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Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

With just under five minutes left in last Sunday’s game against the Giants and his team trailing 27-20, Mike Smith went for it on 4th and 1 from his own 29 yard line. As was the case on repeated 4th down attempts the last time his team visited MetLife Stadium to face the Giants, the decision to be aggressive did not work out well. Matt Ryan was sacked for a nine-yard loss that effectively ended the game. If his previous behavior is any guide, Smith may learn the wrong lesson from that outcome and choose not to go for it again when the next similar opportunity arises. Smith illustrates better than any other coach the potential for fourth down failure to lead to future fourth down timidity.

Before those two failed Ryan fourth down sneaks against the Giants in that 2011 playoff game, Smith actually was one of the more enlightened coaches on fourth down strategy. From 2008-2011, Smith was the third-most aggressive coach of the last twenty years, at least according to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index. Dating Smith’s turning point is a little tough. He got burned going for it in Week 10 of the 2011 regular season, when he tried a sneak on 4th and inches from his own 29 in overtime against the Saints. He punted in a couple of situations where he usually went for it late in the 2011 season, but then was aggressive closer in against the Giants. By the 2012 regular season, Smith hadn’t just abandoned his prior tendency for aggressive strategy. He entirely reversed it. In 2012, he was the least aggressive coach in football, only going for it once in 91 qualifying fourth-down tries. He was similarly passive in 2013. His fourth down decision last Sunday was surprising given that trend.

To see Smith’s evolution on fourth down strategy, consider his decisions on 4th and 3 or less when between the opponent’s 10- and 40-yard lines. To consider only situations where there was a real choice while keeping things as simple as possible, I look only at first-half decisions along with third-quarter decisions where the margin was ten points or less. [click to continue…]

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Fourth Down Conservatism Rules Week 3

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team.

It’s become trendy in this space and many others for stats folks to rail against bad 4th down decisions. It’s even trendier to do it when those conservative decisions backfire, leading to losses. But analyzing any decision — and especially decisions about whether to go for it or kick on 4th down — should not be done with the benefit of hindsight. So today, I’m going to rail against John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and Mike McCoy, who made some awfully timid 4th down decisions but won on Sunday. And while one could argue that they won because of those decisions, the better argument, I believe, is that they won in spite of them.

Trailing by 4 with 5:03 remaining, the Ravens kick a Field Goal on the 3-yard line

Harbaugh is no stranger to meek 4th down decision making; in fact, he’s no stranger to this particular brand of conservative coaching. Last year, he sent out the kicker when, trailing by 6 points with just over four minutes remaining in the game, the Ravens faced a 4th and 5 from the 6 yard line. Both Jason Lisk and I wrote about the silliness of this decision, which resulted in a Buffalo 23-20 victory.

Facing similar circumstances — a 4-point lead and an extra minute remaining makes it less objectionable to kick the field goal, but being on the 3-yard line makes it even worse — Harbaugh again sent out Justin Tucker to take the points.  That decision cost the Ravens 0.22 expected wins; according to Advanced Football Analytics, the decision to kick a field goal instead of going for it dropped Baltimore’s win probability from 54% to 32%.

As Mike Tanier facetiously wrote, this just set up the ultimate Ravens end game: one bomb from Joe Flacco and one kick by Tucker is all the team would need to win.  Sure enough, Flacco hit Steve Smith for a 32-yard catch, and Tucker kicked the chip shot for the win.  The Ravens wound up having two additional possessions: after Tucker made it a 1-point game, the Browns and Ravens traded 3-and-outs, and the Browns went 3-and-out again before giving Baltimore one final possession with 1:58 remaining.

At the time of the decision to send Tucker out for a field goal, Brian Hoyer was 19 of 22 for 290 yards and a touchdown. He wound up throwing incomplete on his last three passes of the day. But if not for two Cleveland three-and-outs — the only two of the day — Harbaugh’s decision to cost his team 22 points of win probability would be generating much more backlash today. [click to continue…]

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Chip Kelly, Bill Belichick and Riverboat Ron (née Rivera) are the three coaches most associated with aggressive fourth down decisions. In week 15, all three faced a key fourth down decision, and each situation provided a good teaching moment.

