Have you ever watched an NFL game and heard the announcer say something to the effect of, “the Jets have yet to convert on 3rd down this game,” or “the Chargers 3rd down conversion rate is through the roof this season”? It might have made you wonder…what the heck is a conversion, and why does it happen on 3rd downs?
From our Basics of Offense post we know the deal with 3rd downs: it’s crunch time. On 3rd down the offense either earns a new set of downs (by advancing at least 10-yards down the field from where they started) or has to decide what to do on 4th down if they come up short (punt, kick a field goal, or go for it).
Teams want to earn a new set of downs by gaining the needed yardage on 3rd down. Doing so is called “converting” on 3rd down. The team had a 3rd down situation and they converted it into a new set of downs. A team with a high 3rd down conversion rate does this consistently.
Let’s add in an example. Say it’s 3rd and 4 on the offense’s own 40-yard line. It’s late in the game and they are down by 12 points. The quarterback throws a short pass out to a receiver who advances it up the field by 5-yards. Since the down and distance was 3rd and 4, we know that he earned enough yardage for a new set of downs (he needed 4; he got 5). It’s now 1st and 10 on their own 45-yard line.
That’s an example of converting on 3rd down.
But conversions don’t only happen on 3rd down. They can happen on 4th down, too.
We’ll stick with our first example – only this time, the receiver came up short and was tackled after gaining 2-yards. The new down and distance is 4th and 2. Since it’s late in the game and the offense is down by 12 points, they decide to go for it on 4th down. The quarterback hands the ball off in the backfield to a running back who finds a hole and gains 5 yards. The new down and distance? 1st and 10 on their own 47-yard line (since they were back on the 40 when we started this example and have gained 7 yards since – kudos to the imaginary offense).
That’s also an example of a conversion, only this time it happened on 4th down. That’s called converting on 4th down, or a 4th down conversion.
One last thing: Let’s say our fake team wasn’t so lucky and came up short yet again on 4th down. Since they did not convert, the other team would gain possession of the ball right where is was, which is called turning it over on downs.
And side note: You may also be familiar with another type of conversion called a 2-point conversion. This happens when a team elects to “go for 2” after scoring a touchdown instead of kicking the standard extra point.