Going for it on 4th down has long been a controversial topic in the NFL. Fans and coaches often lie on opposite ends of this argument, with fans arguing for the exciting fourth-down attempt and coaches doing what is probably smarter, punting it.
Is it always smarter, though? Or is the coach just trying keep his butt off the hot seat?
Marvin Lewis is viewed as a very conservative head coach by most Bengals fans, but he falls just below average in regards to going for it on fourth down. As we mentioned a week ago, Marvin Lewis ranks 20th in the Football Outsiders Aggressiveness Index, which rates how often a head coach attempts fourth-down conversions.
New research by Brian Burke, founder of AdvancedNFLStats.com, suggests that going for it is statistically the better option in most situations. Burke has tallied data from 2,400 games between the 2000 and 2008 season, and he sides with the fans, saying it statistically makes sense to go for it:
"What the numbers suggest — and sometimes it seems crazy — but in almost all of those situations, it makes sense to go for it."
Burke also makes the case that the NFL is becoming a more offensive league, therefore devaluing the battle for field position (the typical argument for punting) and increasing the importance of possessing the ball. Because of this, he argues that teams must go for it more once they cross the midfield line. Burke backs this concept with this surprising statistic:
Teams convert a fourth and one — which includes situations ranging from fourth-and-inches to fourth-and-a-yard-and-a-half — around 74 percent of the time.
However, Burke explains that this percentage is far lower with teams that have sub-par offensive lines.
As many of us remember, the Bengals offensive line really struggled with short-yardage situations in 2011. Third-and-one seemed absolutely impossible to convert sometimes, with the line unable to push any defenders off and behind the line of scrimmage. Sometimes, there simply was no hole for the running back to squeeze through. Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott have taken their fair share of criticism this year, but I've seen many plays where a tackle-for-loss occurred and wasn't either running back's fault.
The Bengals need to upgrade this offensive line by a large margin to be able to comfortably run the ball on third-and-short and fourth-and-short. At this stage, the Bengals offense isn't quite high-powered enough to go for it as much as some other teams in the league, but they certainly have the foundation in place to become one.