Philadelphia goes for it on 4th and 1 on their own 24, down by 15, 3rd quarter, 6:26 remaining

This was an unconventional decision, but pretty clearly the right one. Here’s what Kelly said after the game:

“I thought we could’ve made it, and I also thought if we don’t make it we’re in trouble,” Kelly said. “If we can’t get half-a-yard, maybe it tells you what the day’s all about. But you’ve gotta think at 4th-and-half-a-yard we can get half-a-yard. They didn’t blitz. It wasn’t like there was an all-out coming at us. We need to come off the ball and get some movement at the point of attack and dig ourselves out of that hole right there. We hadn’t gotten anything going at that point in time so hoping we could jump-start something there.”

The bold decision did not pay off when LeSean McCoy was stopped on 4th-and-inches, and that failure enabled the leaders of the conservative moment to begin crowing. Going for it on 4th down is no guarantee, but from 2010 to 2013, runs on 4th-and-1 have converted 68.6% of the time (excluding runs in the red zone). And one would think a dominant rushing team like Philadelphia would be in much better shape. Philadelphia leads the league in both rushing yards and yards per carry, while the Vikings have a below-average run defense. According to Advanced NFL Stats, Philadelphia should have gone for it if the team had a 50% chance of conversion, and the Eagles probably had a 75% chance of converting here.

But the frustrating part of the analysis is that the anti-stats movement claimed that it was “too early” for Philadelphia to go for it. As a general rule, it is never too early to go for it on 4th-and-inches, and that applies even more strongly when talking about the Eagles offense.
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A comforting image

A comforting image.

Last night, the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 34-22. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Cardinals trailed 31-13, and faced 4th-and-goal from the Seattle four-yard line. Bruce Arians elected to kick a 22-yard field goal in that situation, which cut the lead from 18 to 15 points. On opening night, John Harbaugh made a similar decision trailing by 18 on 4th-and-4, although there was only 5:33 remaining (making it even less acceptable) and the ball was not at the four, but at the twelve-yard line (making it more acceptable).

Kicking a field goal down by 18 this late in the game is a poor decision unless it’s fourth and impossible. Since 1940, do you know how many teams have kicked a field goal, when trailing by 18 or more points in the second half, and went on to win the game? THREE. The “They Are Who We Thought They Were” game, when Chicago kicked a 23-yard field goal down 20-0 midway through the third quarter. After that field goal, Mike Brown, Charles Tillman, and Devin Hester scored touchdowns for the Bears, which doesn’t seem like the best model to follow in the future since none of those players played offense.

In 1998, the Rams kicked a field goal in Buffalo to make it 28-13 in the third quarter, ultimately winning 34-33 on a touchdown run in the final seconds. And in 1996, in Bill Parcells’ return to the Meadowlands to face the Giants, Adam Vinatieri kicked a third-quarter field goal down 22-0, and then Terry Glenn, Dave Meggett (on a punt return), and Ben Coates scored fourth quarter touchdowns.

You know what hasn’t happened? A team kicking a field goal, down by 18 or more points in the fourth quarter, and going on to win the game. Including the two teams this year, 117 teams since 1940 have kicked a fourth quarter field goal when trailing by more than 17 points, and none of them have ever won. I know, trailing by 18, it’s so comforting to kick a field goal and think “hey look, all we need to do is stop them, score a touchdown, stop them again, score a touchdown, convert a two-point conversion, and then win in overtime.” But that’s never, ever happened before.
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Trailing in the 4th quarter, send out the kicker!

John Harbaugh things this guy needs as much PT as possible

John Harbaugh things this guy needs as much PT as possible.

Through four weeks, there have been 28 cases where a team, trailing in the 4th quarter, sent in the kicker or the punter. In general, that’s a pretty low rate — it’s just under once every two games. But while going for it on 4th down isn’t always the right decision when trailing in the 4th quarter, even 28 kicks/punts is too many.

