It's the second quarter and the Cincinnati Bengals have already picked up three first downs on a drive that's already crossed midfield. Andy Dalton hands off to Cedric Benson on third and one but fails to pick up the conversion, losing his balance in the backfield, falling one yard short of the first down (you can actually see it playing out in your mind, can't you?). It's fourth down and Marvin Lewis sends in the punt team to relinquish possession. Say that Cincinnati is snapping the football from their opponents 40-yard line and Kevin Huber accidentally booms a punt deep into the endzone for a touchdown. That's a 20-yard shift, which in the grande scheme of things isn't very advantageous.
Football Outsiders, who offered a ton of reading material about coaches gutless avoidance of going for it fourth down, created a statistic called the Aggressive Index:
...we created the Aggressiveness Index (originally appearing in Pro Football Prospectus 2006) to rank coaches based on how often they go for it on fourth downs. Although no NFL coach is as aggressive as the data suggests he should be, we discovered there is quite a wide range of fourth-down tendencies among coaches. To compute AI, we analyzed fourth-down decisions when the offense was in the opponent’s territory, where a coach’s tendencies were most distinguished from his peers. We also excluded obvious catch-up situations: Third quarter, trailing by 15 or more points; Fourth quarter, trailing by 9 or more points; Last five minutes of the game, trailing by any amount. AI measures how often a coach attempted a fourth-down conversion compared to the league averages in similar situations, based on the field position and the distance needed for a first down.
According to their data, Lewis attempted five fourth down conversions out of 46 possible opportunities in 2011, ranked 20th in the NFL in terms of his aggressiveness. These opportunities do not include all fourth down chances, such as the exclusions listed above which forces teams to go for it on fourth down anyway.
With 1:56 remaining in the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Andy Dalton remained on the field with Cincinnati's offense with six yards needed to convert the fourth down from Jacksonville's 34-yard line. Dalton hooked up with A.J. Green on a 13-yard completion that sustained a drive, leading to Jermaine Gresham's three-yard touchdown, tying the game at 13 with 21 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
A 6-3 lead with 5:09 remaining in the first half didn't stop Lewis from going for it on fourth and three from Houston's 35-yard line. After Dalton completed an 11-yard pass to A.J. Green, Cincinnati would go onto take a 17-3 lead late in the first half on a 17-yard touchdown reception by Jerome Simpson -- no, not that touchdown reception.
But sometimes it's just a matter of a field position battle between quality defenses.
With 3:21 remaining in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos, down by seven points, Lewis sends in the punt team on fourth and one on Cincinnati's 49-yard line. Kevin Huber punted the football 38 yards to Denver's 14-yard line. Denver went three and out, capped by 57-yard punt further pushing the Bengals back to their own 29-yard line. Cincinnati again reached their own 48-yard line and Huber punted the football to Denver's 20-yard line. The field position game between Marvin Lewis and John Fox lasted into the third quarter, with Denver taking a 10-3 half time lead during a game that the Broncos would eventually win 24-22.
Whether you're irritated by his lack of aggressiveness, at least there's 11 coaches that are less aggressive than Lewis on fourth downs.