Alex Smith

Jim Harbaugh’s 4th down decisions

Before I start I want to make it known that I might have some … let’s just say “controversial” views when it comes to going for it on fourth down.

I’m not the normal guy who says “punt it” no matter what the down and distance is. As a “Stats Guy” I think going for it is the correct choice more often than most and I almost never come down on a coach that tries to get a first down, because more often than not that’s the correct call according to Win Probability Added Charts.

NFL coaches are overly conservative when calling plays and take the “safe” (as in “won’t get questioned by the media”) route far too often on fourth down.

I don’t like it very much, but in the short term that’s just the way the game goes for most coaches.

Luckily for the 49ers’ chances of winning games, in his college career Jim Harbaugh has done his best to do the opposite of what was expected and I certainly appreciate that. He’s a coach out of my own mold, if there ever was one.

With all that on the table, let’s take a look at what the 49ers did in fourth down situations against the Arizona Cardinals this week.

4th-and-11, on the Arizona 28, 0-0 (10:11, 1st Quarter)

Jim Harbaugh sends out the Field Goal team.

Verdict: Good Call.

Kicking the field goal, even though the attempt was blocked, was the correct call. With one of the better kickers and a special teams unit that has been spectacular all season, the 49ers had a good chance to put the team ahead — especially seeing as the chances of conversion were low from that distance and a punt doesn’t net many yards.

Going for 3 points was correct.

4th-and-3, on the Arizona 31, 0-0 (8:13, 1st Quarter)

Harbaugh again sends out the field goal unit.

Verdict: Ambiguous.

This time the question of going for it vs. attempting the field goal is not quite as clear cut.

Harbaugh leans toward trusting his kicker, who’s been money from this range all season, but the kick sails wide right.

When we look at the win expectancy chart this one is right on the borderline, where kicking and going for it are nearly the same expected value. When you have faith in your kicker and defense I can understand not going for it, even if I would prefer a coach who leans more towards the aggressive side early against a team that seems to be clearly inferior.

In his position I would have probably made the same call with David Akers as my kicker, but going for it isn’t a far-fetched position either.

4th-and-3, on the Arizona 4, 0-0 (3:10, 1st Quarter)

Harbaugh sends out the field goal unit once again.

Verdict:  Bad call.

This time Harbaugh and I are not on the same page. With the game tied at zero, getting the touchdown is much more important than kicking a field goal (which Akers made). With 3 yards to go, the chance of getting a touchdown are pretty high and even if the 49ers were to fail, the Cardinals would have started deep in their own territory where the defense would have likely given the 49ers’ offense good field position.

At 4th-and-3 from the 4-yard-line, the expected points of going for it were above the field goal. If I was the coach I would go for the 6 points over taking the field goal pretty much every time. Against better teams (especially at home) you’ve got to get the point across that you want to win the game and challenge both your offense and defense to make it stand up. When the playoffs roll around the 49ers can’t settle for field goals against good teams and expect to win easily.

4th-and-9, on the Arizona 25, 3-0 (2:06, 1st Quarter)

Harbaugh sends out the field goal unit.

Verdict: Good Call.

This is the right call. At this point the field goal is worth more expected points than a punt or going for it — especially with a kicker as good as Akers, who makes the 43-yard attempt. As a coach you have got to forget his earlier misses, as he is still a very solid kicker that I’d rely on in just about any situation.

Harbaugh is maximizing his points by kicking the field goal in this situation and that is what makes him a good NFL coach.

4th-and-6, on the Arizona 12, 3-0 (9:04, 2nd Quarter)

Harbaugh sends out the field goal unit.

Verdict: Borderline bad call.

This is another one that is right on the borderline between going for it and kicking the field goal on the expected point chart. I don’t think it was the wrong choice to kick the field goal — even though it was blocked — but with against a lesser team it might have made sense to go for the jugular and just put the Cardinals away.

Considering how the 49ers were playing defense (zero passing yards allowed to this point) I would have wanted to challenge my offense to win this game early. There’s some benefit in getting the offense some practice on the kind of high-pressure situations that may be coming as the 49ers advance through the season and into the postseason.

4th-and-2, on the Arizona 31, 6-0 (2:09, 4th Quarter)

Harbaugh brings out the offense to go for it.

Verdict: Good Call.