Twelve of those 28 plays were field goal attempts, and all were successful.  Four kicks were to tie or take the lead, but only one of them — Rian Lindell’s 37-yarder, trailing by one point with 38 seconds remaining in week one against the Jets was an obviously correct decision (not that Greg Schiano’s conservative play-calling on the prior three plays deserves the same treatment). Two other kicks were noncontroversial: Facing 4th-and-9 from the Vikings 11, trailing by 10 with 3:40 remaining, I don’t blame Mike Tomlin for sending in the kicker. Even more obvious: Jeff Fisher having Greg Zuerlein kick a 38-yard field goal on 4th and 8 from the Arizona 20, trailing by 3, with 9 minutes left in the game. What about the other 9 field goal decisions? Let’s start first with four end-game strategic blunders:

1) John Harbaugh sent out Justin Tucker to kick a 30-yard field goal on 4th and 4 trailing by 18 with 5:33 remaining at the Broncos 12-yard line. Yes, Harbaugh thought Baltimore’s best chance of winning was to kick a field goal, stop Denver, score a touchdown, stop Denver, score another touchdown, convert the two-point attempt, and then win in overtime. Even though a 30-yard field goal is close to automatic, this one is pretty easy to analyze.  In both situations, you need to stop Denver twice and score two more touchdowns. So the question becomes, it is easier to:

    (a) kick a 30-yard field goal and (assuming the other events all unfold in your favor) then have only a 1-in-4 chance of winning (i.e., convert on the 2-pointer and win in overtime); or
    (b) score a touchdown on a drive at the Denver 12, facing 4th and 4?

2) Mike Smith had Matt Bryant kick a 25-yard field goal with 3 minutes to go, trailing by 10 against New England, facing 4th and 1 at the Patriots 7-yard line.

This one is not terrible, but I agree with Bill Barnwell’s analysis that going for it would have been the preferred move. Note that you don’t need the benefit of hindsight: Jason Lisk correctly predicted in real time that by going conservative on 4th-and-1, Atlanta would have to go for it (and fail) in a more challenging 4th down play later in the game.
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Did you know these two are brothers?

Did you know these two are brothers?

John Harbaugh is a Super Bowl-winning head coach. He might represent the new archetype for owners when it comes to hiring a head coach. He outcoached his brother in Super Bowl XLVII. But that doesn’t mean his fourth down decisions on Thursday Night were above criticism.

1) Punting is not the way to beat Manning

Facing 4th and 5 from the Broncos 40-yard line, Harbaugh elected to punt up 14-7 with 8 minutes left in the second quarter. Last year, I highlighted one of the most difficult fourth down decisions coaches have to make: 4th-and-7 from between the 34- and 38-yard lines. In the thin air of Denver and with strong-legged Justin Tucker, we can safely include this scenario in that definition of No Man’s Land. Facing 4th-and-5 is a lot easier than 4th-and-7, so going for it would have been my preferred choice. The Ravens elected to punt, but let’s consider the other two options.
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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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What to do on 4th-and-7 in No Man’s Land

You went to Harvard, help me out on this

You went to Harvard, help me out on this.

Twice in close games in the last month, an NFL team has arrived at a three-way junction with seemingly no desirable path. In each case, the team faced a 4th and 7 from so-called ‘no man’s land.’

On November 25th, trailing the Atlanta Falcons 24-23, the Buccaneers had the ball on 4th and 7 from the Atlanta 38-yard line with just over three minutes remaining. Greg Schiano had all his timeouts left but faced a very difficult decision.

On Sunday, with 12 minutes remaining and a 12-7 lead, Chan Gailey’s Bills faced a 4th-and-7 from the St. Louis 34-yard-line. It’s worth noting — in part because it was notable to Gailey — that minutes earlier, Buffalo scored a touchdown but Shawn Powell botched the extra point, preventing Buffalo from going up 13-7. I suppose we could dwell on the fact that up 5 with 20 minutes left in the game after scoring a touchdown is an obvious scenario that calls for going for two, but let’s not do that in this post.

In Tampa Bay, Schiano attempted a 56-yard field goal. In Buffalo, with rain but wind at his back, the Bills sent on the field goal unit but then changed their mind and chose to punt, with the botched snap from minutes earlier apparently being a factor in the decision.

