RENTON — Fourth-down decisions, at any level of football, can be excruciatingly difficult for a coach. Go for it? Kick it? Punt it? They can, and often do, make or a break a team’s fortunes. They can, and often do, ignite a round of second-guessing from fans and the media.
And yet for Pete Carroll, a fourth-down decision can be his favorite thing on a Sunday.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of plays happening I don’t get to do much,” the Seahawks coach said this week. “I do have the opportunities sometimes. At times, I often think about, there’s about three or four plays in a game that really come down to — I have the choice to do something.
“Really, I’m trying to maximize those.”
There remains a divide between traditional coaching strategy and advanced statistical analysis of how to “maximize” those difficult fourth-down situations. That’s true of most teams in the NFL, and it’s true for the Seahawks, who have attempted fourth-down conversions at a slightly lower rate than the NFL average in each of the past four seasons.
How big of a deal is that?
It depends, in part, on how much you value the data.
And while some coaches around the NFL have shown a willingness to embrace a forward-thinking fourth-down strategy — the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, on their way to a Super Bowl title, have widely been used as example of that — studies show there is still a significant gap between how often teams “go for it” on fourth down and how often they should go for it.
According to a study from Journal of Sports Analytics published in August, which calculated the NFL’s fourth-down data from 13 seasons between 2004 to 2016, a “more aggressive” fourth-down strategy would yield an extra 0.4 wins per team per season.
The study calculated the Seahawks specifically could have had five additional wins in those 13 seasons if they had been more aggressive on fourth down.
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Carroll has made it clear: He makes the call on fourth downs.
Offensive coordinator and play-caller Brian Schottenheimer said this week that those fourth-down decisions typically aren’t sudden ones. There are discussions, he said, either before a drive or during the drive when building toward a fourth-down play.
“Sometimes you start talking about fourth downs before the drive starts: ‘We’re in four-down territory based on the score,’” Schottenheimer said. “Other ones as you move the ball down the field and you get into a certain area of the field, maybe it’s across the 50 or something like that, you start thinking about those things.
“I’ve always said this, he’s great about communicating to me: ‘Hey Schotty, think four downs here.’ That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but if we put ourselves into that position then we certainly will consider it.”
Beyond the numbers, coaches consider other key factors on fourth down: their personnel, their opponent’s personnel, the score, the time in the game and the weather.
Carroll was asked how he balances the emotion of the moment with all those other factors in making a fourth-down call.
“Well, I hope really well,” he said. “At the time when we make our decision and we’re done, I feel good about it. That’s why I do it. I feel like ‘OK, I’m fine.’ I’ve been through enough of them. So many more when we were in college where we go through it all the time. I had a pretty good background, and I know what’s at stake. I understand that. Sometimes, the stakes matter more than others.”
Every coach, if they’ve coached long enough, will have his share of good fourth-down calls and bad ones.
Most famously, Carroll had a gut-wrenching result on a fourth-down play when he was coaching USC in the 2006 national-championship game against Texas. USC’s LenDale White was stuffed on fourth-and-two at the Texas 45-yard line with 2 minutes, 9 seconds left in the game. The Longhorns took over and scored the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left when Vince Young ran 9 yards into the end zone … on fourth down.
Proponents of a progressive fourth-down strategy would tell you the results of a fourth-down play shouldn’t matter. It’s the process in building up to a decision that matters.
It’s not unlike a difficult decision in a game of blackjack. When a dealer is showing a face card, proper strategy suggests a player should always hit on 16. Does that mean you’re going to win every time? Of course not. But your odds of winning increase.
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The Seahawks went for it four times in their Week 3 loss at home to New Orleans, converting only one of those four attempts into a first down.
There was one fourth-down decision in particular that haunted Carroll, and that came late in the second quarter on fourth-and-one from the New Orleans’ 41. Chris Carson was tackled for a 1-yard loss, and the Saints turned around and scored a touchdown to take a commanding 20-7 lead into halftime.
The data confirmed Carroll made the right decision on that fourth-and-one play — from that spot, the numbers say, you go for it every time — but Carroll lamented it, saying he would take the call back “in a heartbeat.”
Outside of the New Orleans game, the Seahawks have gone for it just two times in six games, converting both.
Carroll’s fourth-down strategy was magnified again early this week after a 30-16 loss to Baltimore. With the score tied 13-13 in the third quarter, the Seahawks faced a fourth-and-three from the Ravens’ 35-yard line. Carroll sent out his field-goal team, a decision that decreased the Seahawks’ chances of winning the game by 4%, according to Pro Football Focus data.
Jason Myers missed the 53-yard field-goal attempt. Carroll explained that he wanted to take the points in that situation, and that he wanted to show “total confidence” in his kicker. Further, his other consideration in that situation was to punt the ball — not to go for it with his offense.
“It was our spot, we’re kicking it — that’s what we do,” Carroll told 710 ESPN Seattle on Monday. “Just, a great kicker and he’s going to come through for us. That’s the way our mentality’s going to be and there’s no reason for us to change.”
Compounding the frustration for many Seahawks fans was the manner in which the Ravens scored the go-ahead touchdown on their ensuing possession. It came, of course, on fourth down — and only after quarterback Lamar Jackson convinced coach John Harbaugh to go for it. On fourth-and-two from the Seattle 8, Jackson scored on a QB power run.
A video of the sideline exchange between Jackson and Harbaugh was posted on the Ravens’ Twitter feed. It has been viewed 3.1 million times.
In a follow-up question this week about his fourth-down calculations, Carroll was asked if he considers data analysis as part of those decisions.
“Yes,” he said. “We’re well aware.”