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Players in favor of fourth-down aggression

12/9/2006 - NFL

Amid the carnage of a fourth straight defeat and specter of spiraling from a two-game lead in the NFC East to perhaps missing the playoffs, a veteran Giants offensive lineman paused outside the locker room Sunday to deliberate over one key moment in the 23-20 loss to Dallas.

The subject of discussion was a fourth-and-1 play from the Dallas 24-yard line in the waning moments of the first half, with the game tied 7-7.

Eschewing a Jay Feely field-goal try, the Giants had 260-pound tailback Brandon Jacobs, who has been terrific this season as a short-yardage and red-zone specialist, run an off-tackle "stretch" play to the left side. But with some of the inside gaps shut down, Jacobs opted to bounce outside the tackle and was nailed in the backfield by Dallas linebacker Demarcus Ware for a 3-yard loss.

Eight plays later, on the final snap of the half, Martin Gramatica converted a 41-yard field goal to lift the Cowboys into a 10-7 lead. Dallas never trailed again.

After several minutes of pretty spirited debate over the fourth-and-1 play, here was what the Giants' lineman finally concluded: "Didn't especially like the play that we called … but, man, I loved the decision to go for it. I wished we'd do it more often."

Fact is, the Giants and just about every other team in the league are doing it this season -- passing up field-goal opportunities, declining to punt and attempting to convert on fourth down.

Never a group that should be confused with riverboat gamblers, NFL coaches are nonetheless a bit more inclined to roll the dice on fourth downs this season, in part because of the increased success rate. And the aggressive mind-set has been roundly applauded by players.

"As long as [the distance to make] is within reason and you've got some momentum going, then why not?" said Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk, whose team has a league-high 18 fourth-down attempts, including 13 conversions. "There's kind of a 'test of manhood' thing about it, you know? I think it gets players fired up. I mean, there's a limit to it, sure. But for a half-yard or whatever, on the [opposition] side of the field, I think most guys just figure, 'Hey, let's go for it.' It certainly adds some more excitement to the game."

The numbers through 12 games indicate coaches are increasingly in agreement. Indeed, to this point, it's been a fourth-and-go kind of season.

Teams have combined to run 348 fourth-down plays this season, an average of 10.9 per club, and all but eight franchises have registered 10 or more fourth-down tries. There have been 177 conversions, a 50.9 percent success rate. Teams have succeeded on third down in 2006 just 39.5 percent of the time.

Compared to last year, offenses have run only a dozen more fourth-down plays in 2006 than at the same juncture of the 2005 season. But projected over the course of the entire season, the number of fourth-down plays is up nearly 10 percent over the 2000-04 campaigns. Not surprisingly, field-goal attempts have been reduced, but only slightly. There were 726 field-goal tries through the first 12 games in 2005, and there have been 720 this season.

So in some cases but not all, the newfound fourth-down rage isn't connected to field goals or to some clubs' declining confidence in their kickers. Instead, the trend is more reflective of the belief that eking out a yard on fourth down isn't akin to walking barefoot over a mile of hot coals. And certainly, a fourth-down attempt isn't regarded as the kind of desperation measure it once was.

In the 10-season span from 1995-2004, the NFL leaders in fourth-down attempts were characteristically clubs with losing records. Five of the six franchises with the most cumulative fourth-down attempts in that stretch were teams with losing records for the decade. But in the past couple years, teams that have embraced the notion of going for it on fourth down aren't necessarily clubs that are going bust in the win-loss column.

Notable is that nearly 40 percent of the fourth-down attempts in 2006 have come when a team was leading, tied or trailing by only one score. So it seems that fourth down isn't just for losers anymore.

The New England Patriots, for instance, have 17 fourth-down tries in 2006, second most in the league. One reason is that the Patriots have a rookie kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, who hasn't yet engendered the degree of confidence the staff exhibited in the departed Adam Vinatieri. In 12 games, Gostkowski has attempted only 17 field goals, including just three tries from beyond 40 yards. Last year, Vinatieri had 22 attempts, seven from beyond 40 yards, in the Patriots' first dozen contests.

Still, the number of fourth-down attempts by New England is more indicative of coach Bill Belichick's overall philosophy. In his first six seasons as Patriots head coach, Belichick averaged 17.3 fourth-down attempts, among the highest in the league. He never had fewer than 10 fourth-down tries in the stretch from 2000-05, and had 26 such tries in 2000 and 20 in 2002. New England is on pace for 23 this season.

"To know that [the coaches] have faith in the offensive line to knock the defense back for a yard or two on a big play, it definitely takes your confidence up a notch," Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said. "You can't helped but get pumped up for those kinds of situations."

In an interview with the Boston Herald this week, Belichick suggested that the mind-set on third downs and fourth downs is actually similar.

"Fourth down really is third down," Belichick explained. "If you know you're going to have a fourth-down [attempt], then third down is really second down."

We're not sure, even as many times as we've listened to Belichick, that we can decipher the logic. But given the success rate on fourth downs in 2006, players increasingly feel it's illogical to bypass an opportunity to move the chains and retain the ball if the situations are right.

"It was the right move," insisted the veteran Giants lineman as he headed to his car Sunday evening, speaking of the ill-fated fourth-down run with Jacobs. "Just because we [screwed] it up, that shouldn't mean that you're shy about trying it again."

This season, at least, coaches haven't been bashful about heeding that advice.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.