Monday, I wrote about how Jimbo Fisher’s punting decisions hung his defense out to dry, sent a vote of no confidence to his offense, and reduced FSU’s chance of winning the Miami game.
So I decided to dig up data on how often Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles have gone for fourth down during his tenure as head coach (2010-17), and the numbers are shocking.
Fisher’s teams have tied for fifth-fewest, twice had the second-fewest, and four times have been dead last nationally in fourth down attempts.
FSU has only attempted 50 fourth downs from 2010-present.
That is dead last in the nation, and it’s not close.
The next-closest team is LSU, with 74. That’s an incredible 48% increase from last to second-to-last. All other FBS teams have 90+ attempts in that span.
Jimbo Fisher’s mentor, Nick Saban, attempts fourth downs more than twice as often. Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team has gone for it almost 3x as often during his tenure. Urban Meyer at Ohio State has already doubled up Jimbo Fisher despite coaching in 26 fewer games (Meyer started at Ohio State in 2012). In Meyer’s last seven seasons, he has gone for it 154 times, more than three times as often as Fisher.
The best way to protect a defense is with points. Fisher’s reasoning shows a lack of appreciation for the value of a possession vs. the value of field position.
We asked Fisher Monday about his justification for punting twice from Miami’s 37-yard line in the first half.
“At about the 38-40 yard line. Our defense is playing well. They hadn’t had anything. You get it back. You’re out of field goal range. If you miss, you give them the ball at midfield and allow them to be aggressive. You pin them back, we have a great defense, you get it back. Both times we got it back around our own 50 or 40 with a chance to go back and score points. And one of them was fourth-and-7, so your odds of picking up fourth-and-7 aren’t very good. On one third-and-7 we missed a read, and on another, we just had a drop.”
Fisher has repeatedly defended these decisions by citing nebulous concepts like “momentum,” or wanting to protect his defense, but in college football, because of its high-scoring environment, these are bad mistakes of game management. The best way to protect the defense is with points. The value of keeping the football offsets any potential loss in field position from not getting the first down. The hubris required to believe your gut is better than proven analytics in this situation is incredible.
His answer indicates that in his mind, the alternative to punting was kicking. It doesn’t seem that using a two-down approach, which could have impacted the third-down call, was even contemplated.
Fisher’s decisions show that he is miscalculating the risk-reward of the punt decision, but not in the way one would think an offensive coach would. His decisions are that of an overly conservative defensive coach. Or of a coach scared of losing his job. But Fisher is neither. He has $40M in guaranteed money left on his contract — no coach in college football has more job security. There is no reason for him to coach scared, or to avoid criticism. Yet, he does.
Opposing defenses know it, and it helps them defend on third down.
Additionally, because Fisher has consistently made these mistakes (five punts in opponent territory this season already), opposing teams know he’s going to repeat them.
And when teams know that, they can elect to not defend certain concepts and areas on the field on third down, knowing FSU won’t go for it on fourth down. Defending third-and-7 from the 37 is different when an opposing coach has shown a willingness to go for it on fourth down.
Combined with FSU’s snail-like pace (121st nationally), this is doubly damning because it doesn’t value the scant possessions FSU’s pace produces.
Florida State is one of the most plodding offenses in the nation, and has been throughout Fisher’s tenure, not just this year with a true freshman QB.
It operates the offense at a pace similar to that of a triple-option service academy, ranking 121st nationally this season. Fisher doubles as FSU's offensive coordinator, and the ’Noles routinely struggle to get plays called quickly. That means the Seminoles do not get many possessions.
This makes it imperative for FSU to maximize each possession.
But while the service academies seem to understand this and go for fourth downs frequently, Fisher is combining the worst of both worlds — giving away possessions by not using all four downs, while minimizing the number of possessions by playing at an extremely slow pace.
Considering FSU out-recruits almost every team it plays by a wide margin, it makes no sense to play this slow. Instead, leveraging the talent advantage by running more plays would be the right move, especially with a head coach who shows repeated disregard for the value of possessions by punting the ball away.
Combining the botching of fourth-down decision-making with this pace results in Florida State consistently scoring fewer points than it should.
This is to say nothing of the gut punch to the confidence of the offense the move sends.
Think about being an offensive player at Florida State and having the head coach repeatedly show a lack of confidence in your ability to convert and score touchdowns, instead trotting out the kicking teams time after time.
How do you get the least out of an offense of future NFL players? Take forever to run plays and give away the precious possessions you have, thereby killing their confidence in the process.