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“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” – John M. Keynes.

Photo via phillymag.com.

Last Thursday night, Chip Kelly was widely criticized for an unconventional decision that turned out to be unsuccessful. Trailing 10-0 in the first quarter against the Chiefs, Michael Vick threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jason Avant. The photo above shows how the Eagles lined up for the point after. Philadelphia’s two-point conversion attempt — a play known as the the Swinging Gate — was stopped, and it was stopped in particularly ugly fashion. That made it easy to point a finger and laugh at the college coach doing something silly.

But without the benefit of hindsight, there was nothing silly or even suboptimal about the decision. Putting aside the specifics of the play — we’ll get to that at the end — the main criticism seems to be that it was “too early” to go for two, or that the Eagles were “chasing points”, or that it was simply “unnecessary.” All of those are buzz words for saying that the Eagles should have behaved conventionally.

At a baseline level, let’s recognize that a team has a roughly 50/50 chance of converting on a two-point conversion. For a good offense with a mobile quarterback, that number may be even higher, but let’s just use the 50/50 number now. If that’s the case, then teams early in the game should be indifferent between kicking the extra point and going for two. Consider this hypothetical example: if a team had the option of kicking the extra point or flipping a coin — and heads gave them two points, tail giving them zero — would choosing to flip the coin be a poor decision?

Late in games, perhaps. But early in the game? I don’t see any reason to think that the difference between having six versus seven points on the board in the first quarter is more significant than the difference between having seven or eight points. Suppose you were told that your favorite team would score first quarter touchdowns in back-to-back games. Option 1 provides that your team would the extra point both times, while Option 2 is that your team would make the two point conversion once and fail on the attempt once. So you get eight points in one game and six points in the other.

Which would you prefer, Option 1 or Option 2? And why? And, if you prefer Option 1 to Option 2, how much more preferable is it? What would you be willing to trade to land in Option 1 — how many yards on the ensuring kickoff?

I would be indifferent between Options 1 and 2, but even if you preferred one, I don’t see how anyone could strongly prefer Option 1 to Option 2. The value to having 8 points is real, which is why it is never “too early” or “unnecessary” to go for two in a world where teams convert on two-point attempts half the time. Those are red herrings, because going for two is only a high-variance strategy; is it not a high-variance, lower-expected value option. Once you understand that, then nearly all the criticism about Kelly’s decision disappears.

As for the actual play call? I think it was a good one. Keep in mind that the Eagles did not pigeon hole themselves into going for two — based on how the Chiefs reacted to that formation prior to the snap, Philadelphia could have switched back to a normal extra point formation or simply taken a delay of game penalty with minimal harm. But Kansas City did not react well to the play pre-snap: The Eagles split two players out wide to the right, and Kansas City countered with two defenders to that side. But in the middle of the field, Philadelphia had the snapper, holder, and kicker, while the Chiefs kept four players in the middle of the field. I’m quite certain the special teams coach was not pleased with how the Chiefs responded to the situation, because that left K.C. with only five defenders to the defense’s right, while the Eagles were able to match up five blockers to that side and Zach Ertz, the eventual ballcarrier.

That’s a matchup Philadelphia should win more often than fifty percent of the time, and perhaps significantly more often than that. As it turns out, Lane Johnson blew the block, Tamba Hali made a nice play, and Kelly and the Eagles had egg on their face. Failing unconventionally has its drawbacks.

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Luck causes people to lose their minds

Luck causes people to lose their minds.

I can’t believe I’m writing this article. Everyone loves Chuck Pagano, but he made a pretty embarrassing blunder at the end of the Colts upset win in San Francisco on Sunday. The Colts led 13-7 when Andrew Luck scrambled for a six yard touchdown on 3rd-and-3 with just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Incredibly, Pagano then chose to kick the extra point, which my buddy and Colts fan Nate Dunlevy identified immediately as a terrible decision.

