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Tampa Bay’s passive play calling on fourth down is costing the franchise wins

A look at some interesting numbers concerning 2019.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bruce Arians was surprisingly passive when it came to fourth downs in 2019.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No risk it, no biscuit, right?

Well, if 2019 were a biscuit, it would be similar to that of a McDonald’s biscuit that was left in the car for two days. That’s how aggressive - or nonassertive - Bruce Arians and the Bucs were on fourth down in 2019.

When you look at the numbers, it’s pretty hard to argue otherwise.

We are going to start this post by taking a look at Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index for the 2019 season. If you’re unfamiliar with the metric, then the following description will serve you well:

Football Outsiders introduced the concept of Aggressiveness Index way back in Pro Football Prospectus 2006. The goal was to find a way to rank coaches based on their tendencies on fourth downs in a manner that was easy to understand but accounted for the different rates at which the average coach will choose to “go for it” in different situations.

Aggressiveness Index numbers center around 1.0 and generally describe how much more (or less) likely each coach is to go for it on fourth down compared to his peers; for example, a coach with 1.20 AI is roughly 20 percent more likely to go for it than an average coach in equivalent situations.

The Aggressiveness Index excludes obvious catch-up situations: third quarter, trailing by 15 or more points; fourth quarter, trailing by nine or more points; and in the last five minutes of the game, trailing by any amount. It also excludes the last 10 seconds of the first half, and it adjusts for when a play doesn’t actually record as fourth-and-short because of one of those bogus delay of game penalties that moves the punter back five yards. Only regular season is included.

According to Football Outsider’s chart, Arians ranks 23rd (I included Perry Fewell) in terms of overall AI with a score of 1.24, meaning that he has a 24% greater chance of going for it than your average coach, if we’re going off FO’s average AI score of (1.0). In context of the 2019 season, the average AI mark was 1.54, so Arians is/was actually well behind the average coach.

There are examples that back this up in 2019. FO does a great job of using collective data while omitting certain situations for context, but it’s always useful to go back and re-analyze certain points of time with newfound knowledge.

It’s really easy to get lost in the amount of data this project would entail, so let’s just keep it simple. We are going to look at how Arians handled 4th-and-3 - or less - situations from two areas: an opponents’ 20- to 34-yard line and from the red zone and in.

I chose a 4th-and-3-or-less scenario because once you get inside an opponents’ 34-yard line, it usually makes more sense to go for it.

It also makes sense to stop at the 34-yard line, despite what the graph says, since kickers had the highest ratio of percentage-of-makes to number-of-attempts from 52 yards out. That ratio was from a range of 50-55 yards, and said range is usually a big factor in deciding whether a team should go for it, kick the FG, or punt on fourth down.

I decided to look at Tampa Bay’s play calling decisions from two different areas on the field. We will start with 4th-and-3-or-less scenarios from an opponent’s 20-yard line to its 34-yard line and inside the red zone, which will also include goal-to-go situations.

So, now that we are all on the same page, let’s begin.

The Bucs were faced with six attempts of 4th-and-3-or-less from their opponents’ 20- to 34-yard line. They kicked four field goals and went for it twice. The Bucs were down 10-0 to the Houston Texans and 27-23 to the Tennessee Titans when they attempted to go for it. The Bucs were tied to the Panthers (0-0) and Cardinals (23-20), down 20-17 Houston, and ahead 7-0 against the Falcons when they decided to kick field goals.

On the surface, it’s easy to see that these decisions weren’t about being aggressive. They were about playing it safe. As a result, the Bucs went 2-3 in those five games.

Backing out and taking a field goal can really hurt your team and could have a lingering effect on the game as a whole. And from a straight-up decision standpoint, there are instances where it’s not the correct call.

Take the aforementioned Texans and Falcons games, for instance. The Bucs went for it on a 4th-and-2 from the HOU28, down 10-0 in the first quarter. Peyton Barber was able to get the first down, but the play was called back due to holding on Ishmael Hyman. The play fell short of expectations, as the Bucs only garnered (0.88) points out of an EPB (expected points before) of (1.70) for a difference of (-0.82) due to the penalty. That means it was a bad call, and the Bucs should’ve just kicked the field goal, right?

Eh, not really. When you look at the decision to kick a 49-yard field goal up 10-0 on the Falcons in the first quarter, you may change your mind. The Bucs faced a 4th-and-3 from the ATL31 (not much of a difference from the Houston scenario), but decided to just take the points instead of go for it. Matt Gay subsequently missed the field goal, leaving the Bucs high and dry when it came to points on the board.

That miss completely tanked the Bucs’ EPA. The Bucs rode an EPB of (1.38) into that field goal attempt, but came out with an EPA of (-1.53) instead, which weighed out to a difference of (-2.91) from the miss.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions
The Bucs’ inconsistent kicking game has certainly made life rough on head coaches in Tampa Bay.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The irony in the whole comparison - and why it was a better decision to go for it - is that even though it was pretty similar down and distance, the EPB were higher when the Bucs went for it on the 4th-and-2 opposed to the field goal attempt on 4th-and-3. To add insult to injury, the Bucs still lost to the Falcons.

It was obviously the wrong call.

This example shows how going for it is still the better call in certain situations, even if you don’t execute properly. The Bucs were better off failing the 4th down attempt then they were missing the kick.

Are you ready for the red zone and goal-to-go numbers now? I bet you are!

The Bucs were faced with six 4th-and-3-or-less scenarios from an opponents’ 1-yard line to the 19-yard line. They kicked two field goals and went for it four times, but again, it’s the context that matters. The two field goals were not wise decisions and one of them arguably cost the Bucs a win.

This is truly remarkable. The Bucs, up 45-40 and 28-25 on the Rams and Giants, decided to kick a field goal on a 4th-and-3 (the only 4th-and-3 in this scenario) from the LAR3 and on a 4th-and-2 from the NYG5. The EPB of both decisions (a combined 6.07) outweighed the potential results of the play (a combined 6.00)! Therefore the Bucs were setting themselves up for failure unless the kick was blocked, then picked up by the Bucs and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. And as you can see, the field goals kept both games in the one-score game category, even though the kicks extended the lead(s).

The average EPA difference of both plays weighed out to (-0.35). That shit matters when your team holds a 3-6 record in one score games.

On the contrary, the Bucs held an average EPA of (4.24) and a weighted difference of (1.37) when they went for it on fourth down in this scenario. They converted three of the four attempts. One conversion led to the game-winning touchdown against the Colts, one led to the touchdown to Cameron Brate that put the Bucs up 17-6 against the Falcons, and one led to a garbage-time touchdown against the Panthers.

In other words: good things happened.

But since the Bucs weren’t as aggressive as they should’ve been, they went 2-4 in those six games, which gives them an overall record of 4-7 in the 11 games we’ve covered.

There’s no guarantee that the Bucs will win more games if they become more aggressive when it comes to play calling, but it can’t hurt.

It’s not about the players you have on the field. It’s not about what the opposing team can do. It’s about the situation and how impactful a decision can be when it comes to winning or losing a football game, especially if you make the wrong decision.

The numbers are there and the evidence is there. Get it done.