Who was right? Who was wrong? If you think this post is just a bunch of words I needed to type to show off a really cool graphic, you’re right. Take a look at this chart Brian Burke made to tell you what to do on 4th down generally:

At the 35-yard-line facing 4th and 7 is not a desirable situation, but Burke does say you should go for it. If you are a few yards closer to the end zone and it’s 4th and 8, then kicking is the advised course of action, while punting is best reserved for more dire circumstances.

What do teams actually do? This year, 15 times a team has faced a 4th-and-7 from between the 34- and the 38-yard lines. Nine times the team chose to kick the field goal, with teams hitting on 5 of those 9; Nick Folk missed from 52 but made from 54, Josh Brown hit from 52, Matt Prater from 53, Robbie Gould from 54, and Sebastian Janikowski from 55, while Dan Bailey and Janikowski missed from 54. The 9th example was in Tampa Bay, where Connor Barth missed from 56 yards out.

As you might expect if you have watched an NFL game before, coaches who chose not to kick the field goal did not entirely embrace the idea of going for it. Twice the Bills sent Shawn Powell out to punt (net of 29 and 24 yards), twice a team punted the ball out of the end zone (Pat McAfee, Dave Zastudil), and Andy Lee pinned the Rams on their four-yard-line with a 33-yard punt.

There was one coach who chose to go for it. It was Marvin Lewis, that beacon of wisdom in a cavernous field of conservative coaches. In the first quarter, trailing 3-0 to the Chiefs, first Lewis called a fake punt and when the drive stalled on the Kansas City 36, he chose to go for it. Andy Dalton scrambled for 11 yards, the Bengals would score a touchdown three plays later, and Cincinnati would go on to win the game, 28-6.

So what is the right call in the NFL’s version of the Bermuda triangle? The first answer is “it depends.” All these league average stats and theories have caveats which are easy to ignore in obvious situations. In close situations, like this one, all those caveats apply. Is it windy or raining? Are you in a dome? How good is your quarterback? What’s the score? How much time is left? And on and on.

Here are my thoughts for the two examples in this post.

  • Schiano made the wrong call, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. I’d say Barth had something resembling a 50/50 shot of converting that field goal, but what is the upside if he does? You now have a one-point lead against the Falcons with 3:30 to go and they have the ball. That’s not exactly a desirable scenario. According to Burke, the league average team has a 48% chance of winning if they have 1st and down on their own 22 with 3:30 left and trailing by one point. But this was not a situation involving league average teams. Matt Ryan has led the NFL in 4th quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in two of the last three years. He ranks 10th in ANY/A and 3rd in completion percentage, which might actually matter when your only real goal is gaining 10 yards every four plays. To make matters worse, despite an incredible run defense, Tampa Bay ranks 32nd in both passing yards allowedand net yards per attempt allowed.

    If there were six minutes left, maybe this is a different story, but I think there was too little time left to give up the ball like that. You’ve got Josh Freeman — who ranks 4th in ANY/A — going against a mediocre Falcons pass defense. I’d go for it in that situation, because your best path to victory is to gain 7-10 yards and then bleed the clock before kicking the game-winning field goal. I’ll also add this: to the extent that you want to bank on your opponent’s conservatism, punting is not as bad of an option as you might think. If you can down the punt inside the 10, and feel confident that Atlanta would run it three times, then you’re in pretty good. If successful, you would get the ball back with about 3 minutes left (remember, Tampa Bay had all three timeouts) and basically place yourself in that positive situation the Falcons would have been in if the Bucs hit the field goal, except Tampa would have been about 25 yards closer. Of course, I have no idea how much you can count on your opponent being conservative: that would depend on the opponent.
  • While the clock was the most important variable in the Tampa game, it wasn’t a huge factor in Buffalo. The Bills led by 5 points with 12 minutes to go. In this case, the Bills were at the 34, not the 38, which tilts towards the field goal and away from the punt. On the other hand, there were weather issues at play. In a rare twist, Burke’s calculator essentially has all three options as even, with the Bills having a 77-78% win probability regardless of whether they chose to punt, kick, or go for it. The Bills have a slightly below average passing offense and the Rams a slightly above average passing defense, but neither factor is particular strong. This is one of the closest calls I can think of, as I see good arguments for all three options. The Bills punted and pinned the Rams inside the five, so Chan Gailey won’t face too much criticism.