I wasn’t going to write a post about that decision, because, ya know, what could be more obvious than going for two when up by 12 points with just over four minutes left in the game? I mean, Jason Garrett got this right in the season opener. Being up by 14 points means two touchdowns doesn’t beat you, while there is almost no difference between being up 12 or being up 13 points. That doesn’t make for a very interesting post, though.

From 1999 to 2012, 36 teams scored a touchdown when leading by 6 points in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter. Only 22 times did the team then follow that score by going for two, converting half of the time. Take a look:
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“He’s the best coach in football right now.”

That was what John Harbaugh said about his little brother after the game. It’s hard to argue: I’ve said a few times that I think Jim Harbaugh is the best coach in the league, too. (Although I gave my mythical COTY vote to Pete Carroll.)

It was a classy thing to say by the winning coach, especially on a day where he outcoached his little brother. Actually, the more accurate way of putting it would be to say that “John Harbaugh made fewer bad decisions than Jim Harbaugh.” Let’s go through the game in chronological order

The First Snap

I’ve watched enough Jets games to know that there’s a certain level of horribleness that comes with having a pre-snap penalty at the start of a quarter or half. Maybe you don’t want to blame Jim Harbaugh for the 49ers lining up in an illegal formation on the first snap of the game, but let’s just say this: that’s not how the New York media would react if Rex Ryan’s team did that. Jim Harbaugh would be the first to tell you that it was inexcusable to have such a penalty on the first snap of the game, and the team didn’t look any more prepared on snap two, when Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore were on the wrong page of a fake-handoff that instead went to Lennay Kekua.

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Reviewing the Divisional Round of the Playoffs

The Best Weekend of the Year lived up to its reputation this weekend, as the divisional round of the playoffs gave us three outstanding games. Here is my reaction, with a disproportionate amount of time spent on the Denver-Baltimore game, because, well, if you saw it, you’d understand.

Baltimore 38, Denver 35

One of the best playoff games in NFL history, and an instant classic. This game could be analyzed for hours and there are countless talking points (Fox playing not to lose, Manning’s playoff failures, Ray Lewis’ retirement tour making at least one last stop, Tim Tebow anyone?) that will fill up the schedules of ESPN and talk radio for weeks. But let’s start with a big picture review of the game from the perspective of the team I expected to win the Super Bowl.

If you want to assign credit and blame to Denver, this is how I would rank the five Broncos units on Saturday, from best to worst.

1) Special teams. Sure, Matt Prater missed a long field goal, but Trindon Holliday’s two return touchdowns were a thing of beauty — especially for fans of excellent blocking. Holliday’s runs were more about textbook blocking by the return unit and poor coverage by the Ravens than Holliday himself, but in any event, the Broncos special teams had a great day. In fact, here is how Pro-Football-Reference broke down the game by unit in terms of Expected Points Added:
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Why trust this guy?

Falcons head coach Mike Smith made a couple of interesting decisions in the 4th quarter of Atlanta’s loss to the Saints on Sunday. And by interesting, I mean conservative. The first strategic blunder came when his team scored a touchdown with 13 minutes remaining, to cut the lead to 28-23 pending the point after. Smith’s absurd reasoning doesn’t merit discussion, and according to Bill Barnwell and the footballcommentary folks, Atlanta should have gone for it if they had just a 23% chance of converting.

Jason Lisk highlighted what was likely in Smith’s head: we don’t know who is going to kick the next field goal. Sure, if it’s the Falcons, then you want to go for two, but if it would be New Orleans (the team about to gain possession) then we’re in a 7-point game situation, so the extra point is the conservative right play.

But here’s the easy shorthand: if the downside to missing the two-point conversion is limited to you needing a two-point conversion later to even things up, then going for it is usually the correct call.

What is the advantage to being down 3 vs. being down 4? Well a field goal ties the game, and even if the opponent kicks a field goal, a touchdown will win it for you.

What is the disadvantage to being down 5 vs. being down 4? Well, a field goal is meaningless in either case (or, if it’s not meaningless, one field goal still leaves you one field goal away from taking the lead). The big disadvantage is that if New Orleans scores, the Falcons would have been down 8 as opposed to being down 7. But in coach-speak, being down 8 is one-possession game just like being down 7 is! That’s obviously not true, but in this case, the downside to going for 2 is essentially cut in half, because you get a second bite at the apple.

