Readers of this site are well aware that we collectively favor aggression on fourth down.
One or two yards to gain, anywhere from near midfield to the opposing goal line? Go for it.
Third-and-short from within that same area? Call your play with the intent to go for it on fourth if you fail, barring a loss of yardage on third.
Peyton Manning scores touchdowns--that's all he does. Putting the ball in the hands of your punter, or at the foot of your placekicker, provides said touchdown-scorer with fewer opportunities with which to score touchdowns.
It really is that simple.
Yes, we are aware that John Fox is a conservative coach and game manager.
No, we don't think he's about to change his ways.
But that doesn't make his decisions to kick on fourth downs any less wrong, in our minds. So we're going to continue to bring them up, and to call him out on his meek choices.
This isn't going to be about EPA or WPA or field position, or anything like that--not today.
We've been presented with seemingly every excuse in the book in support of Fox's decisions:
- The offensive line isn't very good, or it doesn't hold up at the point of attack.
- Denver's running backs are too slight, and even when he was healthy, Willis McGahee wasn't having that great of a season.
- Throwing in such a situation is risky.
- The Broncos just haven't been very good on third or fourth down with a yard or two to gain, so Fox is making the proper call based upon the unique knowledge he has of his own team.
While all of these these are all plausible stories, we prefer fact to anecdotes. So, how have the Broncos actually fared on third- or fourth-and-short (defined as having two yards or fewer to gain)?
3rd/4th down, < 2 yards
When running the ball in those situations, reality has unfortunately matched the perception - Denver has only converted 61.9% of the time (13 of 21), which is tied for 17th in the league, and is worse than the leaguewide success rate of 64.9%.
But of course, handing the ball off there means taking it out of the hands of Denver's best player. When he's given the chance to convert, the Broncos have gained the first down at a 72% rate (18 of 25), which is third best in the NFL.
Overall, Denver is 31 of 46 (67.4%) on third or fourth down with two yards or fewer to gain, which is the league's sixth-best conversion rate.
Denver has only gone for it on fourth down a total of five times, including the ill-fated pass attempted by Matt Prater during the Week 4 win against Oakland.
Out of the other four attempts, Denver converted three times, with Willis McGahee punching in a touchdown from two yards out in Atlanta, Manning completing an eight-yard pass to Jacob Tamme against Oakland, and a 28-yard completion from Manning to Demaryius Thomas against New England.
Aside from the Prater throw, the Broncos memorably failed on a fourth-and-one against the Pats when Willis McGahee dropped a wide-open pass from Manning.
What about when the Broncos are on the doorstep, and have a small amount of real estate to work with?
From the two-yard line and in, Denver has converted 19 snaps into 12 touchdowns (63.2%), which is the fifth-best conversion rate.
They've had the ball inside the two-yard line on 15 different possessions, and have converted 13 of those into touchdowns.
The other two times, John Fox elected to kick, and we were all (Ted, TJ, and I) apoplectic each time. The first instance was early in the second quarter of a tie game, Week 11 against San Diego; the other time came halfway through the third quarter last night, with Denver up 13-7.
At this point we could present sufficient evidence using EPV or WPA to show that in all of the situations we've described, Denver's expectation of success more than justifies the decision to go for it. But we'll keep our promise. We'll simply note that this is by no means an exhaustive look at short-yardage situations.
Yet, it tells us a lot. Indeed, the Broncos have not fared very well when handing the ball off on third or fourth down with two yards or fewer to gain. But when throwing the ball, and overall, very few NFL teams have converted at a better rate than have the Broncos. This has not changed near the goal line, as the only times Denver hasn't scored a touchdown from the two- or one-yard line are the two instances when John Fox chose instead to kick field goals.
It's the failures that tend to stand out in the memory's eye. But the reality of the 2012 Broncos is they've been extremely effective (among the best in the league) at converting from short-yardage.
So, if any teams should be going for it on fourth-and-short, it's the Broncos. Their success rates in these situations suggest that if not Denver, then basically nobody should be going for it.
And, this makes sense, because they have perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history. He's a touchdown machine.
We'll agree that Denver perhaps shouldn't be handing the ball off as often in those situations, but we're sticking to the notion that John Fox should be electing to go for it more often.
Put the ball in Peyton Manning's hands.