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Updated Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 02:01 AM

Go for it on fourth-and-one? Evidence says it's the right thing to do

By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times NFL reporter

RENTON — The Seahawks needed about 18 inches.

Instead, they lost more than two feet on a fourth-down play that kept them scoreless in the second quarter Sunday in Atlanta and had a city second guessing its coach after the Seahawks' season ended.

Think Pete Carroll should have opted for a second-quarter field goal instead of handing the ball to fullback Michael Robinson on fourth-and-one?

Me, too.

But David Romer doesn't necessarily agree.

Now, he didn't watch Sunday's game between the Falcons and the Seahawks. Romer is an economics professor in California who chooses not to talk about NFL fourth-down strategies anymore. But anyone who's interested in anything more than knee-jerk condemnation of coaching decisions that don't pan out should take a minute to consider that Carroll made the right decision according to the years of NFL data Romer analyzed in his study of fourth-down decision-making that was published 10 years ago.

This isn't an argument anyone in Seattle wants to hear right now. Carroll's decision can't be right because it turned out so wrong. Not only was Robinson stopped for a loss, but the Falcons took over possession and scored a touchdown. And no sooner had Seattle lost by two points than everyone was pointing out the chance to go for three points that Carroll passed up.

"I of course wouldn't have done it if I thought we weren't going to make it," Carroll said.

It's the reasons he made that decision that are as important as the result if we're going to offer a fair critique of Carroll's decision to go for it.

Short stuff

"I wasn't concerned that we couldn't handle the line of scrimmage," Carroll said.

Why should he have been?

The Seahawks had gone for it on fourth-and-one three times in the regular season and converted all three. Not only that, they converted 16 of 23 third-and-one plays in the regular season, tied for the seventh-best percentage in the NFL.

Sure, Seattle was stuffed on third-and-one that drive, but that was the result of a miscommunication. Quarterback Russell Wilson was trying to audible out of the play and the noise drowned it out. The result was a play that was undermined before the ball was snapped.

"We made a mistake," Carroll said. "With another shot at it, we felt like we'd knock it out."

And while it was Robinson who carried the ball, not Marshawn Lynch, it's worth remembering that Robinson was Seattle's most successful short-yardage rusher this season. He converted six of seven third-and-one rushing attempts in the regular season, among the best in the NFC.

Risk vs. reward

"We wanted to make something happen," Carroll said. "We needed a spark. We needed to see if we could take advantage of it. I don't want to give them the ball back with just a three-point take-away."

Down 13-0, Carroll was thinking big. While that might seem headstrong in retrospect, his aggressiveness can be justified from a risk-reward perspective.

That's what Romer, the economics professor, concluded when he published his study. He said NFL coaches are too timid, usually choosing to kick instead of going for the first down in hopes of continuing to the end zone.

His statistics found that teams were often better-off going for it if they needed three yards or fewer on fourth down, and the odds generally increased in the opponent's half of the field.

Romer declined to be interviewed on the subject Monday when reached in his office, as he's decided to focus on his real job in economics rather than being the guy everyone calls to question the conservatism of NFL coaches.

But the situation Seattle faced on that fourth down Sunday cuts to the heart of his thesis, which is that the rewards of going for the first down and potentially earning a touchdown usually outweigh the risk of being stopped in a fourth-and-one situation. The probabilities involved in the specific situation Seattle faced in this game made it even more advantageous for Seattle to go for it, because the Seahawks were at the opponent's 11-yard line and, should they turn the ball over on downs, the Falcons would have worse field position than they would likely have on a kickoff after a field goal.

The odds favored Seattle's decision to go for it. It just so happens that, this time, the most likely scenario didn't occur.

The bottom line

I would have opted for the field goal.

The Seahawks were down 13-0, they had driven into Atlanta's half of the field for the second time and they needed something to show for it.

But my opinion is more about instinct than evidence, and I tend to be risk-averse. It's why I can count on one hand the number of times I've played blackjack in a casino and it's the reason I get nervous if I arrive at the airport fewer than 90 minutes before takeoff.

And while I might not have agreed with Carroll's decision to go for it on fourth down even before Robinson was stopped, it's still impossible to say he was wrong. At least not with the mountain of evidence that can be marshaled to justify the risk.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com.


MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Carroll said he thought his team needed a spark while down 13-0 in the second quarter.




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