when Seattle was presented with two interesting fourth-down scenarios in the first quarter.
And according to the assessment of Pro Football Focus, among the leaders in guiding the conversation on football analytics, Seattle got it wrong both times — once for going for it, and once for not going for it.
One decision came on Seattle’s first drive as the Seahawks faced a fourth-and-3 at the Rams 43.
The Seahawks decided to punt, with Michael Dickson’s 31-yarder pinning the Rams back at the 12.
Carroll obviously was playing the field position game.
But to PFF’s Kevin Cole, who delivered a lengthy analysis of the game on a podcast the following day, Carroll blew it by not taking into account “the opportunity cost” of kicking away a scoring opportunity in a game in which Seattle figured to need a lot of points to win.
Cole said PFF’s numbers show Seattle had a 50% shot of picking up the fourth-and-3, meaning getting to at least the Rams 40. And at that point, only a few more yards would have been needed to get a field goal.
The 31 yards Seattle gained in field position punting, Cole said, was not worth the opportunity cost of not trying to at least get into field goal position.
The move sort of worked out for Seattle the way Carroll obviously hoped, though, as the Rams got two first downs on the next drive and then punted back to the Seahawks, though back to Seattle’s 19.
The Seahawks drove from there to the LA 29 where they again faced a fourth down — this time, fourth-and-2.
The fourth down came after DeeJay Dallas rushed for no gain on third-and-2. Carroll seemed to be trying to make a point about the team’s running game when on fourth down, Alex Collins got the ball on a similar looking running play. But Collins was also stuffed for no gain.
Cole said PFF’s numbers showed that this time, Seattle should have taken the field goal.
A 47-yard kick, he said, is made about 75% of the time. Those odds, he said, are better than the combined 60% calculation of Seattle getting the first down, and then from there, scoring a touchdown — which is the obvious point of passing up the field goal.
“You should be more likely to go for it if you are 40 yards away from the end zone then if you are in that 20-30 range,” Cole said, adding that it’s only once teams are inside the 20 and closer to scoring a touchdown that going for it on fourth down makes more sense than taking the relatively sure thing of a field goal.
Carroll, Cole said, “is improperly weighting the fact that the 43 is a stronger signal to go for it than the 29 is.”
That fourth-down attempt was the only time this year Seattle has really made such a decision out of aggression. Seattle’s other fourth down this year came out of desperation — a fourth-and-12 with 2:36 left in a 30-17 loss to Minnesota in Week 3 that resulted in an incomplete pass (on an attempt to Penny Hart in the end zone).
And it’s worth noting there haven’t really been any other obvious fourth down decisions so far this year.
Asked about the two fourth-down calls this week, Carroll said he does consider percentages, but that he takes more than the numbers into account when making decisions.
“Those depend on where the ball is and situation and the rhythm of it — all that stuff,” Carroll said. “If it was all analytics, then you would go for it all the time. The analytics will tell you you should always go for it whenever it’s close like that. That doesn’t mean it’s always the right decision and it weighs right. It’s just important to know what the information is, and then make the choice.”
Actually, as Cole noted, the analytics don’t say to always go for it, but to instead assess each situation for its maximum benefit.
But as Carroll noted, such decisions tend to be much more heavily debated if the plays don’t work and the team loses.
“It would have been a really good decision if we made it,” he said.