With just over five minutes left in the NFC championship game, Sean McVay had a chance to turn the tide in his team’s favor. The Rams trailed the Saints 20-17 and had a first-and-goal from the New Orleans 7-yard line. On first down, C.J. Anderson rushed for 2 yards. Jared Goff followed that up with a 3-yard scramble, and then Anderson fell half a yard short of the goal line on third down. So McVay faced a decision.
On fourth-and-inches, the Rams could try to punch the ball in to take their first lead of the game, or they could kick a field goal to tie. After taking an intentional delay-of-game penalty, McVay brought out the field goal team and Greg Zuerlein kicked the 24-yard attempt through the uprights.
While McVay’s decision to get the near-guaranteed points seems relatively sound on the surface, it almost proved to be a disastrous mistake. By passing up the chance to take the lead, L.A.’s shot at winning dropped by more than than 12 percentage points, according to ESPN’s win probability model:
ESPN's Win Probability (WP) model says the Rams likely made a major error by electing for a field goal attempt on 4th and goal from the Saints' 1-yard line. The WP for the FG attempt would be 43.2%, while the WP for going for it would be 55.3%. The Rams... https://t.co/ynvPliYNAI— Brian Burke (@bburkeESPN) January 20, 2019
The Rams eventually won the game 26-23—after a blatant missed call, a game-tying field goal drive, and an ensuing overtime period—but McVay’s error in judgment could have cost them a Super Bowl berth. And it wasn’t the only time the coach has declined to send his offense out to try to pick up a short fourth down this season. In fact, the incident in Sunday’s game came just one week after McVay made similar calls in the Rams’ divisional-round matchup against the Cowboys. Late in the third quarter of that tilt, McVay elected to punt rather than go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Cowboys’ 47-yard line. And on a fourth-and-3 from the Dallas 7-yard line in the first quarter, McVay had Zuerlein kick a field goal. While neither of those decisions was as damaging for the Rams as the one in the game against the Saints, the analytics were clear in each situation: They should have gone for it.
This postseason has exposed a surprising truth about McVay: While the NFL’s Xs-and-Os wunderkind has racked up 24 regular-season wins, two top-two scoring offenses, a shockingly large coaching tree, and a Super Bowl berth in just two seasons, he’s also proved to be a conventional—if not conservative—fourth-down decision-maker. And the last thing the Rams can afford against Tom Brady and the Patriots is to be conservative.
While this year’s playoffs have provided the most glaring examples of McVay’s conservative tendencies, he’s been doing this throughout his tenure with the Rams. Just this season we’ve seen several examples. In Week 10 against Seattle, the Rams kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Seahawks’ 2-yard line with 7:34 left in the game. That gave the Rams a five-point lead, but had they scored the touchdown, it would have become a multiple-possession game. In Week 11 against the Chiefs, McVay decided to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Rams’ 25 with 6:44 left, even though L.A. was holding on to just a three-point lead against the top offense in the league. And in Week 1 against the Raiders and Week 6 against the Broncos, McVay elected to kick fourth-quarter field goals from inside the opponent’s 3-yard line. In all of these situations, the Rams would have benefited from a more aggressive approach.
McVay got a lot of credit in Week 5 when he went for it on a game-sealing fourth down against the Seahawks, but that was an outlier—as the data shows, McVay plays it safer on fourth downs than almost every other NFL coach.
To get a rough sense of how aggressive coaches are, it’s most useful to look at short fourth downs: those with 2 yards or less to convert. From there, we can separate out coaches’ decision-making in three distinct parts of the field: field goal range (from the opponents’ 30-yard line to the end zone), outside field goal range (from the opponents’ 40 to the opposite end of the field), and no-man’s-land (between the 30 and 40). We’re excluding no-man’s-land here since coaches often go for fourth downs in that area not because they’re aggressive, but because there is too much distance to feel confident in a field goal attempt but not enough for a worthwhile punt. We’re also only looking at the first three quarters of games, since fourth-down decision-making can become warped in the final frame as teams try to complete comebacks.