In other words, 50% of the time that you ‘go for two’ following a touchdown when trailing by 11, you will be down by 3 and glad you were aggressive; 25% of the time you go for 2 you will have some short-term discomfort, but this will be alleviated when you convert the next touchdown (which you need anyway if you don’t go for two). Only 25% of the time will this move blow up in your face. This is exactly the same logic that dictates that a team, down by 14, should go for two after scoring the first touchdown.

Considering Atlanta’s odds of converting the two-point attempt had to be greater than 50/50, considering that’s roughly the league average, Atlanta’s offense is great, and New Orleans’ defense is terrible, that makes going for two the obvious correct call.

Of course, Smith also made an ugly mistake when he kicked a field goal from the Saints’ two-yard-line when trailing by 4 points with nine minutes left. Had he gone for 2 earlier, I could at least understand the logic of kicking the field goal, even if I wouldn’t do it. But down by 4, he passed up a 50/50 chance to take a three-point lead to cut the lead to 1? Even if he missed, the Saints would have been backed up near the own goal, and a three-and-out would have likely put the Falcons a first down or two away from getting that precious field goal.

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The Jacksonville Jaguars faced an uphill battle on Sunday: they were 15-point underdogs against the Packers in Lambeau Field. Trailing 14-6 in the final seconds of the first half, Blaine Gabbert threw a one-yard touchdown pass to tackle Guy Whimper. At that point, Mike Mularkey decided to go for two in an attempt to tie the game before the teams went into the locker room. The two-point conversion attempt failed, and Jacksonville ultimately lost, 24-15. So, did Mularkey make the right call?

In a lot of ways, this is similar to the decision Chan Gailey faced against the Titans in week seven. Essentially, Mularkey would need to calculate:

— (A) Jacksonville’s win probability in a 14-12 game
— (B) Jacksonville’s win probability in a 14-13 game; and
— (C) Jacksonville’s win probability in a 14-14 game

If we assume a 50% conversion rate on the 2-point attempt — more on this in a minute — then the question is a simple one. We just need to determine whether the difference between (A) and (B) is greater than or less than the difference between (B) and (C). Green Bay was set to receive the ball at the start of the second half, so according to Brian Burke, the values for (A), (B), and (C) are and 41%, 45%, and 48%.

I also looked at all games since 2000 where the team was set to kick to start the second half and was tied, trailing by 1, or trailing by 2 at halftime. In 275 tie games, the team kicking off to start the second half won 52% of the time. There were 70 instances where the team was trailing by 1, but they won just 39% of the time. And in 32 situations where a team was trailing by 2, the trailing team won 41% of the time. The sample sizes here are not large, and the set is of course biased; teams kicking off at halftime obviously had the ball in the first half, so if they trailed at halftime, that’s a signal that they were the inferior team.

So Burke’s model tells us that it’s a very close call; a small sample of results indicates a strong preference for being in a tie game. We can also look at Football Commentary, which theorizes that a team needs only a 36% chance to convert to make going for 2 the right call. So as you can see, the results are a somewhat over the map here.

My thoughts? It’s very close. It’s similar to the Gailey decision, but the uncertainty is magnified here with 30 minutes remaining instead of fifteen. There are a lot of ways for the game to unfold that make me think the difference between (A) and (B) is pretty close to the difference between (B) and (C). Still, my gut does tell me that — assuming a 50% conversion rate — it probably *is* better to go for two, but it’s certainly not obvious or a slam dunk. If I was a Packers fan, I would have preferred to see the Jaguars kick the extra point.

That said, understanding the resulting win probabilities is just one part of the equation. Let’s look at some of the others.
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In Buffalo’s loss to Tennessee on Sunday, Chan Gailey faced an interesting decision. Buffalo trailed 28-27 in the final seconds of the third quarter when Ryan Fitzpatrick hit Steve Johnson for a 27-yard touchdown. Now up 33-28, Gailey chose to kick the extra point, and ultimately saw his team lose, 35-34.

