The New York Jets were incredibly conservative on fourth down in 2022, but Aaron Rodgers might change that
What happens when a New York Jets unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Well, either they figure it out, or it could get ugly.
In 2022, Robert Saleh was the NFL’s least aggressive coach on fourth down, going for it just 5.4% of the time against an expected 12.3%. Meanwhile, the Packers’ Matt LaFleur was the fifth-most aggressive for the third consecutive season, going for it 22.4% of the time vs. a 13.6% expectation.
Considering that the pair come from similar coaching backgrounds, the likely difference-maker in that scenario was one man now in the Green and White: Aaron Rodgers. The reason is twofold. For one, the coach has more confidence that his quarterback can convert. Additionally, Rodgers himself likely pushes to go for it.
The question is if Saleh will actually change his ways. LaFleur has never been a head coach without Rodgers. Saleh has never been a head coach with a competent quarterback, let alone a future Hall of Famer. Still, is Saleh’s conservatism innate and pervasive, or is it simply due to his previous personnel?
In 2022, the Jets went for it only once the entire season with a lead, which was last in the NFL. The average team went for it 5.3 times with a lead. However, the Jets also did not lead that often: just 18.5% of their offensive plays came with a lead, which tied for 27th in the NFL. Of their fourth-down plays, just 15.5% came with a lead, the lowest rate in the league. However, 31.6% came when they were tied, the highest fourth-down rate when tied in the league.
Therefore, there was the potential to affect games significantly by going for it with the game tied. While there was only one such play that had a strong recommendation to go for it via Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down bot, the Jets could have attempted to get ahead of the sticks by going for it even when the recommendation was intermediate. Instead, they decided to forgo going for it even when the recommendation was strong.
On one hand, it could be argued that the Jets shouldn’t need to be as aggressive if they have a stronger offense. On the other, having a quarterback like Rodgers means that the team can and should be aggressive in ways that they previously were not. Nick Sirianni enhanced his team’s elite offense with his league-leading aggressiveness. In the Super Bowl, the one situation where he absolutely should have gone for it, he didn’t—and it may have cost his team a championship.
True fourth-down decision-making
In 2006, Berkeley economics professor David Romer examined the numbers involved in fourth-down decision-making. He came to the following conclusions:
- In a team’s own territory, they should never punt on 4th and 4 or less.
- In the opponent’s territory, teams should go for it more aggressively, up to 9.5 yards or less.
The reasoning for this is simple: going for it in those situations yields more Expected Points (EP) than punting. In other words, a team that goes for it in those scenarios will, on average, score more points than the team that punts (or kicks). A 2012 Bleacher Report article effectively summarized it like this:
“Perhaps the simplest… way of explaining the downside of a punt is by looking at a punt as a turnover. A 40-yard punt is nothing more than a 40-yard interception. The other team has the ball, and you no longer do. Your chances of scoring… just went down, and your opponent’s just went up. Are you okay with a 40-yard interception every fourth down?”
In 2022, Sirianni was more aggressive than any other coach on fourth down, but he reached his limit. This is the head coach of one of the most analytically forward-thinking organizations in the NFL. He could not take the risk of being the Super Bowl scapegoat. In the process, he did become the scapegoat—but not the publicly maligned one.
Now, I’m not saying that Saleh should suddenly morph into Sirianni. However, considering the weight of these decisions and the difference they can make in wins and losses, it behooves him to be more aggressive. Rather than playing not to lose, he should play to win. If he trusts his defense that much, he should be willing to put them in riskier situations for the chance of a big reward.
Against elite offenses
The Jets play eight games this season against teams that were in the top 10 in offensive DVOA last season. Although the Browns and Giants might not scare anyone, the Chiefs, Bills, and Eagles—the top three offensive teams—certainly will. That could also apply to the Dolphins (No. 7) if Tua Tagovailoa is healthy.
When playing elite offenses, especially those with top quarterbacks, it is that much more important to gain any possible advantage. The Jets should not be so sanguine about their defense replicating its 2022 performance for a myriad of reasons. Chief among them is the quality of quarterback competition. Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts are very different from Skylar Thompson and Brett Rypien.