    But while extending a lead from 5 to 8 points doesn’t sound like much, it actually has a significant impact. Down by 8, you need to do a bunch of things well and then convert a two-point conversion and then win in overtime, and those two events only happen 25% of the time. Down by 5 you just need to do a bunch of things well. The weather is an important factor here — Rian Lindell said the wind was at his back, which maybe makes the weather a nonfactor even if it was raining, cold, and windy. In field goals from the 33-, 34-, or 35-yard line since 2009, NFL kickers have been successful 62% of the time. Again, the conditions are a huge variable here, but I think I would have trusted my kicker in this case.
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McKayla Maroney is not impressed.

Lane Kiffin is not a very good coach, and that’s putting it mildly. He’s one of the most hated men in college football and he’s the face of a USC team that has had the worst season of any preseason favorite since at least 1964. With a 7-5 record, no one is defending Lane Kiffin. And given the various ways he mismanaged the clock against Notre Dame, nobody can defend his performance in that game.

But let’s puts everything aside — Kiffin for being Kiffin, the fact that USC had 1st and goal from the Notre Dame 2 with over 5 minutes remaining and then proceeded to waste over 150 seconds of clock — and look at one particular decision. Facing 4th and goal from the Notre Dame 1-yard line, trailing by 9 points with 2:33 left, Kiffin decided to go for it.

This clearly defies conventional wisdom, and when the move failed, it opened him up to even more criticism. But was it the right call? According to Brian Burke, if this had been an NFL game, the correct call would have been to kick the field goal.

That may not surprise traditionalists, but readers of this blog and Advanced NFL Stats may be surprised to find that, according to the 4th Down Calculator, when trailing by 9 with 2:33 remaining, you need an 87% chance of converting to make going for it the correct call. (I will note that if you are trailing by 10, things change dramatically and going for it is the correct play.)

But this was not an NFL game. Burke’s model is based on two assumptions that are relevant here: one, the team has an average number of timeouts remaining, and two, that the clock will stop with 2:00 to go. USC had one timeout left (which is probably below average for this situation) and there is no two-minute warning in college football. So it’s likely that using 2:33 is not the correct number to use the 4th down calculator for college.

If you use 2:33 remaining, you need an 87% chance of converting to make going for it the correct call.

But, according to the same model, if you use 2:03, it drops to 64%.

If you use 1:33, it drops to 13%.

Obviously figuring out which input to use is very important. However, let’s think about it in a different context.

If USC scores a touchdown and does not onside kick (which I don’t think they do), ND gets the ball at roughly the 25-yard line with 2:25 left. On 1st and 10, they run, USC calls timeout, and there is 2:20 left. On second down, Notre Dame runs, 40 seconds tick off, and there is 1:35 left. Rinse, repeat, and Notre Dame punts with 50 seconds left. This means USC gets the ball with roughly 40 seconds left at say, their own 45.

Here college football’s rules benefit the Trojans because the clock stops momentarily on first downs. At this point, it comes down to this:
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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.

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Scott Kacsmar posted an interesting article yesterday, noting that teams are punting or kicking on 4th down in 2012 more frequently than at any other time in the last 20 years. So far in 2012, just 1.27% of all plays are 4th down attempts.

Scott also noted that teams have been less aggressive on 4th and 1. I wanted to tweak some of Scott’s cutoffs and see if the results changed. I look at all 4th-and-1s since 2000, but limited the data to just weeks 1-10 and the first three quarters of the game. This year, teams have gone for it 56 times in these situations, gaining a first down 75% of the time.

The table below shows how often teams punted, kicked a field goal, or went for it on 4th and 1. The fifth column shows the conversion rate when teams did choose to try to get the first down, and the next two columns display the run to pass ratio (scrambles are included as runs). The final two columns show the success rates by run and by pass.

