Haley & Fourth Down … Thursday Cup O’Chiefs

From the Truman Sports Complex

Last year it seemed that Todd Haley’s approach to fourth down was built on lack of head coaching experience and the fact his team wasn’t very good.

That seemed a good explanation of why the Chiefs led the NFL in 2009 with 29 fourth down plays. Only two other teams were even close to that: St. Louis with 28 and Detroit with 26. The common denominators were first-year head coaches and bad teams; combined the Chiefs, Rams and Lions were 7-41.

But as the 2010 schedule rushes towards mid-season, we are finding out that maybe there is something else at play here with Haley and fourth down. Now, he’s a second-year head coach and his team is 4-2 and leading the AFC West.

Yet, the Chiefs are still one of the league leaders in going for the first down when the down marker shows “4″. They’ve done it nine times so far this year. Only Jacksonville (13), Carolina (11), Denver (11) and Buffalo (10) have attempted more fourth down plays this season.

In the 22 games that he’s been an NFL head coach, Haley has tried a fourth down conversion 38 times. No other coach in the league has tried so many times to move the chains on the last down. Only twice in those 22 games did the Chiefs not try at least one fourth-down play; that was last year against Jacksonville and in the ’09 season finale in Denver.

The Chiefs converted 19 of those 38 plays or 50 percent.  

The NFL average for the last 22 regular season games is 49.5 percent conversion rate on fourth down. So while the Chiefs have attempted 15 more fourth down plays than the average NFL team, they have not been more successful.

So, why does Haley keep trying on fourth down? Why does he walk away from what would have been a 26-yard field goal to attempt to convert on 4th-and-2 at the Indianapolis 8-yard line? And what about being 4th-and-3 in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville, and rather than trying a 42-yard field goal, sending the offense back out? Those are two of the fourth-down failures this year.

Haley does not provide much in the way of insight to his thoughts on fourth down. Sunday after his fourth-quarter decision and then on Wednesday as he met with the media, he said it would be a competitive disadvantage to talk about his strategy on fourth down. Is it planned, or is it something he does at the spur of the moment?

“It’s thought out during the week and it’s thought out within each and every series,” said Haley. “There is some feel involved within the series for sure, or at the start of each series. It’s not ‘it’s fourth and this; I think we can get it.’ It’s a little more thought out than that, but there is some feel involved.”

Over the years there have been a lot of studies done by mathematicians on the game of football, including what happens on fourth down. One of the most famous was a paper published in the Journal of Political Economy at the University of California Berkley in 2002 by economist and professor David H. Romer.

What Romer and his student helpers did was look at plays from over 700 NFL games. They then whittled down the fourth down situations by eliminating attempts at the end of the half and end of the game. Finally, they settled on looking at fourth-down attempts in the first quarter, when generally the game’s outcome was still in doubt.

His conclusions were that NFL coaches were too timid about going for it on fourth down because they are concerned about their job security. Second guessing of coaches is rampant on a regular basis, enough that some sensitive types don’t want to possibly add another log on the fire. Romer writes “I find that teams’ choices are far more conservative than the ones that would maximize their chances of winning.”

One must be an economist or math major to be able to decipher much of Romer’s paper. For those who are more analytically minded than your humble Internet hack, here’s the link to Romer’s paper and all of its information. http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~dromer/papers/JPE_April06.pdf

Essentially what Romer finds is that coaches should be going for the first down on anything that’s fourth down and four yards or less, and certainly when they are in opponent’s territory.

Whether Haley is aware of the paper and its conclusion is unknown. But the fourth-down analysis has been floating around the NFL for the better part of the last seven or eight years. There’s no question he’s spent time studying and analyzing the situation. He will admit to that.

“I think that you better be paying attention to and be at least aware of some probability and odds, so-to-speak, as you head into games,” Haley said. “But again, it’s not computer versus computer and there are a lot of guys that I think make that mistake. There is some feel, a great deal of feel involved within a game and in my opinion and the coaches that I’ve seen and the guys that I watch and tried to learn from, that feel or instinct is better than a lot of guys around them.

“I think that’s one of those things that you probably develop you have, you don’t have. I think a lot of it’s probably personality-driven also. As we used to joke in my family, there were box people, we had box people in our family and those were people that were within the box and we had outside-the-box-people. My mom was a box-person. The bed had to be made a certain way every day.”

There’s no doubt that Haley is outside-the-box in his thinking. There’s a growing opinion among some NFL coaches (especially those who are offensively minded) that fourth down is too often the forgotten down, just willed over to the punter or kicker, wasted in the pursuit of points.

