Third and Six

By Max Kaplan

League-wide, the conversion rate on 4th down is 50% but it jumps to 65% on 4th and 1. Ever wonder how likely it is to convert in a given situation? I ventured to find out, armed with the entire season’s worth of data from 2012.

The goal of 1st down is to create a manageable 2nd down. The goal of 2nd down is to create a manageable 3rd down. But you have to convert, eventually. What are the percentages of converting on a given down and distance?

1st down conversion by situation
*2012 Season
Note: Bigger rectangles are ranges of situations – used when
there weren’t enough plays in a given down and distance.


Get 5 yards or more on 1st down

Some teams measure success on first down by a 4+ yard rush. As you can see, there is some credence to that goal. Second-down conversion rates drastically increase as the yards-to-go decreases, more so than on any other down. In fact, a team should aim for 5+ yards on 1st down because of the huge drop from 2nd and 5 (39%) to 2nd and 6 (32%). If highly-paid offensive coordinators like Bill Callahan are open to advice from $10 per hour summer interns, perhaps high-percentage, short passes are the way to go on 1st down?

3rd and 6 or bust

The odds of converting on 3rd down plummet beyond 3rd and 6, dropping from 44% to 36% as a team progresses to 3rd and 7. It is a bit surprising to find such a stark contrast with only a small 1 yard difference.

High conversion rate on 4th down

Teams convert on 4th and 10+ (35%) much better than 3rd and 10+ (22%). Why is that? Well, I have no idea – if I did, then I’d probably be calling the plays in Dallas.

It seems that teams – when facing a possible turnover on downs – take more risks and throw both more picks and 1st downs.

Only 2 teams went through a game without a 2nd and 10

This is more of a fun fact, but only Cincinnati in Week 3 and Cleveland in Week 12 never encountered a 2nd and 10. There were no incompletions on first down for either team: only completions, rushes, turnovers, and sacks. The Bengals unloaded for 206 passing yards on 1st down in their win against the playoff-bound Redskins, and Cleveland accomplished the feat while defeating the #1 ranked defense in Pittsburgh.

So what did you think of my fourth and short column. Did I convert? It doesn’t really matter. Jason Garrett and an intern happen to have something in common – we just won’t get fired for mediocre performance.

I’m in the preseason of my career… and, well, we all know how important the preseason is.

5 thoughts on “Third and Six

  1. Do you think you can find the percentage of 4th and 10+ plays that end in an interception? Just to see if it’s much higher than the average on other downs. Interesting article!

    1. On 4th down and 10+, there were 92 plays, 32 first downs, 4 INT, and 9 sacks. The INT ratio isn’t that high, but that INT/Sack combined is very high compared to other downs.

  2. The high conversion rate on 4th down may be due to the rarity of the situation, simply having a small sample size (the giant rectangle spanning from 4th and 10 to 20+ is indicative of this). Teams are only going attempt a 4th and long if they’re at the desperate end of a game – even then, they are probably only going to attempt it if they have a trick up their sleeve.

    I’m wondering how field goals are being quantified here? Upon first read I assumed that field goals are counted as a failure to convert, but I’m not so sure now (seeing as how a field goal isn’t necessarily a “failure”).

    1. Field goals are not a 4th down attempt – They are left out.
      I pooled the situations so there would be a enough data points to be significant. Here are the 4th down numbers poorly formatted:
      Plays Yds 1st%
      1 158 3.56 64.60%
      2 52 4.98 59.60%
      3 34 3.82 50.00%
      4 30 5.53 46.70%
      5 32 3.19 34.40%
      6 18 5.72 38.90%
      7 14 7.29 42.90%
      8 12 2 16.70%
      9 9 9.89 55.60%
      10 92 7.21 34.80%

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