It’s pretty clear that being an NFL head coach isn’t a very easy job. A light day at the office during the season runs about 16 hours. You have to manage and assuage the egos of 53 players, a fair number of whom make more money than you and have way better job security than you. For all the effort you might put into your process, you’re judged entirely by outcomes, some of which might very well be chalked up to players you didn’t want to draft in the first place. And then, when you make a decision in the heat of the moment on Sunday while surrounded by 70,000 fans and weighing hundreds of variables at once, some smart-ass who’s never coached a day in his life picks apart your decisions on Monday.
Doesn’t sound like fun. But Thank You for Not Coaching, the section of our Monday NFL wrapup column1 that breaks down the previous weekend’s coaching decisions, is not meant to be a harsh dismissal of coaching! It’s supposed to be educational, to provide some insight into what the different possibilities are in a given situation and how teams might be able to maximize their opportunities to win football games. I won’t pretend that it can’t get catty at times — sorry, Pat Shurmur — but I think about all the hours that coaches put in and all the collected knowledge they’ve gathered during their years on the job and hate to see them throw all that away by being ultra-conservative at the wrong time. Why make a suboptimal decision because it’s what has always been done?
It’s difficult to think out of the box in the middle of a game, which is why the time to really think about these somewhat-aggressive concepts is actually now, before the season even begins. So with that in mind, I’ve prepared a quick primer on the five situations in which many Sunday decision-makers often struggle to improve their team’s chances of winning. No strategy is perfect, as I’m sure it will be easy to find examples and counterexamples of each concept working or failing in a given game, but these logical implementations of historical observation each have some value in generally improving a coach’s chances of coming away with a W on game day. To be fair, in accordance with what I’ve heard from coaches around the league regarding some of these ideas, I’ll try to bring up some counterarguments against considering each of these concepts, too.
The Fourth-and-Goal Decision
Despite coaches having access to more information than ever before (including teams with full-time analytics departments), they’re also getting more and more conservative near the goal line. Last year, when teams faced a fourth down with goal-to-go inside the opposition’s 2-yard line, they kicked a field goal 59.3 percent of the time. In 2011, they were all the way up at 61.7 percent, a higher frequency than had been seen since 2000. Teams are supposed to be getting smarter, but somehow, they’re giving away points just when they need them most.
This is a really simple decision to understand. When teams kick a field goal, and they’ll hit just about 100 percent of the time here, they get three points. When they score a touchdown, they get seven points, including the extra point. Simple math tells us that if a team can convert on a fourth-down attempt 43 percent of the time, it is better off going for it than kicking a field goal.2 Since 1999, teams that have gone for it in this very situation have succeeded and scored a touchdown 50.7 percent of the time. That suggests you’ll score an average of 3.0 points by choosing to kick a field goal and 3.55 points every time you choose to go for it, meaning you leave more than a half-point on the field every time you kick in that situation.
But wait, there’s more! There’s a hidden benefit of going for it deep in the opposition’s territory: When you try to score, even if you fail, you retain excellent field position against an opposing team trapped near its own end zone. If you kick a field goal, you kick off to the other team, and the average kickoff with the new rules has resulted in a return to the 24-yard line. Assuming that your failed fourth-down attempt turns the ball over on the 2-yard line, you’re giving up an average of 22 yards in field position by taking the easy three as opposed to trying for the touchdown. The difference in expected points scored by a team when it takes over on the 2-yard line as opposed to the 24-yard line is another 0.61 points. Add that to our figure from earlier and you’re now throwing away 1.16 points every time you kick inside the 2-yard line.
It doesn’t sound like a lot, but those points can be valuable, even if you don’t succeed by going for it. In two recent Super Bowls, teams have failed on a fourth-down try deep in opposition territory late in the second quarter, only to come back and score on a quick drive shortly thereafter. The Saints did it in their win over the Colts by going for it on fourth-and-goal and failing, forcing a quick punt from a pressed-against-his–goal line Peyton Manning, and then kicking a field goal just before halftime. Last year, the Ravens went for a fake field goal on fourth down inside the red zone with 3:12 to go, and while they came up a yard short, they pushed the 49ers onto the 6-yard line and got a quick three-and-out of their own, getting them the ball back on their own 44-yard line with 2:07 to go. Three plays later, Jacoby Jones was in the end zone.
This decision only pops up about twice a year for each team, but it’s the most obvious example of a fourth-down decision-making process that should come into play far more frequently. With two yards or less to go for a first down in the red zone since 1999, teams have attempted a field goal 59.4 percent of the time. This is despite teams who have chosen to run a play on fourth-and-2 or less inside the red zone during that same time frame picking up the first down 58.4 percent of the time. Brian Burke’s handy fourth-down calculator uses historical win and point expectancy models to suggest that teams facing that fourth-and-2 in the red zone, past the 20-yard line, score an average of 2.34 points if they go for it in that situation and 1.80 points every time they attempt a field goal, which means they’re giving up better than a half-point each time. Your average NFL team will face about six of these situations a year; it’s like handing the other team more than a field goal over the course of a season just by being traditional. Why would you want to do that?
Coaching Arguments: There are a few here, some of which don’t hold up. One is that going for it and failing gives the other team momentum, which, very fortunately, I wrote about earlier this week. That doesn’t appear to be the case. The other common argument is that you don’t want to go on a long drive and end up with nothing, which doesn’t make very much sense. If that were the case and you were really worried about getting nothing, why wouldn’t you kick a field goal on first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line and take your virtually guaranteed three points before you might turn the ball over? Because you want to maximize the number of points you get from a given drive, right? Why does that stop on fourth down?
