It was a decision that shook the Cowboys fanbase. One that had many openly calling for Jason Garrett’s job. It was the infamous punt in overtime against the Houston Texans. Facing a fourth and “long” one from the Texans’ 42-yard line in overtime, Garrett decided against putting the ball in the hands of his offense and punted. Of course, as we all know, the Texans took that punt and danced and twirled through the Cowboys defense for a game-winning field goal. Cowboys Nation was understandably not happy.
Based on that, you might think the Cowboys are a conservative team that never go for it on fourth down. Au contraire. The Cowboys have converted the highest number of fourth downs in the NFL in 2018. Dallas is six of eight on fourth down for a 75% conversion rate.
Those six made attempts rank first in the league. Eight attempts on fourth down is tied with three other teams for second place, while the the Cowboys next opponent, Washington, tops the list with nine attempts in 2018 (they have converted five for a 56% rate). The Cowboys 75% conversion rated is tied for second, behind four teams tied for first who are at an 100% conversion rate. The Chiefs are four-for-four on the year on fourth down.
Obviously not all fourth down calls are the same. Some are desperation tries at the end of games when you’re trailing your opponent. Some are like the Jacksonville game when the Cowboys went for it late in the game when they had a huge lead. Still, the idea that Jason Garrett’s team leads the league in fourth-down conversions after dealing with the Texans game is a little bit of irony. Our old friend KD broke down some numbers about fourth and short with the Cowboys.
I checked the numbers since [the Cowboys] drafted RB Ezekiel Elliott and dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott. In short-yardage situations, in a one-score game during the fourth quarter (or overtime), Dallas has attempted to go for it on 4th-and-3 or less three different times. Your team converted 100 percent of the time.
In fact, over that stretch, all NFL teams are running 63.6 percent in either getting a first down or a touchdown. Dallas is one of five teams perfect here.
Dallas is successful 60.5 percent of the time when taking this chance over the last 20 seasons.
As they say, bygones. In the NFL you are always faced with another game during the season, so you have to look ahead.
Fourth down, though, is a little bit of a specialty item. Where the Cowboys really need to improve is in converting third downs. Dallas is 30th in the league with a 31% conversion rate on third down, only ahead of Buffalo and Arizona. And this comes after the Cowboys went 7-17 on third down against Jacksonville, a 41% conversion rate.
So while we poke a little fun at the fourth down stats, the third down numbers are no laughing matter. The best third-down teams in the NFL so far in 2018 are converting at a rate in the mid-to-high 40s. That will probably come down some before the year is out, but even the Jacksonville effort by the Cowboys (41%) was only okay in the overall scheme. They were somewhat bailed out by going two-for-two on fourth down, and also receiving a first down by penalty on a fourth down punt.
Given the Cowboys success on fourth down, going for it in the Houston game made all the sense in the world. Even so, if the Cowboys want to succeed in 2018, it’s third down where they need the work.