This is the right call. This is right in the middle of the “maroon” zone where it is too far for a for sure field goal (no matter what your kicker is doing), and too close for a punt. At this area of the field in most spots it’s better to go for the first down when it is 4th-and-short than it is to punt because of the chance of a punt resulting in a touchback.

Harbaugh and Greg Roman call a very nice play that draws the defense toward the first down markers, leaving Kyle Williams open on a very nice 12-yard out route. No matter what the announcers say, this was not a high-risk play and it really shouldn’t have anything to do with the earlier field goal misses.

Going for it was the correct call by the team and no matter what I would defend this call. The fact that Harbaugh and Roman made a creative call on fourth down that led to more yards than were required made it even better.

4th-and-2, on the Arizona 11, 6-0 (0:56, 2nd Quarter)

After the great attempt on 4th-and-2 Harbaugh gets gun-shy and orders in Akers to kick a field goal.

Verdic: Borderline bad call.

This is not a horrible call, but if he was looking to maximize points scored it wasn’t the correct call. Against a better team it might have come back to bite them — luckily, the Cardinals are not that type of team and it wasn’t a big deal.

With your offense pretty much running all over the Cardinals and your defense suffocating them, it should have been an easy decision to attempt to put this game away early.

The field goal was good and put them up by 9, but against a better team I would have preferred the 49ers’ offense act aggressively and put pressure on the other team. If the situation was reversed, you’d be relieved if your defense “forced” a field goal. If the Niners had gone for a touchdown, the game would’ve been quite different at 13-0 vs. 9-0.

4th-and-1, on the Arizona 27, 9-0 (10:14, 3rd Quarter)

Harbaugh leaves the offense on the field and wants that first down.

Verdict: Good Call.

This is the correct call and the 49ers, who have been pretty much unstoppable on the run, converted on a 2-yard carry by Frank Gore. Five plays later San Francisco turned this into a Kyle Williams touchdown that put them up 16-0. With the defense dominating, that’s all they need on this day to win.

4th-and-7, on the SF 21, 23-0 (1:08, 3rd Quarter)

Harbaugh elects to punt. This is the correct call. With the lead and that many yards to go, the risk of handing Arizona the ball with good field position was just too great.

Verdict: Good Call.

Luckily for the 49ers, Patrick Peterson fumbles the punt and the 49ers recover. That was a great break, but even without the great break it was the right call. It’s too bad this drive leads to one of Alex Smith’s first red zone turnovers of the season. That’s why I am in favor of going for the jugular early, not giving an inferior team a chance of getting back in the game on a turnover.

4th-and-7, on the SF 49, 23-0 (11:14, 4th Quarter)

Harbaugh sends out the punt team.

Verdict: Good Call.

This is never a bad choice at this yardage, and considering the 49ers had 7 yards to go and a 23-point lead, this was by far the correct call.

Lee and the special teams coverage did a great job to pin this one inside the 20, giving the Cardinals a long ways to go to try and get some points.

4th-and-11, on the SF 49, 23-7 (4:58, 4th Quarter)

Harbaugh again elects to punt.

Verdict: Good call.

With the 49ers up by 16 and the defense stopping just about everything the Cardinals want to do, the most important task is to run out the clock. Andy Lee gets off a good punt that makes Arizona start at their own 20.

The 49ers’ defense bends but doesn’t break and they are finally able to stop the Cardinals on fourth down to give the ball back to the offense, so Anthony Dixon can run the ball into the line a few times to run out the clock.


Harbaugh has been more aggressive than your average NFL coach and that’s appreciated by this blogger, even if he doesn’t do everything by the WPA book.

Most coaches are content to let their players take the blame instead of taking charge with aggressive (or in other words correct) play calls that puts themselves on the line. Through 10 regular season games that hasn’t been Harbaugh’s way of operating.

So far Harbaugh has been better than most on fourth down and I appreciate that, especially after the disaster that was Mike Singletary. He isn’t quite at the Bill Bilichick level of aggression, but I think he’ll get there as he gains more confidence in this team, which is quite good.

In this game on fourth down the 49ers made the correct call more often than not. I might have been more aggressive early, but in the end with the 49ers great defense facing an inferior team it didn’t make much of a difference.

I’m Scott Willis you can catch my Giants writing at Crazy Crabbers and follow me on twitter @BAStatsGuy and @CrazyCrabbers

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