A chief example of this is the Miami Dolphins. In Week 4, they played the Bengals with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm. In two different situations, going for it would have added over 5.5% of win probability. However, McDaniel chose to ignore the math each time.
- 4:27 Q2, 7-6 CIN, 4th and 1, CIN 34: field goal attempt (go for it boost: +7.74%)
- 9:58 Q4, 17-15 CIN, 4th and 2, MIA 33: punt (go for it boost: +5.55%)
When playing a quarterback like Joe Burrow, both of those decisions could have made the difference between winning and losing. Would McDaniel likely have gone for it with Tua Tagovailoa under center? Likely, especially in the first situation. However, the argument could be made that it was even more important to go for it with Bridgewater under center.
The same thing happened when Miami played Buffalo in the regular season. With the Dolphins trailing 21-19 at 7:08 in the third quarter, McDaniel punted on fourth and two from his own 39. Going for it would have added 3.40% of win probability. Of course, the conventional wisdom says to punt in that spot, but McDaniel was playing the Bills. Miami lost the game 32-29.
I don’t mean to pick on McDaniel. He was actually ranked the second-most aggressive coach in the NFL, behind only Sirianni. However, just as Sirianni lost the Super Bowl against an elite offense, McDaniel lost winnable games to the Bengals and Bills by getting conservative.
The chances that Saleh actually follows this advice are slim. It’s something to keep in mind, though, as the Jets play some of the league’s best offenses.
An aggressive fourth-down mentality opens the playbook on third down. It’s easier to take shots with the mindset of going for it if it doesn’t work. Considering that play-calling predictability limits offensive success, it’s better to have options. It takes a commitment to that way of playing football, though.
Rodgers was a conservative third-down quarterback in 2022. Although he ranked eighth in ALEX (Air Less Expected), averaging third-down passes of 2.2 yards past the sticks, that accounted for only 54.2% of his total third-down attempts (24th). It’s therefore unsurprising that he ranked 20th in third-down conversion rate on pass attempts.
Surprisingly, most of Rodgers’ third-down pass attempts were not on third-and-long. In fact, 25.2% of them came with three or fewer yards to gain (seventh-highest). Additionally, just 38.2% were in third-and-long (8+ yards), the fifth-lowest mark. It appears that Rodgers was throwing short of the sticks despite facing manageable third downs.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that Rodgers had the highest screen rate in the NFL (16.8%). On third down, 22.9% of his passes were at or behind the line of scrimmage (third). If you exclude those passes, Rodgers’ rate of throwing beyond the line to gain is 70.3%, which ranked 11th.
Still, screen passes are among the least efficient pass plays in football. It’s much easier to throw them on third down knowing you have two downs to work with. Rodgers had an aggressive coach in LaFleur when he was throwing those screens. What happens if Rodgers throws the screen, it lands a yard or two short of the sticks, and then Saleh punts? It may force Rodgers to wait longer to get rid of the ball on third down, which could result in more sacks given the state of the Jets’ offensive line.
Why the emphasis?
This is the third article posted on Jets X-Factor this offseason discussing fourth-down decision-making. Why are we emphasizing this so much? Isn’t it just one of 1,000 different important factors in winning a football game?
The answer is simple: the Jets want to win a championship. Sure, it’s easy to look at the larger picture in a typical season. However, with a 39-year-old quarterback at the helm, questions about the salary cap and roster in the years to come, and a plethora of young, cheap, talented players, the time is now. Therefore, the details matter. The Jets have a good roster, but it’s not the best in the NFL. They play a gauntlet of quarterbacks. To tilt the advantage in their favor, standing pat on a conservative approach likely won’t be good enough.
Saleh appears to listen to Dan Shamash, the Jets’ situational football/game management coordinator when it comes to these decisions. If the Jets become a little more aggressive on fourth down—say, average rather than the least in the league—that could make the difference between winning and losing some tough battles.