Thursday Bright Football (Week 3): What Would the Rams Have Done on a Hypothetical Fourth Down?

Contextualizing the Run: Offensive Run-Game Win Percentage – Week 2
September 21, 2017
Setting the Edge: Episode 49, with Josina Anderson
September 24, 2017

Thursday Bright Football (Week 3): What Would the Rams Have Done on a Hypothetical Fourth Down?

Gambling on NFL games is a pecado, but this is where this question stemmed from. The Los Angeles Rams were 2.5-point favorites at the time of Setting the Edge‘s Week 3 gambling picks. I, unfortunately, decided to side with them for this week’s Thursday Night Football, meaning that I was particularly interested in how the eventual two-point game ended.

(Sidenote: Yes, we are ignoring the first primetime games of two young head coaches who put up a combined 80 points, which was only beaten twice last year, and are likely to be staples of the NFL for the next 20 or so years. I’m certain they will be broken down somewhere else, though we wanted to take the time to claim that Setting the Edge is a pro-red zone double slant website.)

The ending to the game was very unique. The Rams, up 41-39, started with the ball on the San Francisco 31, after a sack turned the ball over on downs, but the 49ers still had two timeouts with 1:40 on the clock. That meant that one set of downs couldn’t get Los Angeles out of the game.

A field goal would have meant a shot at the Rams making it a five-point game, a possible cover. This interested plenty of gamblers on my degenerate-leaning Twitter timeline.

1st and 10: -1 yard run by Todd Gurley

:time out:

2nd and 11: +1 yard run by Toddy Gurley

:timeout:

Had the Rams not moved the sticks on that third down, they would have had to run a play on fourth down. For everyone who had a stake in the point spread, it was a panic moment on both ends.

The questions lingered on our minds: What would Los Angeles do on fourth down and were we about to lose money?

Here’s the incredibly specific scenario:

  1. You’re ahead by 1 to 3 points, enough that a field goal would extend your lead, but less than a touchdown.
  2. There’s about a minute left in the game when you run the play.
  3. The play is on fourth down.
  4. The play is in the fourth quarter.
  5. You’re on the long end of field goal range (ball was on the San Francisco 31 on third down.)

If you’re in that spot, do you punt and make your opponent go 50+ yards to get into field goal range? Do you go for the field goal, risk a short field for your opponent, but attempt to force them to go for the touchdown instead of the field goal? It’s honestly an interesting question when you pressure wash the degenerate gambler off of it.

To answer the question, I used Pro Football Reference‘s game play finder to identify these exact plays over the last decade (since 2008.) For the range of where the ball was snapped, the input was between the opponent’s 36 and 26, five yards on either end of where the Rams’ third-down snap began.

This situation has only happened eight times in the past decade, with the most recent happening on December 6th, 2015 between the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens.

  • 15-13 Miami Dolphins punt on 4th and 8 from the Ravens 36 (2015)
  • 29-26 Minnesota Vikings punt on 4th and 3 from the Redskins 36 (2014)
  • 24-23 Atlanta Falcons kick a field goal (miss) on 4th and 11 from the Buccaneers 30 (2012)
  • 23-20 Arizona Cardinals punt on 4th and 5 from the Saints 30 (2010)
  • 7-6 Dallas Cowboys punt on 4th and 6 from the Redskins 33 (2009)
  • 17-16 Minnesota Vikings kick a field goal (make) on 4th and 11 from the Lions 32 (2008)
  • 21-19 Cincinnati Bengals punt on 4th and 12 from the Jacksonville 35 (2008)
  • 17-16 Buffalo Bills kick a field goal (make) on 4th and 17 from the Jacksonville 27 (2008)

So in the (counts on fingers) 2,335 NFL games starting with the 2008 NFL kickoff leading up through this week’s Thursday Night Football matchup, this situation has only happened eight times. It’s happened about once every other year since 2009. It’s very rare.

Of these eight situations, NFL teams only attempted to kick a field goal three times, though three of the four situations in which the ball was on the opponent’s 32 or closer, one yard behind the Rams’ third-down placement, NFL teams did attempt to kick the field goal.

If the Rams didn’t significantly move the ball on third down, the NFL’s four data points over the last decade would suggest that the Rams would likely have gone for the field goal. In practice, it probably would have been a gut call by Sean McVay, Los Angeles’ 31-year-old head coach.