If the Mythbusters were to do an NFL-themed episode, the myth at the top of their list would probably be whether or not head coaches should "go for it" more often on fourth-down situations. To the casual fan and stat analyst, the answer is a resounding yes. After all, fourth-down conversions are one of the more exciting plays in football and the chance to extend a drive can often outweigh the consequences of failing to gain the necessary yards. To NFL head coaches, however, the situation isn't that simple. Botched conversions can take points of the board by passing up field goal opportunities, while the failure of a game-losing fourth-down attempt is the kind of high profile nightmare scenario that can stick in the craw of an entire fanbase. Roll the dice one too many times and you might find yourself looking for another team next season.
It's the ultimate high-risk, high-reward type situation, and most head coaches simply aren't willing to pay the price.
In fact, according to an article from Football Outsiders, NFL head coaches have actually become even less aggressive in recent years, despite the mounting evidence of the benefits of going for it and the prolific nature of modern offenses. It's almost as though head coach have stepped out of a time machine from football's early days, while the game itself raced ahead without them.
Fortunately, not all head coaches have caught the lame-bug. According to the same article--which also scored and ranked each head coach by their aggressiveness on fourth-down--Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was one the most aggressive coaches in the league last season, clocking in at a remarkable Aggressiveness Index of 1.31 (meaning Lewis is 31% more likely to go for it than the average head coach). A couple of things are interesting about this.
First, Lewis came in fourth place, but the three coaches ahead of him, Mike Mularkey, Dennis Allen, and Rex Ryan, all coached on non-playoff teams. This means that they were more likely to be playing from behind, and therefore also more likely to be aggressive on fourth-down. The fact that Lewis ranked in the top-four is highly impressive. The only other playoff-qualifying coach in the top-ten was Green Bay's Mike McCarthy at number seven.
Second, under Lewis, the Bengals attempted 15 conversions out of a possible 119 opportunities for conversion. This was the highest percentage of attempts in the NFL, at 12.6%.
Third, the 2012 season was an apparent shift for Lewis, as his career Aggressiveness Index is only 1.14. Part of the reason for this change might have been the health situation of kicker Mike Nugent. Out of ten opportunities for conversion between the 31- and 37-yard lines, Lewis went for seven of them, opting to gamble with his offense instead of relying on Nugent.
All in all, Marvin Lewis was definitely one of the gutsier coaches during the 2012 regular season and it ended up paying major dividends for the team. I for one hope that this is the beginning of a new trend for Lewis and not just an aberration.
You can check out the full article from Football Outsiders here.