Despite issues on fourth down, Falcons still believe in analytics

Kaleb McGary (76) and Chris Lindstrom of the Falcons block Jarran Reed of the Seahawks on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The analytics at Dirk Koetter’s disposal Sunday said to go for it each of the three times his Falcons offense remained on the field on fourth down.

The only problem for the offensive coordinator, during the Falcons' 38-25 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is that his offense was unable to convert any of those attempts.

While the fourth-down percentage turned out terribly, Koetter’s belief in the team’s analytics remains high. Koetter stressed that a one-game sample size of failing to convert on fourth down isn’t indicative of the overall process when it comes to choosing whether to go for it on fourth down, attempt a field goal or punt the football away.

“I do believe in analytics,” Koetter said. “But here’s what everyone has to remember about analytics. Analytics play out over 16 games. When you say you should go for two every time or you should go for it on fourth-and-1 every time -- if you play that out over 16 games, yes, the numbers will come out in your favor. But just as we saw (Sunday), when you have that 0-for-3 game, you’re not feeling very good about it, right?”

After one game, the Falcons are -- obviously -- tied for last in the NFL in fourth-down conversion rate. They actually were 0-for-4, as the other failed fourth-down try came on a fake punt that proved unsuccessful after safety/upback Sharrod Neasman lost a fumble after carrying the ball past the first-down marker.

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.”