“For us and what we’re trying to do, I’d prefer to just keep my thoughts, decisions close to the vest,” Haley said.

But the advantage we have is that his prior decisions are a matter of the football record. So, we went back and looked at the 38 times the Chiefs have gone for it on fourth down under Haley. Here’s the raw data:

 Date 

4th

and 

Yard

Line 

 

Q 

Time

Left 

 

Score 

 

Play 

 

Result 

 

Att.

 

Conv.

9/13/09

9

Opp-48

2

:01

7-10

+20 pass

End of half

1

1

9/13/09

18

KC-13

4

1:39

24-31

-4 sack

On downs

2

 
9/20/09

2

Opp-39

1

6:21

0-0

+3 run

FG

3

2

9/20/09

1

Opp-27

2

:44

3-3

+3 run

End of half

4

3

9/20/09

4

KC-26

4

:36

13-10

Incomp.

On downs

5

 
9/27/09

2

KC-40

3

6:43

7-27

+4 run

Fumble lost

6

4

9/27/09

7

Opp-17

4

2:27

7-34

+8 pass

TD

7

5

10/4/09

11

Opp-30

4

12:02

3-27

+12 pass

TD

8

6

10/4/09 

11

Opp-19

4

10:28

3-27

+11 pass

” “

9

7

10/4/09 

2

Opp-2

4

5:01

9-27

+2 pass

TD

10

8

10/4/09 

27

KC-15 

2:36 

16-27 

+10 pass

On downs 

11 

 
10/11/09

7

Opp-16

4

:29

13-20

+16 pass

TD

12

9

10/18/09 

1

Opp-44 

10:49 

0-0 

+2 run 

Punt 

13 

10

10/18/09

2

Opp-24

1

1:59

0-0

-5 pass

On downs

14

 
10/25/09

1

KC-41

1

5:02

0-7

0 run

On downs

15

 
10/25/09

1

Opp-7 

9:54

0-20

+7 pass

” “

16

11

10/25/09 

1

Opp-39 

7:12 

7-37 

-1 run 

On downs 

17 

 
11/15/09

1

Opp-44

2

12:37

3-10

+44 run

TD

18

12

11/15/09

1

Opp-14

3

3:22

13-10

Incomp.

On downs

19

 
11/22/09

9

KC-41

2

:01

17-7

-7 pass

End of half

20

 
11/29/09

7

50

3

1:51

14-38

0 run

On downs

21

 
12/6/09

8

KC-28

3

14:08

6-14

Incomp.

On downs

22

 
12/6/09

10

Opp-13

4

6:13

13-44

+8 pass

On downs

23

 
12/13/09

1

Opp-1

1

4:00

0-0

-8 pass

On downs

24

 
12/13/09 

1

Opp-40

2

7:31

3-7

+2 run

Punt

25 

13

12/13/09 

15

KC-47

2

0:04

3-10

Incomp.

End of half

26 

 
12/13/09 

10

Opp-21

4

2:20

10-16

Intercep

Turnover

27 

 
12/20/09

6

Opp-12

4

2:26

27-34

+12 TD p

Touchdown

28 

14

12/27/09

7

KC-45

2

2:31

0-0

0 run

Aborted punt

29

 
9/13/10 

10

Opp-39 

:09 

21-7 

+8 pass 

End of half 

30

 
9/19/10 

1

Opp-36 

2:00 

16-14 

+1 run 

End of game 

31 

15

9/26/10 

1

50 

15:00 

0-0 

+4 run 

Interception 

32 

16

9/26/10 

3

Opp-31 

1:31 

31-3 

+2 

On downs 

33 

 
10/10/10 

2

Opp-8 

2:09 

0-3 

Incomp. 

On downs 

34 

 
10/10/10 

12

KC-40 

1:56 

9-19 

+21 pass 

Missed FG

35 

17

10/17/10 

2

Opp-17 

8:27 

0-0 

+6 pen 

Touchdown 

36 

18 

10/24/10 

1

Opp-2 

2:00 

7-10 

+1 run 

Touchdown 

37 

19 

10/24/10 

3

Opp-24 

11:23 

38-30 

-1 run 

On downs 

38 

 

OK, so let’s break down the numbers. First, there were three punt plays involved in these fourth down plays that we’ll throw out. Jon McGraw ran for a first down on a fake punt during the ’09 season opener in Baltimore. Then, Brodie Croyle dropped into punt position for a fake against Denver that went incomplete. Against Cincinnati, there was a bad snap from LS Thomas Gafford that ended up dribbling on the ground. That was counted as a fourth-down attempt.