Putting both of those situations together gives us a rough estimate of how aggressive teams are on fourth down. Here is how often teams go for fourth-and-2 or shorter in the first three quarters of a game, excluding no-man’s-land:
NFL Decisions on Fourth Down
|Rank||Team||Plays||Passes||Rushes||Punts||FGAs||Go for It %||First Downs||Success %|
|Rank||Team||Plays||Passes||Rushes||Punts||FGAs||Go for It %||First Downs||Success %|
When in field goal range in the first three quarters of a game, the Rams have gone for it on fourth-and-2 or shorter 35.7 percent of the time over the past two seasons. That’s 27th in the league, and well below the NFL’s average of 53.4 percent. On the other side of the field—when the Rams are outside field goal range—they’ve punted on all 13 of their fourth-and-shorts (again, excluding the fourth quarter). They’re the only team that hasn’t gone for it in that position even once. Altogether, the Rams are 31st in the league in fourth-and-short situations outside of no-man’s-land.
These numbers fail to capture some instances, like when teams take intentional delay-of-game penalties and end up outside of fourth-and-short distance, but overall, these figures demonstrate that the Rams under McVay are one of the NFL’s most conservative fourth-down teams.
NFL teams in general are far too conservative on short fourth downs, which often present far greater reward and much less risk than teams seem to realize. The Rams’ decision to kick a field goal on the Saints’ half-yard line is a perfect example.
While a field goal attempt from that distance is nearly automatic, converting a fourth down from the same spot isn’t much more difficult. QB sneaks have a 70 to 90 percent conversion rate leaguewide, and the Rams have the best run-blocking offensive line in football. The Rams’ chance of punching the ball in from the half-yard line was only slightly worse than their odds of making a chip-shot field goal, and the reward would have been much greater. Going up by four points would have completely changed the Saints’ game plan on their ensuing drive.
After L.A.’s win, McVay was asked about that fourth-down call. He reasoned that giving the ball back to the super-powered Saints offense with the game tied was fine, because the Rams defense was playing well. “With the fourth-down deal, we were moving the ball really well,” McVay said. “I think our defense had played really good football up to that point, [so the thought was], ‘OK, if we get it to tie a game, we feel good about the outcome being able to turn in our favor if we are able to get a couple of possessions.’”
Yet McVay’s analysis is backward. If he felt good about his defense, that’s all the more reason to go for it on fourth down. Even if the Rams had failed, they would have had a 99.5-yard cushion to stop the Saints and get the ball back, giving the team—which still had three timeouts left—a great chance to force a punt and mount a game-winning drive. Instead, the Rams tied the game, gave Drew Brees a relatively normal-length field (New Orleans got the ball on its own 30 after the kickoff), and the Saints nearly ended the game in regulation.
The Rams ultimately won, of course, and coincidentally won in all the other games where McVay made conservative fourth-down decisions. But it’s a small sample size, and these subtle maneuvers have often put the Rams in worse positions to win games. Sooner or later, one of these calls will catch up with them—and it may even happen in the Super Bowl.
It would be unfair to characterize McVay as an unaggressive coach. He’s called six fake punts this year, including a critical one in the NFC championship game when the Rams were down 13-0. He also essentially benched Todd Gurley, his franchise running back, in the biggest game of his career because Gurley was underperforming—clearly, McVay isn’t afraid of making big moves. In a league that often treats convention like dogma, McVay still provides a breath of fresh air through some of his aggressive decisions—that mind-set just hasn’t translated to his calls on fourth down.
Against the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, even a small error could be the difference between hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and leaving Atlanta with regret. Every Super Bowl involving the Patriots seems to somehow come down to the wire, and this Rams-Pats tilt is expected to be evenly matched.
Last year, Doug Pederson and the Eagles used an aggressive approach to topple the Patriots. That’s not to say that going for fourth downs is a prerequisite to beating New England, but imagine how different that Super Bowl would have looked if that Eagles team had simply kicked a field goal instead of unleashing the Philly Special. The Eagles also converted another fourth down in that game—a fourth-and-1 from their own 45-yard line while trailing 33-32 with 5:39 left in the fourth quarter. A more conservative coach may have punted it away there, believing that the defense could hold. That would be the wrong call in any scenario—it would be even worse when you’re punting it away to Tom Brady.
The Rams have marched to the Super Bowl behind their powerhouse offense. The best thing McVay could do to ensure his team leaves Atlanta with a victory would be to unleash that offense—including on fourth downs.