More than ever, NFL offenses are staying on the field on fourth down. In the 2019 season, the rates with which teams have gone for it on both fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 plays are higher than in any season during the last two decades.
To answer the question of when teams are going for it — even after knowing the distance needed for a first down — we need additional information. Where on the field is the team? What is the score? How much time is left?
Using statistical modeling, we estimated the likelihood that a team would go for it on fourth down — given distance, score, yard line, and time remaining — for each of the last 15 regular seasons. Here’s a plot that compares the likelihood that a team will go for it in 2019, relative to the average from the 2005—2018 seasons, shown across the length of the field (left to right). The plot assumes that the game is tied at the start of the second quarter, when the increase in fourth-down aggressiveness has picked up the most. Each line corresponds to a different distance category.
The uptick in fourth-and-1 aggressiveness has primarily happened in two scenarios — when an offense is around midfield and once an offense has fewer than 10 yards to go for a touchdown. Increases in all other go-for-it rates are primarily centered around the opponent’s 40-yard line. As an example, teams at the opposing 40-yard line when facing a fourth-and-2 are going for it 25.1% more often in 2019 relative to past seasons.
As additional anecdotes, in 2019 here are the seven fourth-down attempts where a team would’ve gone for it less than five percent of the time.
The most conservative decision according to our model? During Week 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to kick a field goal on a fourth-and-goal from the New England one-yard line, when trailing by 20 points. Our model estimates that a typical team would have gone for it 95.2% of the time.