Why did Gailey choose to go for 1? Bill Barnwell has his theory:

[The next mistake was] Gailey’s decision to kick an extra point on a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, which created the margin of victory. By going for one with seconds left in the third and a five-point lead (pending the extra point), Gailey paid tribute to the long-standing rule that teams shouldn’t go for two and try to create a seven-point lead before the fourth quarter. It’s an absurd rule, of course, that breaks down when you ask anybody to explain at any length why it makes sense. The two-point conversion chart at footballcommentary.com suggests that the Bills should have tried to tack a two-pointer onto their 33-28 lead if their chances of converting were better than 24 percent. Because the clock hadn’t ticked for 10 additional seconds and bumped the decision into the fourth quarter, though, the Bills kicked and ended up losing by one.

When I read that, my reaction was “yep, that sounds about right.” Up 5 with just over 15 minutes left, it seems like the “stats-geek” move is to go for two while the “conservative old school train of thought” says it’s “too early” to go for two. Of course, if that’s all there was to the story, you wouldn’t be reading this post right now. Take it away, Jason Lisk:

When I look at the game winning probabilities at Advanced NFL Stats, though, Gailey’s decision was different [than Mike Tomlin's]. It pains me to say that conventional wisdom is right here, but it is. With 15 minutes left, being up 5 is more costly than up 7 is beneficial with all the permutations. There are enough possessions that you can get beat by two field goals gained, or not extend the lead with another field goal.

When is it too late to go for one point in either of these situations, though? As it turns out, the answer is roughly between the 6 and 7 minute mark of the fourth quarter. That’s when possessions become more limited and you must try to tie, or make it where a touchdown doesn’t beat you.

A little surprised, I went over to Advanced NFL Stats and entered the numbers into Brian Burke’s Win Probability Calculator. Up 5, at the start of the 4th quarter, with the opponent having 1st and 10 at the 22 yard line, yields a 72% win probability to the leading team. Up 6 translates to a 77% win probability and up 7 increases it to 80%. That’s what Lisk meant when he said that difference between being up 5 and up 6 — 5% — is greater than the difference between being up 6 and up 7 — 3%.

Nerd Fight! Brian is a good friend of the site and one of the smartest minds out there, but he’d be the first to tell you that his Win Probability model is not perfect. So the question we have to ask is, is this a situation where his Win Probability Model breaks down?

Let’s not forget what Barnwell noted: according to footballcommentary.com, going for 2 is the obvious call here. And let’s used my tried-and-true method for making any football decision. If you were a Titans fan, now trailing by 5 at the end of the 3rd quarter, would you have been happy to see Buffalo’s kicking team run onto the field, or would you have wished that instead they went for it? My gut tells me — and let’s stipulate that the Bills would have had a 50% chance of converting the 2-point attempt — that as a hypothetical Titans fan, I’d want Buffalo to kick the extra point. Being down 7 sounds really bad, while the difference between 5 and 6 seems pretty negligible to my Nashville gut.
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I’m always interested in creative ways to maximize your team’s chances of winning. A few weeks ago, I wrote that when trailing by 14 or 15 points, teams should go for two if they score a touchdown. A different scenario came up during the Ravens-Cowboys game, as Baltimore was up 24-23 with just under five minutes to go when Ray Rice went in for a one-yard score. At that point, some clamored that Baltimore should have gone for two and essentially put the game away. A conversion would have given the Ravens a 9-point lead, while a miss would still leave Baltimore a touchdown. On the surface, it might sound like a risk-free proposition, where even if the gamble fails, you’re still in good shape.

But I don’t think I’d advocate for the bold decision in that situation. In essence, you’re deciding whether your offense is more likely to convert when going for two than your defense is likely to prevent your opponent’s attempt. The decision depends on the likelihood of success: If the league-average rate was 75%, then you’d want to go for two, but if the average rate was 25%, you’d rather force your opponent to have to convert.

