The stat every fan should watch but none do: a WCSN exclusive

By
Updated: February 1, 2013

The 2012 Arizona Cardinals were exposed as frauds by this all-important statistics — but no one noticed.

The elusive stat

At least 99.9% of you have never looked at it. You have never heard a game announcer or coach or player talk about it. You have never read an article in your local sports page or seen a nod to it in a magazine like . And unless you cheat by scrolling to the end of this article, I am confident none of you will guess what it is, even if I give you numerous clues.

Let’s see if I’m right, shall we?

Pattern of success

Here are the teams that finished in the top three (including ties) over the last five seasons in this statistical category (playoff teams are marked in bold):

  • 2008: Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos
  • 2009: Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, San Diego Chargers
  • 2010: Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns
  • 2011: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 2012: Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, and Indianapolis Colts

Teams finishing the season in the top 5 in this category made the playoffs 76 percent of the time over the last decade. Teams that finished the season in the top 10 made the playoffs 64.2% of the time.

Got it yet? No? Here’s another clue.

The San Francisco 49ers were one of the better teams in this category in 2012.

The San Francisco 49ers were one of the better teams in this category in 2012.

Teams ranking worst in the league average a mere 4.37 wins in that season. Four times in the past five years, the St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars have ranked in the bottom three.

Still not ringing a bell?

Over the past five season, playoff teams have won 34 of the 40 games in which they bested their opponent in this category. In the other 14 games the teams have matched each other.

This year playoff teams who have amassed fewer of these during a game have gone 8-0.

You’re thinking penalties or penalty yards, right? Nope. How about false starts, fumbles, or interceptions? No, no, and no.

A team does not need to be successful in this statistic. Avoiding it is what matters. In fact, teams that enjoy 100 percent success still lose over 50 percent of the time.

Except for turnover ratio (and the final score, of course), this stat is more indicative of which team won than any other. In the 2012 season the team that had fewer of these in a game won 127 of 173 contests (73.4%). Between Week 7 and 17, after teams learned what they were and saw the results of their plans unfold, the team leading this stat went 90-25 (78.3%). In the remaining 83 games, the teams tied in this category. (Incidentally, one of those losses was the infamous Green Bay-Seattle game.)

Surely you must be getting close now?

Separating wheat from chaff

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is not afraid to flout conventional wisdom and implement this strategy.

This statistic is extremely telling about a team, its fortunes, it’s coaching philosophy, and mostly, how desperate it is. Teams are risk averse in general, typically dabbling in this practice only when things are looking bleak.

This stat can help you predict the demise of a bad team that has jumped out to an early good record. For example, the 2012 Arizona Cardinals were 4-2 going into Week 6, yet they were among the bottom three in this category, having accumulated seven. By the following week, they were second worst with nine, taking the mantle as worst in the league with 13 by midseason. They finished the year 5-11 and were ranked second worst in the league for this stat.

Is the picture starting to come into focus yet?

One more hint. Although being low in this stat correlates to success, the best and brightest coaches in the game — Bill Belichick and Sean Payton to name two — do not flinch from resorting to this tool when it favors them. They use it anytime and anywhere it gives them a tactical advantage. By contrast, most coaches fear the repercussions of failure, only attempting it when it’s too late.

Drumroll, please

If you haven’t already guessed it (and if you did, congratulations!), the answer is fourth-down attempts.

We’re not talking about conversion rate, which is irrelevant. All that matters is how many times a team tried to go for it instead of punting.

For some reason, although the number of fourth-down attempts correlates so strongly to wins and losses, it is given very little notice in the media. I had to scour through each and every game, week after week, to find these results. They are an invaluable variable in my numerical system for predicting NFL games against the spread at my fantasy football and NFL betting site, .

Unfortunately, fourth-down attempts (or 4A, as I call them) isn’t as predictive of wins in the playoffs because virtually all playoff teams are successful at avoiding these situations. It works better in the regular season, when it shines a light on underappreciated teams and effectively exposes overrated ones.

The 4A system

By now you’re probably wondering how my system works. It’s pretty simple, really.

Take the regular-season 4A ranking for each playoff team and check it against the line on the game. For instance, in the Conference Championship round, the Baltimore Ravens (with 14 in the 2012 regular season) faced New England (12). The 4A system thus favored New England by two (or in Las Vegas parlance: NE -2). Vegas on the other hand had NE favored by 6.5. 4A indicated that Vegas was was spotting New England too much, indicating that we should take the Baltimore at +6.5 points.

So far in 2012, this system has only gone 2-6 in the playoffs — by far its worst showing in over a decade. From 2006 to 2011 it went 40-25, a very respectable 61.5 percent.

Predicting the Super Bowl, though, the results have been monumental. Between 2002 and 2011, 4A correctly picked the winner against the spread eight out of 10 times, an astounding 80 percent of the time. The greatest sports handicappers in the world only hit about 65 percent of the time!

Ironically, the teams with the lower 4A rankings have lost in the Super Bowl six of the last 10 years.

The 4A system suggests that the smart money is on the Baltimore Ravens to cover vs. San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Betting Super Bowl XLVII

This year Baltimore attempted 14 fourth-down conversion and San Francisco, 12. The Vegas line is SF -4.5. The smart bet, therefore, is on Baltimore at +4.5. Place another, much smaller wager on Baltimore to win outright.

