But to Koetter’s point, the average fourth-down conversion rate for NFL teams over the course of the full 2019 season was 43.4 percent. The Falcons, however, ranked fourth in the NFL a year ago by averaging a fourth-down conversion rate of 61.9 percent -- converting 13 of their 21 opportunities.
This isn’t to say this particular number means more teams should go for it on fourth down regardless of circumstance. Much of that decision-making process takes into account advanced metrics such as win probability and expected points.
One good example of this comes from last season’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Down 20-17 and facing a fourth-and-3 from their 46-yard line, the Falcons had two timeouts and the two-minute warning to work with. Therefore, a punt may have seemed like a sound decision since the ball was near midfield. However, according to Pro Football Focus, if the Falcons had punted, the win probability would have stood at 25 percent. A made conversion would increase that number to 43 percent. A turnover on downs in this situation would have decreased the win probability to 15 percent.
Of course, the Falcons hit Julio Jones on a bubble screen, and he took the play the distance for a touchdown.
Although numbers may suggest a team should go for it in certain situations, a play’s execution doesn’t always end with a positive result. For the Falcons, they learned the hard way by not picking up the fourth-down plays against the Seahawks.
The first fourth-down attempt came in the first quarter at the Seahawks' 40-yard line. The call itself, on fourth-and-3 with 2:14 to go in the opening quarter, saw running back Todd Gurley break open in the flat for what could have been a conversion. But defensive end Benson Mayowa came off the edge and was able to bat quarterback Matt Ryan’s passing attempt away.
Down 16 with 1:16 to go in the third quarter, the Falcons went for it on fourth-and-2 from the 11-yard line. Ryan rolled right but was unable to find an open receiver and was sacked. Trailing 31-18 with 6:19 to go in the fourth quarter and at the Seahawks' 35-yard line, Ryan’s pass toward Calvin Ridley fell incomplete.
“If we get two of those three, we’re maybe singing a different song,” Koetter said. “But we didn’t get them. I believe in them. I understand the math. Believe me, I’m really good at math. Believe it or not, I was a really good math student. But what I don’t think most people understand is you got to apply it to the whole season.”
Conversely, the Falcons had a good game on third down, posting a conversion rate of 50 percent (7-of-14). To put this in perspective, no team in the NFL posted a season-long average of 50 percent on third down a year ago. The best team in this category was the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs at 47.6 percent.
The Falcons ranked 11th in third-down conversions at 42 percent.
“Fifty percent on third down will win you a lot of games,” Koetter said.
While analytics play a vital role in the decision-making process, it isn’t the only thing going into it. It’s also unknown what sets of numbers the Falcons use on a game-by-game basis.
But obviously, there still is a human element that factors into decisions like these.
“I would say part of analytics is you get the information, then you do trust your gut to say that this is a moment to use all of it or one to not. ... When the moments are there, you want to go take them,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "In-game feel, your gut has a good feel for it as well. Somebody told me a good line (about analytics), if I remember correctly, ‘It’s on tap but not on top.’ It’s part of the decision, but not at the top of it.”