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.