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The Super Bowl Will Be Won on Fourth Down

From Andy Reid to Matt LaFleur to Mike Vrabel, these NFL playoffs have been defined by fourth-down decision-making. That could become the story again in the Super Bowl—and while one coach likes to take risks in these situations, the other does not.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

When Andy Reid explained the play call that almost made Tony Romo’s head explode, he made it sound like it was second nature. In the divisional round of this year’s playoffs, the Chiefs clung to a 22-17 lead against the Browns late in the fourth quarter. Cleveland had mounted a comeback after Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s godlike quarterback, was knocked out of the game early in the second half with a concussion; with the Chiefs facing fourth-and-1 at their own 48-yard line in the waning moments of regulation and backup quarterback Chad Henne playing his first meaningful NFL snaps since 2014, Romo assumed that Kansas City would punt. That Henne was on the field seemed like a ruse to draw the defense offside.

Instead, the Chiefs asked Henne to throw, knowing that an incomplete pass by the rusty backup would give Cleveland the ball in excellent field position. The gambit worked: Henne found Tyreek Hill for a 5-yard gain, Romo blew a gasket, and Kansas City won. Asked about the play later, Reid said it was a decision inspired by 40 years of unconventional football thinking. “I went to BYU,” Reid said, referencing the pass-heavy teams that revolutionized football offense in the 1980s. “Every down is a throwing down.”

In a sense, Reid’s play call was predictable. The Chiefs had run virtually the same play in virtually the same situation when closing out a win over the Dolphins in Week 14. (Romo called that game too, but apparently he forgot.) In another sense, though, this was unprecedented. According to play-by-play data dating back to 1994, no NFL team had ever called a legitimate passing play on a fourth down, from its own side of the field, with a lead, and less than 90 seconds to go before Reid did to win a playoff game. (A few teams had asked their QBs to drop back and throw the ball into the air to run off the remaining seconds of games, but that doesn’t count.)

Football teams get four downs to advance 10 yards, as they have since shortly after the game branched off from rugby. For much of the game’s history, however, it has been understood that if a team can’t move the ball 10 yards on the first three downs, its best course of action is to punt or kick a field goal. In the early days of the game, offenses were generally bad enough that this strategy was smart—the odds of converting were slim, and failing to convert risked giving an opponent prime field position that would otherwise have been hard to come by. But now we’re in the best offensive era in football history: It makes more sense for teams to go for it regularly. As far back as play-by-play data goes, 20 teams have managed to convert 16 or more fourth downs in a season—at least one per game. Six of those teams played this season. (This has been a bummer for the league’s lonely, bored punters.) And Reid coaches the best offense in this offensive-minded era. He’s realized it’s in his best interest to give his team as many chances as possible to pick up the necessary yardage. For decades, fourth-down attempts were something teams did only out of desperation, in games they were losing by a lot. The Chiefs have used them as a routine part of their offense, even in games they’re already winning—which they often are.

The Chiefs won last season’s Super Bowl after picking up two critical fourth-down conversions. With Kansas City trailing 3-0 in the first quarter, Reid sent his field goal unit onto the field for a fourth-and-1 at the 49ers’ 5-yard line. But during a lengthy replay review, Reid changed his mind and sent the offense back out to run a trick play. Cameras caught Mahomes on the sideline pleading to go for it—and 49ers tight end George Kittle letting out a dejected “damn” when he realized that’s what the Chiefs were doing. Opponents are relieved when Mahomes comes off the field, and resigned to failure when he stays in. How risky can going for it really be?

Other critical Chiefs’ fourth-down pickups of this era include a Mahomes pass to Travis Kelce while trailing 10-0 in the first quarter of last season’s AFC championship game and a Mahomes pass to Darrel Williams while trailing 9-0 in the first quarter of this season’s AFC championship game. Kansas City has now successfully converted fourth-down tries in five of its six playoff wins since Mahomes took over at quarterback, with last season’s divisional-round win over the Texans being the lone exception. The Chiefs gained 2 yards on a fourth-and-1 Darwin Thompson run in overtime of Week 2 against the Chargers, which led to a game-winning field goal and was rated by EdjSports as the best fourth-down decision of this season. The Chiefs also scored a touchdown in Week 6 against the Bills after going for a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter; gained 12 yards on a fourth-and-1 against the Browns in the divisional round on the first play after Mahomes went out; and picked up first downs after going for it on fourth downs on pivotal late touchdown drives against the Lions in 2019 and against the Raiders in November.

But while Reid’s BYU quote makes it seem like he’s been aggressive with fourth-down decision-making dating back to his college days, he actually spent decades as one of the NFL’s least aggressive coaches. In 2012, Football Outsiders combed through play-by-play data and ranked the 84 men who had spent at least three seasons as an NFL head coach between 1991 and 2012 in order of how aggressive they were on fourth downs. Reid was 77th. (Rich Kotite, who served stints as coach of the Eagles and Jets, was oddly no. 1. Bill Belichick was no. 5.) In 2015, Reid’s Chiefs tied for last in fourth-down conversion attempts, trying just nine over the full season. In 2019, Reid was 27th in 2019 in FO’s Aggressiveness Index. Reid still has a bugaboo about kicking short field goals; the Chiefs faced fourth downs at the opposing 1-yard line twice this season, and kicked 19-yard field goals both times. Since Kansas City’s run to Super Bowl LIV, though, Reid has seen the light about fourth downs. The Chiefs skyrocketed to sixth in Ben Baldwin’s “go rate” this season.