Year
Punt
Field Goal
Go For It
Conv Rt
Run %
Pass %
Run ConRt
Pass ConRt
201254.3%16%29.8%75%76.8%23.2%76.7%69.2%
201148.7%23.3%28%61.9%83.3%16.7%60%71.4%
201050%11.1%38.9%68.3%76.2%23.8%72.9%53.3%
200946.8%10.5%42.6%61.7%76.5%23.5%64.5%52.6%
200847.3%12.1%40.6%70.1%80.6%19.4%74.1%53.8%
200745.3%14.1%40.6%69.6%84.1%15.9%72.4%54.5%
200647.2%18.1%34.7%70.1%74.6%25.4%76%52.9%
200549.1%10.9%40%66.7%84.8%15.2%66.1%70%
200452%12.1%35.8%69.4%83.9%16.1%69.2%70%
200347.7%15.5%36.8%73.7%87.7%12.3%74%71.4%
200248.5%16.8%34.7%69%82.8%17.2%75%40%
200152.1%14.1%33.7%69.1%83.6%16.4%73.9%44.4%
200045.5%21.3%33.1%72.9%81.4%18.6%75%63.6%
Avg48.8%15.1%36.1%69%81%19%71.5%57.9%

It is a bit odd to see that teams seem less willing to try to convert on 4th-and-1 in 2012 than they were a decade ago. Why do you think that is?

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Would you trust this man?

Most criticisms of 4th down calls spring when teams fail to go for it on 4th down and instead punt or kick a field goal. It is much rarer for stat geeks to cry out for a field goal attempt instead of a punt, and for good reason: field goals aren’t that valuable.

One reason for that: a field goal isn’t really worth 3 points; historical data tells us that a field goal is really worth 2.4 points. That’s because the other team gets the ball following a kickoff, on average, at the 26- or 27-yard line, and possession on 1st and 10 there is worth +0.6 points to that team. Therefore, a touchdown is really worth 6.4 points and a field goal worth 2.4 points, making a touchdown 2.67, and not 2.33, times as valuable as a field goal.

(It’s worth noting that, according to Jim Armstrong of Football Oustiders, since the rules changes last year on kickoffs, the average field position following a kickoff was 22.2 last year and 22.0 so far this season. Teams are at +0.4 in that situation, so a touchdown might now be worth 6.6 points and a field goal 2.6 points.)

Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen faced an interesting decision in the first quarter of the game against Atlanta last Sunday. On their second drive of the game, Oakland ran Darren McFadden for 8 yards on 3rd and 16 from the Atlanta 48. Facing 4th and 8 from the 40, Allen chose to punt.

In retrospect, it’s easy to criticize the decision. Shane Lechler’s punt went for a touchback, giving Oakland just 20 additional yards of field position, and after one play, the Falcons were already on the Raiders’ 39-yard line. And, of course, the Raiders lost by 3 in a game where Atlanta’s Matt Bryant nailed a 55-yarder to win the game.

But we can’t look at the outcome when analyzing Allen’s decision. What was the right call? We should probably start by acknowledging that, as a technically matter, the numbers say you should go for it. Considering the fact that the Raiders were an underdog, and that Oakland has (compared to the rest of their team) a pretty good passing game, and Atlanta has (compared to the rest of their team) a weak pass defense, going for it becomes an even more attractive option. But let’s put that to the side for now.

What are the odds of Janikowski hitting from 58 yards away? This season, kickers are 9 of 14 from 55+ yards out, although none have been attempted by Janikowski. Normally I would advise against using such a small sample size, but kickers this year seem to be deadlier than ever from long range. On the other hand, Janikowski is just 4/15 on kickers form 57+ yards over the last five and a half years. Even if you remove the 64, 65 and 66 yard attempts he missed, that’s still just a 33% rate. On the other hand, only two of those came in a dome — two misses in the span of two minutes in a game in New Orleans in 2008. My gut tells me that Janikowski is pretty close to even money in this situation in 2012, but I’m not sure how precise we can get.

But what we *can* do is figure out what the minimum percentage likelihood of success he needs to be at to make kicking the field goal the right call. According to Brian Burke, a missed field goal is worth -1.9 points to the Raiders, since the Falcons would get the ball at midfield, while a punt is worth +0.04 points to the punting team (presumably based on the other team getting the ball at their own 13-yard line).

