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Mike Mularkey went for it on 4th and 10 in overtime

With 2:36 remaining in overtime, the Jacksonville Jaguars were at the Houston 47-yard line. It was 4th-and-10, following two short incomplete passes that were sandwiched around a run for no gain. Surprisingly, Mike Mularkey kept his offense on the field. The only similar example I can find of such an aggressive move in this situation came in 2009, when Carson Palmer and the Bengals convinced Marvin Lewis to go for it with 1:04 left in overtime, facing 4th and 11 at the Cleveland 41. Suffice it to say, this was something you don’t see everyday.

Despite being an unorthodox decision, most fans approved of the move. I do as well. Against arguably the best team in the league and your division rival, on the road, why not take the gamble? Is 1-8-1 that much better than 1-9, because punting in that situation is clearly playing for the tie. However, I think it’s important to make a clear distinction here, because stats guys are always recommending teams to go for it more frequently on fourth down.

This was *not* one of those cases. The numbers say this was a bad move. That’s exactly why this decision should be characterized as a a gamble. It’s okay to be risky for riskiness’ sake, but it’s important to recognize that that’s the reason. You’re playing for the variance here, not for the expected value. According to Brian Burke, Jacksonville would have needed a 55% chance of converting to make going for it the smart play. Over time, 4th and 10 plays are converted at roughly a 35% rate, and I don’t think that’s going to be higher when it’s Chad Henne against one of the best defenses in the league, regardless of how the rest of the game unfolded.

An incomplete pass, and your win probably decreases to 30% (never mind what happens on a sack or potential interception return). Give Houston the ball at say, their 14 following a punt, and you have a 60% chance of winning (this counts a tie as half a win). If you convert, you have a 76% chance of winning. Assuming a 35% rate, your win probably if you go for it is just 46% compared to 60% if you punt.

So the numbers don’t say going for it was the smart play. This was a gamble in every sense of the word. When statistical analysts argue that teams should go for it more often on 4th and 1, we’re not advocating risky moves; we’re advocating smart ones. This was risk for risk’s sake — which, given the situation, was probably appropriate.

  • Richie November 19, 2012, 4:11 pm

    Regarding unusual choices yesterday, after scoring a TD to make the score 27-13 late in the game, Jeff Fisher chose to go for the 2-point attempt. Is there any logic here that I’m missing? What would be the advantage of being down 12 instead of being down 13? Or is it just a matter of they were already down 14, so the risk is low in giving up the “guaranteed” 1 point?

    • Chase Stuart November 19, 2012, 4:15 pm

      Yeah, that one stunned me. If I wanted to give Fisher the benefit of the doubt, I would say that he was hoping to be down 12 and therefore only need a FG and a TD+2PTC to force OT, and even if he missed, he could go for 2 after the next TD to make things up, and even if he missed that, he could go for it on the next TD to still force OT.

      But yeah, very odd. And silly.

      • Richie November 19, 2012, 4:21 pm

        Unless my addition isn’t working, if the Rams convert, they are down 27-15. Then if they score another TD+2, they are down 27-23. A FG only pulls them to 27-26.

        • Chase Stuart November 19, 2012, 4:23 pm

          That’s what I get for trying to do too many things at once. Yes, I really can’t fathom an explanation for it. If it was Pat Shurmur, I would have assumed he was trying to make it a four-field goal game.

          • Richie November 19, 2012, 4:25 pm

            BTW, I think I only get e-mail notices of new replies when YOU reply to my posts.

      • Richie November 19, 2012, 4:25 pm

        I guess it’s a good way for him to “look aggressive” without actually taking risk? Seems like he’s been responsible for a handful of bad decisions this year. Does sitting out for a season mean he’s losing sharpness in these decisions? Was he making bad decisions in Tennessee (I can’t remember)?

        I think it’s time to come up with some kind of coaching decision metric, based on things like 4th down attempts and 2 point conversion decisions.

  • Danish November 19, 2012, 6:06 pm

    Also in Jax’s end of the standings a tie will basically count as a win. Therefore a tie could cost them the first overall pick. Downgrading to second overall might be worth it if you can pull off a huge upset on the road against an elite division rival, but it’s not at all worth it when you’re looking at a tie.

    • Danish November 19, 2012, 6:08 pm

      That was a bit rambling. TL;DR: No way I’m risking loosing a top draft pick for a chance to kiss my sister. I’ll be happy about a win, OK with a loss and absolutely disgusted by a tie.


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