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Considering Jim Harbaugh's 4th down decisions

The San Francisco 49ers went for it on fourth down in two big situations Monday evening against the Rams. We break down the pros and cons for those decisions.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Up by 10 points late in the fourth quarter, Jim Harbaugh faced a couple of interesting fourth-down decisions as the San Francisco 49ers were looking to secure their third straight victory.

Following the 49ers win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4, I wrote about how Harbaugh made some poor decisions with his challenges and wasn’t as aggressive as he probably should’ve been. This week against the St. Louis Rams, Harbaugh chose to be the aggressor, opting to go for it on two fourth downs within 90 seconds of game-time and under six minutes to play.

The first came on a 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line; the other a 4th-and–1 from the Rams’ 34-yard line on the Niners’ ensuing possession. Neither play converted, but that’s not why we’re here. Did Harbaugh make the right decisions or should he have looked to put more points on the board with field goal attempts?

The Case Against Going For It

5:46 4Q - 4th and goal, Rams 2

Let’s start with the 4th-and-goal play, as the argument against going for it is pretty straightforward. Field goals from the 2-yard line are about as automatic as it gets. Bringing Phil Dawson out puts the Niners up by 13 points, making the two scores needed by the Rams both have to be touchdowns as opposed to the game-tying equation of a touchdown plus a field goal. It’s a safe, conservative play that NFL coaches seem to make about 99 percent of the time.

It’s also a rare instance in which the numbers slightly favor the field goal attempt over trying to put the ball in the end zone. According to the Advanced Football Analytics fourth down calculator, a team should go for it if they believe they would convert 77 percent of the time or greater. Going back to 2000, the league average conversion rate with less than two yards to go on third or fourth down is at 61 percent. The numbers almost always suggest teams should go for it on fourth-and-short. But because of the limited number of possessions remaining in the game, the value of forcing that second St. Louis score to be a touchdown over a field goal tilts the odds the other direction.

4:23 4Q - 4th and 1, Rams 34

The 4th-and-1 play on San Francisco’s next drive puts Harbaugh in a similar proposition from a score standpoint by potentially pushing the lead from 10 points to 13 with a successful field goal attempt. Though, because of the added distance, an Andy Lee punt is also a strong consideration here. A 50-plus yard field goal attempt is far from a sure thing. Since 2000, field goal attempts between the 33- and 38-yard lines — remember, the 49ers were at the 34 — have been successful 58.7 percent of the time.

Considering San Francisco’s field goal unit has had a few close calls with blocked attempts this season, combined with the lower conversion rate on long field goals, Harbaugh’s safest play would’ve been to bring out Lee. By having the All-Pro punter attempt to pin the Rams deep in their own territory, you force Austin Davis to have to drive the length of the field with time against him.

The Case For Going For It

Despite a reasonable argument for playing it safe in both situations, Harbaugh elected to go for the jugular by sending the offense onto the field for the fourth down conversion attempts. The case for going for it is similar on both plays.

Conversion ends the game. On the 4th-and-goal play, the upside in converting is obvious. If Carlos Hyde gets in the end zone, the game is over. Sure, crazy things happen. But with roughly 5:40 of ballgame left, there simply isn’t enough time for St. Louis to put together three scoring drives.

Converting on the following fourth down attempt isn’t quite as emphatic, but it likely has the same effect. The Rams had just one timeout left at that point. Operating under the assumption that Jeff Fisher uses that timeout following the fourth down conversion, even if San Francisco doesn’t get another first down, the Rams aren’t going to get the ball back until just before the two-minute warning. If Fisher saves that timeout for his offense, then Austin Davis doesn’t get the ball again until just after the two-minute warning.

Toss in the added benefit of likely picking up some additional yards to setup an easier field goal attempt for Dawson and there’s a lot of value to be gained by going for it.

Limited downside with a failed conversion. This is especially true for the goal-to-go play. A failed conversion gives St. Louis the ball backed up deep in their own territory, where the Rams are incredibly unlikely to make anything useful from their possession. Since 2000, teams that have started a drive inside their own 5-yard line have been nearly as likely to turn the ball over (13.7% of drives) as they have been to put points on the board (15.9%). The most likely result is that the Rams offense going conservative with their play-calling, punting, and giving the Niners the ball back with great field position… which is exactly what happened.

There’s a little more downside involved with the latter fourth-down attempt, but it’s still not enough of a risk to scare Harbaugh off. AFA puts the break-even point at 44 percent to justify going for it in that situation, well below the aforementioned conversion rate. If you fail, as the 49ers did, the Rams still have to put together a decent drive to get into field goal range against a defense that had limited them to 15 second-half yards up to that point. Which brings me to…

Showing trust in your players. I usually stray away from this type of stuff, but many seam to imply that going for it shows a lack of confidence in your defense to get the necessary stops to end the game. I see it much differently.

By opting to go for it in those situations, Harbaugh is not only showing trust in the offense to convert, but trust that his defense will bail him out if they don’t. For a team that wants to present a tough, physical demeanor, you have to trust in your offense’s ability to punch the defense in the mouth (not literally) and pick up a couple of yards in key situations. If not, then why are you devoting all of those resources in your backfield and offensive line?

Those plays didn’t work out the way Harbaugh hoped, but by looking to put a divisional opponent away on the road, he was right to be aggressive when most would not have been.