I predict a missed field goal or two will cost San Francisco a championship and Baltimore will win 18-17.

I will make one last bet. I bet that each of you will start to watch your favorite team’s tendencies on fourth down that much closer from now on. Many of you will no longer be jumping out of your sofas and yelling at your coaches to go for it on fourth-and-three.

Enjoy the game. I hope you get rich.

About the author(s)

A self-described NFL addict and "stats geek," Robert J. Russ loves to demolish conventional wisdom with cold, hard numbers. When reputation doesn't jive with reality, he plows tirelessly through play-by-play charts and statistical tables to separate fact from fiction. A military brat who was born in California, raised in North Carolina, and bounced between the two states through college, Russ has lived in Coastal Carolina since 1990. He owns a small pest-control business and a free fantasy football and NFL betting line website. Feel free to contact him at with questions, comments, or ideas for future articles.

688 comments
AlwaysACheesehead
AlwaysACheesehead

the token female is back... who has dirty laundry they need cleaned?

Rourke
Rourke

Someone complained today that this site changes is appearance too often. heh

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 who else made the HOF?

SDL
SDL

OK Gentlemen... 

Time for a trip to the gym and a beer run...

AMF!!

G & G
G & G moderator

Cris Carter is a HoF!

Congrats Vikings fans!!

SDL
SDL

Here's a fun fact:

Ahhh-nald Schwartz-en-Egger's classic line in "Predator" 

"Get back to da' Choppah" 

became such a popular catch-phrase that it appeared in a Library of Congress article about helicopters

 True AMC "Prime Movie with Story Notes" factoid


G & G
G & G moderator

Fuck!!! Kevin Greene is out of the "Final 10"...

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

hey Slama you watching the fights tonight?

SDL
SDL

Don't look now, mudda fukkahs, but IFC is in HD.

(Independent Film Channel)

SDL
SDL

There's a stunt in True Lies that I still find amazing.  Ahh-Nald Schwattzen-Egger hangs from the landing skid of a helicopter and plucks Jamie Lee Curtis from the sunroof of a speeding, out-of-control limo just before the limo runs off the end of the blown out bridge

Still fucking amazes me.  No idea how they did it.

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 only if you stop by once every 2 months 

G & G
G & G moderator

@Swive Thanks Rourke!

G & G
G & G moderator

@The Miracle Man Better than Purple and Gold...

G & G
G & G moderator

Bill Parcells

Warren Sapp

Jonathan Ogden

Dave Robinson

Curley Culp

Larry Allen

G & G
G & G moderator

Later master!

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 frankly it's overdue, i get that they don't like first ballot guys and they wanted to wait for Jerry to get in first, but to make him wait 3 years is criminal. the log jam at WR is only going to get worse, Andre Reed, Tim Brown, Sterling Sharpe, then you get in a few years Moss, T.O. and i know i'm leaving a lot of guys out  

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 word is debt collectors are trying to repossess Warren Sapps HoF bust 

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 really fun Ahnold fact- he graduated college from UW-Superior and gave the commencement speech a  few years ago. nice guy but can't understand a fucking thing he says 

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 what is the final 10?

natradamus
natradamus moderator

 more than likely- though not positive.  I'm not too excited about the card

SDL
SDL

Even the Marine Harrier jets blasting the bridge with their missiles was fucking awesome

Joedirte
Joedirte

 Also remember Arnold was still doing all his stunts back then too

Rourke
Rourke

 For me it was just a matter of incremental improvement. I have no training in this stuff so I don't know how to implement it all at once.

G & G
G & G moderator

You are right!

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 can't say i feel sorry for him. don't buy 600 pairs of fucking shoes. then again i may be biased at the fact that he cost GB their LT and he really was never the same again, cocksucking cheap shot artist 

G & G
G & G moderator

Hahahaha!

natradamus
natradamus moderator

  I would have loved to serve in his cabinet-  can you imagine the tag lines the guy would bust out while shaping fiscal policy?

G & G
G & G moderator

The finalists of the 2013 HoF class

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

   i'll watch it on coolsportz for free, if i don't get too wrapped up in Skyrim or playing with my new camera 

SDL
SDL

If you visit their website, I think you can get their email newsletter free...


aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

   well yeah to us they were small tweeks, but if you aren't here every day those small tweeks add up into one big change 

G & G
G & G moderator

Indeed

natradamus
natradamus moderator

  perfect-  tim brown sabatoged himself for the better of society

G & G
G & G moderator

He's in

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

  unfortunately i don't see him getting in, he is totally deserving but having played most of his career with Reggie White, Bruce Smith, among others i just don;t think he gets the respect he deserves 

natradamus
natradamus moderator

  yeah- but what about cris carter?


aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

 the Bigfoot-Overeem fight is interesting, at the very least you will have to giants beating the crap out of each other 

natradamus
natradamus moderator

  featherweight championship and - I haven't seen too many nogara fights that were exciting

aciddragon
aciddragon moderator

   sweet i'll check it out, thanks. this is the first non point and shoot camera i've had and it is a big step up, i'm already taking better pictures than i ever have but i still got a lot of work to do, my next pay check or taxes i'm getting a tripod for sure, since i didn't get VR lenses, and i'm thinking maybe a polorizing filter. ultimately down the road i'd like to get a micro lens and a 75-300 mm lens but that is down the road a ways