There breakeven point where you should be indifferent between kicking and punting is therefore 45% (0.45 * 2.4 + 0.55 * -1.9 = +0.04). That seems to make it a pretty neutral decision. Given the fact that the Raiders were a heavy underdog, it’s pretty easy to argue that a 45% chance of 2.4 points (and a 55% chance of -1.9 points) is better than a 100% chance of being in a +0.04 situation. Underdogs need to take aggressive tactics, and this would have been an advisable decision. Of course, the more aggressive strategy with the highest reward would have been to go for it, although the presence of Janikowski does seem to argue in favor of kicking.

This wasn’t a particularly easy decision — or, given the context of the game, a particularly important one. Coaches make far worse decisions every Sunday. I do think in that situation, punting was the worst of the three options available for the Raiders.

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[Note: I'm scheduled to appear on The Bobby Curran Show on ESPN 1420 at just after 12:30 today. If you're interested, you can listen here.]

Mike Tomlin can't see why going for it on 4th down is so unconventional.

If you weren’t watching the Steelers-Raiders game, you probably didn’t hear about Mike Tomlin’s gutsy call late in the 4th quarter. That’s because it worked.

On 3rd-and-1 with 4:34 remaining in a tie game, Pittsburgh had the ball at their own 29-yard line. The Steelers ran Isaac Redman over the left guard for no gain, leaving them in a precarious position. According to Brian Burke, immediately following Redman’s run, Pittsburgh had just a 34% chance of winning the game. This makes sense, because on average, punts from the 29-yard line end up with the other team gaining possession at their own 33-yard line (net of 38 yards). This conforms with Burke’s win probability model, which states that a team with 1st and 10 at their own 33 with 3:45 remaining has a 66% chance of winning.

That’s just the average, though. What about the specific teams in this case? Pittsburgh has a rookie punter, so we probably shouldn’t assume anything better would happen if they punted. The biggest variable in the Raiders’ favor was the presence of Sebastian Janikowski, an uber kicker who appears capable of connecting from anywhere on the opponent’s side of the field. Since 2010, Janikowski is 12-of-18 from 50-yards or more, including a miss from 65; on average, those 18 kicks were 55-yard attempts. Essentially, if the Raiders got 30 yards after the punt, they would have had a very good chance of winning the game.

Of course, the Steelers defense is generally one of the best in the league, even without Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. The Raiders had scored 3 touchdowns and a field goal on their prior 4 drives, although we shouldn’t let a small sample size persuade us too much. Additionaly, the Steelers would go three-and-out after converting the 4th down, and the Raiders ended up driving down the field and kicking the game-winning field goal, anyway. Again, it’s tempting to consider this when determining the Raiders’ odds of winning following a punt, but that’s the sort of logic I would rally against if the circumstances were different.

My gut tells me the Raiders being at home, having a pretty decent offense, and a super kicker would outweight the fact that generally Pittsburgh has a very good defense. So at a minimum, I’d argue that a Steelers punt gives the Raiders a 66% chance of winning.

If Pittsburgh converted, they’d probably have the ball somewhere between their own 30 and 35-yard lines; ironically, right where the Raiders ended up having the ball. That makes the calculus pretty easy: Pittsburgh would have a 66% chance of winning if they converted. You might argue that their odds would be greater, because of the presence of Ben Roethlisberger and a strong passing attack and considering Oakland’s pass defense is suspect. I’m sure Steelers fans were very confident that they would win the game after converting on 4th-and-1, but taking the conservative approach would say Pittsburgh had “only” a 66-percent chance of winning if they converted.

Now what were the odds of converting? As always, you can trade a larger sample for a more precise one, and determining the appropriate cutoff is tricky. I looked at all plays in the second half or overtime of games where the team had 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field. I also limited this to games where the team was trailing by 3 or fewer, tied, or winning, to make sure that defenses were truly focused. That left 64 examples from ’00 to ’11.

Teams converted 48 of the 64 attempts, or exactly 75% of the time. On average the teams gained 2.8 yards with a median gain of 2 yards. 55 of the 64 times the team ran the ball, with 44 of those being successful (80%). Only 4 of the 9 passes were successful, although the quarterbacks in the misses (Ryan Leaf, Byron Leftwich, Jason Campbell, Gus Frerotte and Alex Smith) leave something to be desired.