In reality, the conversion rate hovers around 50% in the NFL. From 2007 to 2011, teams went for two on 269 plays and converted on 130 of them (48.3%). We can break that down further:

  • On 21 quarterback runs, the conversion was successful 13 times (62%). That is made consists of a 6-for-11 rate on runs up the middle and a 7-for-10 rate on other quarterback runs (which may include some scrambles on designed pass plays).
  • On 50 running back runs, teams converted 33 times (66%). That includes being 21-of-32 on runs to the outside and a 12-for-18 rate on runs up the middle (which includes two Danny Woodhead runs from shotgun).
  • There were also three trick plays with wide receivers throwing passes (Cedrick Wilson, Josh Cribbs and Anquan Boldin) with two of them being successful.
  • On the other 195 pass plays, four times the quarterback was sacked (2%), twice the pass was complete but short of the end zone (1%), and 107 times the pass was incomplete (55%). That leaves 82 successful passes (42%) on two-point conversion pass attempts.

It’s tempting to say that teams should simply run the ball more frequently in these situations, but I think we need to be careful and not let the data speak too loudly. The fact that teams passed on 74% of these plays is itself an indication that passing is the higher-percentage play. When a backup running back has a higher yards per carry average than the starter, it doesn’t mean that the starter is the worse player. I think running is a nice surprise move in these situations, but if teams ran more frequently, the success rate would surely drop (of course, the success rate on passes would then increase, which might make it wise just as a matter of course for teams to try to run more frequently in these admittedly rare situations).

In any event, I don’t think teams should get overconfident about their ability to convert when going for two. However, it’s worth noting that usually it is losing teams — and perhaps that means bad teams — that are going for two. Indeed, on only 108 of the 269 conversion attempts (40%) was the team winning before attempting to go for two. In those 108 cases, teams converted 60 times (56%). For what it’s worth, 31 of the 71 rushing plays (44%) came in these situations, and teams were 41-of-77 (53%) when passing with the lead.

So there does seem to be something to the idea that “bad” teams are dragging down the league average rate, although we’re dealing with small sample sizes. It’s the easy way out, but my gut tells me the actual rate really is right around 50/50.

In that case, does going for 2 up by 1 (before the touchdown) make sense? I don’t think so, unless your offense is much better than your defense (or your opponent’s offense is much better than its defense). In some ways, we should be indifferent about whether we go for two or if our opponent is forced to; it’s like caring about whether you get to call the coin toss or your opponent does.

Say you are up by 1 point and score a touchdown with two minutes to go. Let’s stipulate that the opponent has a 28% chance (to use what will be round numbers in a minute) of going down and scoring to tie it up. If you kick the extra point to go up 8, you have a 93% chance of winning — a 72% chance you stop your opponent plus a 14% chance that even if they score, you stop them on the 2-point conversion, plus another 7% chance that even if they force overtime, you win.

Now, if you go for two and convert, let’s say you have a 100% chance of winning. So converting gives you an extra 7% chance of winning. If you go for two and miss, you still have an 86% chance of winning — the 72% chance your opponent does not score plus the 14% chance you win in overtime. So choosing to go for two and missing only lowers your odds 7% — again, teams should be relatively indifferent about whether it is them or their opponent who ultimately goes for two, assuming the roughly 50% success rate.

But the above analysis is ignoring something, which to me, makes the decision easy. With a minute to go, and a good offense and bad defense, maybe you go for two. But that’s not the situation Baltimore was in — the clock read 4:41 when Rice scored his touchdown. Here is the part that is counter-intuitive but true assuming a 50% conversion rate: the difference between being up by 7 or being up by 8 is *larger* than the difference between being up by 8 or being up by 9.

That’s because going for 2 and converting doesn’t end the game; your win probability doesn’t shoot up to 100%. Down 9, the opponent will play more aggressively, knowing they need two scores. Assume you go for 1 and extend the lead to 8. If your opponent faces a 4th and short on their next drive, they may still punt, because it’s (in their minds) a one-possession game. They won’t punt if down by 9. They are more likely to take their time trying to score (which is beneficial to you, the leading team), which means the odds are very low that they win in regulation. Trailing by 9, they know they need two scores, and will play more aggressively to win the game. To me, I don’t see any reason to incentive bold moves by my opponent, and the more time remaining, the worse the decision to try to “ice the game” by going up 9 looks.

