NFL Chalkboard: To punt or go for it?

NFL Chalkboard: To punt or go for it?
May 26, 2013, 8:00 pm
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The Ravens are facing fourth-and-one, and you’re up out of your seat at M&T Bank Stadium or leaping off the couch at home, screaming for them to go for it. But does John Harbaugh listen? According to statistics compiled by Football Outsiders, he listens about as much as any other NFL coach.

The Outsiders use a measurement called the Aggressiveness Index, which indicates how often a coach tries to get a first down when faced with a fourth-and-short situation. The rating of 1.0 is the number assigned to the average for all NFL coaches. Last season, Harbaugh faced 107 such situations and tried eight times, or 7.5 percent of the time. That ranked him at No. 16 in the league, with an Aggressiveness Index of 0.92.

Is there a correlation between being aggressive and being in the playoffs? Of last season’s top 10 most aggressive coaches, two — the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis (No. 4) and the Packers’ Mike McCarthy (No. 7) — reached the postseason. Among the bottom 10, four coaches — the Vikings’ Leslie Frazier (27), Colts’ Chuck Pagano (31), Broncos’ John Fox (32) and Falcons’ Mike Smith (34) — made the playoffs.

And if you want to hear another reason not to value a high AI in your coach, on a list of coaches from 1991 on, the most aggressive one, with a number of 1.66 — meaning he was 66 percent more likely to go for it on fourth down than his peers — was Rich Kotite. If you happen to forget, Kotite made the playoffs once in six seasons as a head coach with the Eagles and Jets and went 3-13 and 1-15 in two years with New York.

On the other hand, during that 22-season span, Bill Belichick built the fifth-highest AI, 1.59. (Harbaugh ranks No. 41, and former Ravens coach Brian Billick No. 81.)

So, does this mean Harbaugh should listen to you when you’re screaming, “Go for it”? Beyond the Aggressiveness Index, consider that others who study statistics say it makes a lot of sense to punt a lot less. In fact, there is a high school team in Arkansas that never punts (and never even tries to return punts) and wins state championships.

So keep on yelling.