If we increase the sample to any 4th-and-1 attempt outside of the opponent’s 30 (so the first 70 yards of the field for the offense), teams converted 67% of the time. Let’s split the difference and give Pittsburgh a 70% chance of converting.

Facing 4th-and-1, Pittsburgh has a 70% chance of getting a 66% chance of winning the game; that means they have a 46% chance of converting the 4th-and-1 and of then winning the game. This ignores the possibility of Pittsburgh missing the 4th-and-1 and still winning the game, which is clearly non-zero. And remember, if they punt, they have only a 34% chance of winning. Even if we force them to automatically lose if they don’t convert, they still are more likely to win the game by going for it. In fact, they only need to convert half of the time on 4th-and-1 to make it a break-even proposition, and that’s still ignoring the possibility of failing and still winning.

What are the odds of that? With just under 4 minutes left, maybe not as bad as you think. If Oakland has the ball at the Steelers’ 29-yard line, they are extremely unlikely to be able to run out the clock. Pittsburgh called its first timeout before the 4th-down decision, meaning the Steelers still would have had 2 timeouts left if they could not gain one yard. Odds are the Raiders play it pretty conservatively and kick a field goal, and the Steelers have 2 minutes to go to kick a field goal to force overtime (or score a touchdown). That’s hardly a hopeless position in which to be.

Based on past history, Oakland would have had an 82% chance — not 100% — of winning if they had the ball at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line with 3:45 left in the game. Oakland’s odds would be higher because of Janikowski, although that would be counterbalanced by Pittsburgh having one of the best quarterbacks in the league in the two minute drill.

Add it all up, and it becomes a pretty obvious call… unless you’re risk averse. If Pittsburgh punts, they have just a 34% chance of winning, maybe even lower because of Janikowski. If Pittsburgh is successful, they are the team with the 66% chance of winning; if they miss, they still have an 18% chance of winning, based on having a small chance of winning in regulation and a decent chance of still going to overtime based on the amount of time remaining. Note that if there was one minute left, Pittsburgh’s odds of winning drop to just 9% if they don’t convert, but with nearly 4 minutes to go, they would not be out of the game if they failed. Considering a 70% success rate on 4th and 1, and they would have a 52% chance (66% x 70% + 18% x 30%) of winning they game if they went for it. In other words, punting it on 4th and 1 would drop Pittsburgh’s odds of winning from 52% to 34%, making this a significant and obvious decision for Tomlin.

To make punting the better decision, you would really need to skew the odds. If you have the utmost faith in your defense, perhaps you think the Raiders having the ball at their own 33-yard line with 3:45 to go doesn’t make them the favorite to win. If you view that as a coin-flip game — a pretty difficult proposition to believe — Pittsburgh would *still* benefit by going for it, since their win probability was 52%.

It also would have been wise to go for it if they were winning by 1 or 2 points… or even 3 points. A larger lead and it gets a little cloudy, but this is not much different than Bill Belichick’s decision against the Colts a few years ago. At the end of the game, especially in today’s high-octane NFL, you don’t want to be in a close game without the ball.

And as you can see, converting the 4th down was one of the biggest swings in the game. Take a look at Brian Burke’s win probability graph:

I said it was an obvious call unless you’re risk averse. As we all know, NFL coaches think conservatives are very liberal. On the surface this wasn’t a unique situation, but when you try to find comparables, you have to limit yourself. Since 2000, I looked at all situations where a team faced 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field, in a game where they were leading by 8 or less (or were tied), and with between 2 and 6 minutes remaining. There were only 20 situations like that, and 18 times the teams punted. The two other times? One came in week 17 for the Steelers in the game where Jamal Lewis crossed the 2000-yard mark and Pittsburgh was trying to close the curtain on a 6-10 season. A year after “4th and 2“, Bill Belichick went at it again against the Chargers. With exactly 2 minutes to go and the ball at the Patriots 49, New England ran it on 4th and 1. They missed, but went to win after Kris Brown could not connect on a 50-yard field goal.

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