Navy 2013 Review: Fourth-Down Dynamism

Fourth downs can become a tricky statistic to assess, precisely because they can emerge in highly negative situations. Yet, Navy stood on the right side of fourth downs and upheld its identity on the offensive side of the ball. A brief explanation of this point magnifies how (and why) the Midshipmen succeeded in 2013, thereby setting the scene for how they can continue to flourish in 2014.


TAKING THE FOURTH THE RIGHT WAY

There's a precarious aspect to fourth downs… and no, it's not merely the risk attached to failure; the larger reality encompassing fourth downs is why they can represent an incomplete measurement of a football team's quality.

When you go to the website cfbstats.com, you'll see that Army faced 26 fourth downs on offense in 2013. Navy faced 28 of them. How did these two service-academy rivals travel such different paths, then? Yes, on one level, Navy was better on its fourth downs than Army was. The Midshipmen converted 19 of their 28 fourth downs, a 68-percent success rate. Army wasn't bad, but the Black Knights converted "only" 13 of their 26 attempts, a 50-percent success rate. This difference has something to do with the divergent seasons that unfolded in West Point and Annapolis, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

When considering the centrality of fourth down conversion rates as a measurement of likely success, it is important to keep in mind that teams will sometimes go for it on fourth down not because they're being uniquely bold or have complete trust in what they're doing on offense. It might seem obvious to those who study football closely, but it's still worth mentioning that a team's fourth-down attempts can be multiplied if that team is regularly losing games in the fourth quarter, particularly by multi-possession margins (nine or more as a two-possession threshold, 17 or more as a three-possession threshold).

Unlike Army, Navy attacked fourth downs more because it wanted to than because it had to. The situations attached to Navy's fourth-down forays were either more advantageous or, to apply a slight yet important manipulation of phrasing, "less dire" compared to what Army faced in 2013. This ability to make fourth down a positive weapon more than a mere "survival tool" in late-game situations separated the Midshipmen from the Black Knights last season. It's something for Ken Niumatalolo to continue to emphasize to his players, especially when the build-up to the season intensifies in the coming weeks.

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