Panthers vs. 49ers: Anatomy of a Fourth Down Decision


Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

What to do on 4th and goal from the opponent’s 1 yard line is what keeps coaches up at night. Do they go for it and trust that their offense can punch it in or do they play it conservative and kick the chip shot field goal. Is there more to the decision? While watching the  San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers playoff game I saw the thought process that eventually led to a Panthers touchdown.

As the first quarter wound down the Panthers ran three times at the 49ers and got the ball down to the one yard line. The score was 6-0 San Francisco at the time and the “book” says that you take the points and kick the field goal but things are never that simple. Ron Rivera, or “Riverboat Ron” as he is called because of his penchant for going on 4th down, knows that his quarterback Cam Newton is a freak athlete that has both speed and power, excelling at quarterback sneaks. He also has Pro Bowl RB/FB Mike Tolbert who is one of the best short-yardage backs in the league. They also have a 1st team All-Pro center in Ryan Kalil so the pieces are there for the Panthers to get the yard.

What would give Rivera pause about going for it? Generally if you go and fail on a 4th down not only do you not score any points but the momentum goes to your opponent and momentum is a big part of a close football game. Specifically the opponent, the 49ers, have an excellent defense that is ranked 4th in the league in rushing yards allowed. They are led by their linebackers Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, All-Pro Navarro Bowman, Pro Bowler Ahmad Brooks and Pro Bowler defensive end/tackle Justin Smith in their rushing defense not to mention pass rush specialist Aldon Smith. They are fast, powerful and excel in short-yardage situations.

Jan 12, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (55) sacks Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) during the second half of the 2013 NFC divisional playoff football game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

What other factors go into the decision? Field position. In a close, defensive game the battle for field position could decide the game. The better position you can set your offense up in, the easier it is to score. Failing to covert on a 4th and goal from the one would put the 49ers in the worst field position possible starting in the shadow of their own end zone. Another factor is your belief in your own defense. If you believe your defense can hold them that’s another reason to roll the dice and go for it. Ron Rivera has one of the best defenses in the league. They finished ranked 2nd in total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed and were led by All-Pro ILB Luke Kuechly and Pro Bowler defensive end Greg Hardy. A quick stop leads to a punt and that leads to good field position on your next drive.

Rivera decided to go for it and Newton tried a quarterback sneak but was met in the hole by Ahmad Brooks and stopped inches from the goal line giving the ball back to the 49ers. The Panthers defense held firm only allowing the 49ers two yards before forcing a punt by the Niners from their own end zone. The punt was fielded by Ted Ginn Jr. and returned 24 yards to the 49ers 31 yard line and on the very next play Cam Newton connected with Steve Smith for a 31 yard touchdown.

So Rivera’s decision ended up getting the Panthers a touchdown despite failing on 4th down. Rivera’s belief in his team in all three phases was rewarded. He trusted the offense to not only get the yard but if they couldn’t to go right back down and score when given the chance. Rivera believed his defense would not let San Francisco get 1st downs and flip field position and he believed he had one of the best punt returners in the game in Ted Ginn Jr.. So the next time Rex Ryan goes for it on a 4th and 1 (or doesn’t) think about all the factors that go into his decision before you criticize because he may be right it just may take a little while for the results to show.