It’s strange how some coaches with great offensive minds simply cannot be convinced that their team’s chances of winning would improve if the offense stayed on the field on fourth downs. You’d think coaches who know offense would want to keep coaching offense as frequently as possible, but even Reid struggled with this for years. A prime example is Reid’s opponent in this year’s Super Bowl, Bruce Arians. Arians’s famous motto is “no risk it, no biscuit”—but for some reason, his interest in biscuit-getting is limited to the first three downs. He often ranks toward the bottom of the NFL in the Aggressiveness Index. The Chiefs were one of 10 teams this season that went for it more than half the time on fourth downs where they needed to gain 3 yards or fewer; the Buccaneers went for it just 25.8 percent of the time in such scenarios, the third-lowest rate in the league. Faced with a fourth-and-short, the Chiefs were more likely to pick up a first down (seven conversions on 12 attempts in 21 opportunities) than the Bucs were to even attempt a conversion (eight attempts in 31 opportunities).

This postseason has been a flashpoint moment for the fourth-down decision-making debate—except it hasn’t really felt like much of a debate. On the one hand are the coaches who settled for punts and field goals, watched their teams lose, and then tried to justify their cowardice in bleak postgame Zoom press conferences while the rest of the world jeered. On the other hand is Reid, scoring touchdowns and wondering why everybody else thinks this is hard, like Elle Woods frolicking through the hallways at Harvard Law School.

Take the case of Mike Vrabel, the Titans coach who famously said he would risk losing his penis to win a Super Bowl—but wouldn’t risk going for a fourth-and-2 from the Ravens’ 40-yard line with his team trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter of this year’s wild-card round. Tennessee’s punt traveled 25 yards; Baltimore made up that field position in a span of four plays and subsequently kicked a field goal. The Surrender Index, a Twitter account dedicated to identifying the NFL’s worst punting decision, ranked Vrabel’s choice as the worst of the 2020 season.

Or take the case of Mike Tomlin, the Steelers coach who elected to punt from the Cleveland 38-yard line while his team was trailing 28-0 early in the wild-card round, and who later took a delay-of-game penalty before opting to punt instead of attempting a fourth-and-1 conversion from Pittsburgh’s 46-yard line with the Steelers down 35-23 in the fourth quarter. Trailing by two touchdowns with their season on the line, the Steelers needed points; Tomlin decided that field position was more valuable. It wasn’t: The Browns marched 80 yards to score a touchdown on the ensuing possession in less than three minutes of game time. Baldwin ranked the intentional delay of game as the ninth-worst fourth-down decision of the season.

There was Sean McDermott, whose Bills kicked three field goals on fourth-and-short in the AFC championship game, two from inside the Kansas City 10-yard line. Inexplicably, two of those field goals cut the Chiefs’ lead from 12 points to nine—even though the most points a team can score on any given possession is eight. McDermott cited team morale as a key factor in trying to get points on the board. How do you think it impacts team morale when a coach says he doesn’t trust the offense to score touchdowns and would rather settle for field goals?

Of course, nobody drew more heat than Packers coach Matt LaFleur. Trailing by eight points with just over two minutes to go in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game, Green Bay faced fourth-and-goal from the Buccaneers’ 8-yard line. LaFleur sent the field goal unit out to cut the lead to 31-26, and the Packers never touched the ball again. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers openly questioned the choice to kick the field goal after the game, fueling rumors that he might not return to the team in 2021. Imagine if the last image of Rodgers’s brilliant Packers career was him jogging to the sideline because his coach wanted to settle for three points.

What makes these choices so strange is they were made by some of the NFL’s most aggressive coaches. Green Bay went for it on fourth-and-short 69.2 percent of the time this season, by far the highest rate in the league. LaFleur, Vrabel, and McDermott were three of the top four coaches in Baldwin’s “go rate.” Yet that aggressiveness vanished when their teams needed it most—contrary to Reid, who has historically been more likely to go for it on fourth down during the postseason. It seems that these coaches changed their approaches in single-elimination play, avoiding risk because their season could end with a mistake. They figured that against the best teams, they should take anything they could get.

But these coaches had it backward. The teams still standing toward the end of the season are often the ones with the best offenses. The four teams who competed in the conference title games, for instance, ranked first, second, third, and fifth in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. Why would you voluntarily give the ball to the best offenses on earth? There is no need to emphasize field position against opponents who score easily. After the Chiefs beat the Ravens 34-20 in Week 3, I wrote a post headlined “You Can’t Settle for Field Goals Against Patrick Mahomes.” I stand by it. The Chiefs are going to score touchdowns, so playing for field position or field goals against them is a fool’s errand. The Buccaneers and Chiefs both scored touchdowns at about the same rate this season—Kansas City on 34.2 percent of its drives, Tampa Bay on 33 percent—so that logic is doubly true for this Super Bowl. Field position hardly matters: The Bucs scored on 31.7 percent of their drives after opposing punts, while the Chiefs scored on 29.6 percent of drives after opposing punts.

Despite Arians’s questionable decision-making throughout the season, he might already know this. While Tampa Bay was one of the least aggressive teams on fourth down, it made an aggressive fourth-down decision in its Week 12 matchup against the Chiefs. Facing a fourth-and-3 from Kansas City’s 31-yard line while down 27-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Bucs went for it—and went for the end zone—with Tom Brady hitting wide receiver Mike Evans for a 31-yard touchdown.

This Super Bowl matchup is incredible: It pits two of the league’s greatest quarterbacks, two of the league’s best head coaches, and two of the NFL’s most prolific offenses. Here’s my prediction: The team that tries to score the most points will win. This might sound overly simplistic, but the Chiefs have proved how impactful it is when one team tries to maximize its offensive opportunity. You get four downs. On the sport’s biggest stage, you should use them all.