The Hidden Game of Football discovered in research that a 1st down play improves the team's chances for success if it gets 45 percent of the needed yards. For example, on 1st and 10 that would be 4.5 yards: Your chances of success go up if you get 5 yards to make it 2nd and 5... but they go down if you gain 3 yards for 2nd and 7. On 1st and 20, success is getting at least 9 yards.
Likewise, 2nd down has a success bar: 60 percent of the needed yards. On 2 and 4, you need at least 2.4 yards, so 3 yards is a successful play but a 1 yard gain is not. On 2nd and 12, you need 7.2 yards, so 8-9 yards is a success but 5 yards gained is not.
3rd and 4th down barometers are simple: For success you need to get the 1st down, regardless of distance.
A football team looking to focus on offense can set a goal on every down using this information. On 1st and 10 the smart goal would be to get at least 5 yards. Perhaps the 60% goal on 2nd and 3, or the 45% goal on a fortuitous 1st and 5, seems a bit meager and weak. So in these cases you can say 'just get the first down'.
But on 2nd and 7, getting 5 yards is a reasonable goal to shoot for. On 1st and 20, needing to catch up after a dumb penalty, you can shoot for 9 yards. Obviously, there's little need for additional goal setting on 3rd or 4th down: Every football team is aiming for the 1st at this point if they're not kicking.
Bread and butter short or running plays become more valuable in this context over the more standard approaches like running and hoping for traction or daylight on 1st down, settling for 3-4 yards on 1st down, or throwing the bomb on 2nd down hoping to strike quick, and then gunning for the 1st on 3rd if it doesn't work. Taking a goal-set approach to every down with short, high percentage plays (whether varied run packages, quick strike or screen pass plays or West Coast and Spread style passing) is more conducive to long drives, wearing out the defense and reducing your opponent's opportunities by working the clock. The greater sense of purpose will help build momentum, put pressure on the defense early in drives and wear them down as drives proceed.
Likewise, on defense this can serve as a goal. On 1st and 10, draw a line 4.5 yards from the line of scrimmage and make it a goal not to let the opposition past it. Obviously passing plays make this a bit more complex, but the territorial mindset is easy to instill against running plays. Consider an opponent's 4 yard gain on 1st and 10 a success. Incomplete passes are obviously terrific as always. Holding the opponent to 2 yards on 2nd and 4 can be considered a success. Keep this idea under consideration in scheming with gap coverage and zone defenses.