So that leaves 35 attempts. We’ll do what Romer did in his study and throw out the situations from late in the second quarter (2:00 or less) and then the fourth quarter when behind by more than a touchdown or trying to kill the clock. That eliminates 20 other attempts.

That leaves 15 fourth-down decisions that a lot of coaches would not have made. On average, they were plays of 4th-and-2.5 yards, with seven plays at 4th-and-1 and four situations of 4th-and-2.

The large majority of the plays took place on the opponents’ side of the 50-yard line (13 of 15), came in the first half (nine of 15) and the Chiefs were tied or ahead the majority of the time (nine of 15).

With those 15 situations, the Chiefs got the first down seven times or 46.7 percent, right at the average of all fourth down plays for all teams.

What’s especially interesting is the fact that on eight different occasions, Haley had a chance to send Ryan Succop out to kick a field goal of less than 45 yards. Only twice did the Chiefs convert for a first down, once for a touchdown. That’s a 25 percent success rate. Inside the 50-yard line, Succop has made 31 of 33 field goal attempts. That’s a 93.9 percent success rate. One does not have to be a math major to see what option leads to more success.

On those eight times where a field goal would have been the “in-the-box” decision, the Chiefs were 3-5 in the final outcome of those games. In five of the eight games, bypassing the FG came with the score tied or the Chiefs ahead. Half of those eight decisions came in the first quarter.

Through all this fourth-down chatter there’s one thing that comes through very clearly: Haley could care less about the Monday morning quarterbacks and second-guessers. He’s thought these situations, discusses them with his staff and even players.

“I will say that none of those decisions are ever made on a whim,” Haley said. “There is week-long discussion that generally involves everybody because I think everybody’s involved; offensive coaches, defensive coaches and special teams coaches, and the players most importantly. So I think that it’s something that I think everybody has to understand, be aware of and buy into or believe.”

NFL PERSONNEL FILE FOR WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 27

  • CHIEFS – signed LB Mark Simoneau, last with Saints; released DL Atiyyah Ellison.
  • DOLPHINS – released DE Rob Rose.
  • 49ERS – released S Chris Maragos; signed CB Tramaine Brock off their practice squad.
  • JETS – signed DL Jarron Gilbert off their practice squad.
  • LIONS – claimed CB Brandon McDonald off waivers from the Cardinals; placed LB Zack Follett on the injured-reserve list (neck), ending his season.
  • PACKERS – placed OLB Brad Jones on the injured-reserve list (shoulder) ending his season; signed OLB Erik Walden, last with Dolphins; claimed NT Howard Green off waivers from the Jets.
  • PANTHERS – signed LB Abdul Hodge.
  • RAMS – signed S Michael Lewis, most recently with the 49ers; placed DT Clifton Ryan on the injured-reserve list (migraines) ending his season.

6 Responses to “Haley & Fourth Down … Thursday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • October 28, 2010  - Eric says:

    Bob, great article as always.

    What would be interesting is to see what the other team did when the ball was turned over on downs and how often that decision hurt the team on defense.


  • October 28, 2010  - el cid says:

    Found out Simoneau is 33 and has not played in a game for 2 years. He is also a ILB and special teamer. The Chiefs put out they are churning roster and looking to create competition. It would seem to me they might look to take flyers on a kid with some shortcomings and an upside (ie blazing speed/vague routes or great hands/no blocking skills). I am not sure 33, ILB, and not played in 2 years define that. Still the Chiefs are hitting on all cylinders this year, so ok. But do not get it. Any thoughts?


  • October 28, 2010  - gorillafan says:

    the only thought I have is anytime I think we have them figured out on what there doing they throw us a curve ball and we say wtf?

    but as long as it works and we continue to move forward idk!


  • October 28, 2010  - Jimbo says:

    Did I miss something here Bob?

    I was looking forward to your opinion at the end of your 4th down & Haley article. It seems to me that Haley has a little Bill Parcels & Bill Belichic(sp)running through his veins. Those guys were gamblers with obvious coaching success. I like Haley & agree with many of his gameday decisions. His gutsy, no nonsense approach is exactly what the Chiefs need. Win or lose because of those decisions falls on his shoulders & he seems comfortable with that. I do too.
    Go Chiefs.


  • October 28, 2010  - Clarence says:

    One thing that surprises me Bob, is that your article and analisis does not attempt to factor in conditions that might affect the coaches decisions, such as field condition, wind, distance for a field goal, and kicker’s health. There is also a psychological element involved as well. To date, I agree with most of Haley’s decisions.


  • October 28, 2010  - Edward says:

    I’m wondering is something wrong with Succop and is that leading to us going for it in situations where we would kick field goal.




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