The Ravens game provides a good example. Suppose Baltimore had gone for two and missed. Well, the Cowboys went down and scored, and would have kicked off to the Ravens. Instead — in this case, it is irrelevant that Baltimore kicked the XP and Dallas missed the 2-point conversion, we can assume Baltimore went for two and made it — the Cowboys went for the onside kick and got the ball back. That’s not a move you make in a tie game, but one an aggressive team trailing has to do. Going for 2 early doesn’t bring your win probabiliy up to 100%, and this effect is magnified the more time remaining in the game.

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An example of a two-point conversion.

Let’s start with the obvious: your odds of winning when trailing by 15 in the 4th quarter are really, really low. From 1994, the first season the two-point attempt was introduced to the NFL, to 2011, 68 teams have entered the 4th quarter trailing by exactly 15 points. Only one of those teams won.

Over that same period, there have been 81 times when a team scored a 4th-quarter touchdown when trailing by 15 points, cutting the lead to 9 (pending the extra point or two-point conversion). Only 5 of those teams went on to win the game, with the most recent occurrence happening last year when the Dolphins were Tebowed.

So when trailing by 15 in the 4th quarter, even after scoring a touchdown, your odds of winning aren’t very good. But of those 81 teams that scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to cut the lead to 9, only nine of them went for two after the touchdown. While the time remaining could play a part in the decision, the fact is most of the other 72 teams made a strategic error in kicking the extra point when trailing by 9 points.

The last1 coach to recognize that going for two is the correct call? College football’s renegade, Steve Spurrier. In college football, the two-point conversion has been around since 1958, and in general, college football coaches are much more comfortable ‘going for 2′ than their NFL counterparts.2

The Ol' Ball Coach momentary forgets to go for two.

Against the 49ers on Sunday, with 6 minutes left in the final frame, Aaron Rodgers connected with James Jones to cut the lead to 30-21. At that point, attempting a two-point conversion is the obviously correct call, in an attempt to cut the lead to 7. I was disappointed but not surprised that Mike McCarthy decided to go for 1. But what did surprise me was seeing a number of smart people on twitter disagree with me that going for 2 is the right call. So I figured I’d devote a post to explaining why in this situation, it’s a no-brainer to go for two.

The counterargument goes something along the lines of “just take the points, that way it is a one-score game.” Essentially, people are afraid of missing the two-point attempt and trailing by 9 points. But it’s not a one-score game. Trailing by 8 isn’t a one-score game if you are going to fail on your two-point try. And there’s no reason to think your odds of converting a 2-point attempt are higher when trailing by 2 than by 9. Trailing by 8 is a 1.5-possiession game; half the time it is a 1-possession game, and half the time it is a 2-possesion game. To simply put your head in the sand and say “I don’t wanna know!!” may keep hope alive longer but it lowers your odds of winning.

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  1. Technically, the last team to do this was the 2007 Jets. Trailing by 15 points with 3 seconds left, the Jets threw a touchdown as time expired, and then went for and converted a totally meaningless two-point conversion. []
  2. It’s worth noting that the American Football League had the 2-point conversion, and several teams there took advantage of the rule. In a 1965 game against the Oilers, the great Hank Stram recognized the benefit in going for two earlier rather than later. Trailing 35-20 late in the game, Hank Stram had the Chiefs go for two after a Len Dawson touchdown pass to Curtis McClinton. Kansas City converted, cutting the lead to 35-28. On their next drive, Dawson hit Otis Taylor for a 9-yard score, and Stram really upped the ante then. Calling a Pete Beathard run, the Chiefs converted and took a 36-35 lead with just over a minute to go. Unfortunately for Stram, the Chiefs went into an ultra-prevent defense, and allowed the Oilers to drive down and kick a game-winning field goal. []
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