A couple other arguments hold more weight with me. I can understand teams that are hesitant to run near the goal line when they don’t have the personnel to do so, especially for those teams that don’t carry a traditional fullback. As enjoyable as it is to see various defensive tackles come into the game as blocking backs in goal-line situations, the truth is there’s a virtue to being a born-and-bred fullback, and those virtues sure seem more important when there’s little margin for error.
Most notably, the percentages above don’t apply to every situation, just an average one. You have to apply the percentages to your specific team. And, furthermore, the decisions to go for it were likely made by teams that were best positioned to be aggressive in those situations: offenses with a great short-yardage game and/or teams playing against a defense that was weak up front. That sort of selection bias makes sense, and it might very well be true that the “actual” success rate for teams on fourth-and-2 inside the red zone, if they went for it every time, would not be 58.4 percent. However, there’s such a large gap between the expected value of teams that go for it and the expected value for kicking that it seems obvious teams simply aren’t going for it frequently enough; they could succeed at a much lower rate and still be making a better choice to go for it. That equilibrium point — the point at which teams are choosing to run a play as opposed to kicking at an optimal rate — hasn’t yet been reached.
Timeouts Near the Two-Minute Warning
This one is way less theoretical and works best with a real-life example from last season. During Denver’s Week 2 loss to Atlanta, John Fox mismanaged the clock in a way that cost his team a few precious seconds. The Falcons had just picked up an enormous first down with 2:30 left in the game, up by six points, leaving the Broncos with one timeout and the two-minute warning to try to stop the clock. At that point, Fox’s only hope is to stop the Falcons on three plays and get the ball back with as much time as possible for Manning to make magic happen. His chances aren’t good, but as Broncos fans cruelly remember, anything can happen at the end of an NFL game.
Fox chose to let the clock run down to the two-minute warning and let the Falcons run a play before using his final timeout. Now, it seems fair to assume the Falcons will run the ball on each of the three downs, with each run play (and the fourth-down punt) taking five seconds from snap to whistle. If Fox doesn’t call a timeout, the Falcons will burn 39 seconds off the clock between each play. That gives the following times for each down:
Now, as you’ll see shortly, the optimal decision in this scenario is to use your timeout before the two-minute warning, as quickly as possible after the Julio Jones catch. Let’s pretend Fox called timeout immediately and used his final timeout at exactly 2:30. When does his team get the ball back now?
By calling his timeout immediately, Fox saves his team five seconds. That comes from the first-down play. When Fox calls his timeout before the two-minute warning, that play occurs during time Fox is otherwise giving away. If he uses it after the two-minute warning, it’s coming during time Fox is trying to save.
And, again, sure, five seconds doesn’t mean a whole lot. But who knows when five seconds is going to be the difference between, say, a lob into the end zone from 40 yards out and an actual diagrammed play from 20 yards away? Or when it will give a team sprinting up to the 5-yard line for a spike the chance to get one extra play off? Coaches devour film hoping to find some tiny advantage that will give their team a chance to win on Sunday. This is nothing different.
Coaching Arguments: Fox has made it to the Super Bowl, so he probably knows what he’s doing. And he does; he’s one of the most underrated head coaches in football. But this one is pretty cut-and-dried.
Don’t Put Your Two-Point Conversions in a Corner
Coaches go for the two-point conversion so infrequently that they really don’t ever think about it. They have a chart that tells them when to go for two, but they come up with arbitrary rules that don’t actually fit any scenario. Some coaches don’t go for two until the fourth quarter. Others wait even deeper; Mike Smith of the Falcons said last year that he doesn’t look at the two-point conversion chart until there are seven minutes left in the game, an arbitrary rule that nearly cost his team its playoff game against the Seahawks.
In that game, the Falcons were coasting, having just scored a third-quarter touchdown to go up 26-7, pending the extra-point try. Since the game had 17 minutes to go, Smith didn’t even think to go for two, lining up to kick an extra point. The Seahawks then went offside on two consecutive plays, moving the ball from the 2-yard line (where teams scored on 38.4 percent of their plays on any down last year) to the 1-yard line (at 56.2 percent now) and then, incredibly, to the half-yard line (the calculator just exploded). Even though Matt Ryan could have taken the snap and just shoved the ball forward with his hands to break the plane from 1.5 feet away, Smith still kicked an extra point to go up 27-7.
The benefits of a 20-point lead are murky: You’re still tied if the opposing team kicks two field goals and two touchdowns, I guess. A 21-point lead is much more tangible, and as it turned out, much more relevant, because the Seahawks proceeded to score three touchdowns and kick extra points during the next 16 minutes, which gave them a 28-27 lead with 34 seconds left, as opposed to the 28-28 tie that would almost surely have arisen if the Falcons had attempted a two-point conversion in that situation. The Falcons were able to piece together a quick drive and kick a game-winning field goal in that brief time, but if Matt Bryant misses his field goal with 13 seconds left, Smith’s simple decision to avoid his two-point chart until reaching an arbitrary game time would have cost his team its playoff life.
There’s a model that does a very good job of calculating the odds of when a team should go for two: The footballcommentary.com model uses history to chart the value of a given lead with a certain amount of time left and then creates breakeven expectations for when it’s better to go for two as opposed to kicking an extra point. In this case, Smith should have gone for two up 26-7 with 17 minutes left if he thought his team had a 34 percent chance of succeeding on the play. Atlanta had the league’s worst running game in “power” situations last year, but even it succeeded 39 percent of the time; it was a strong call from two yards out, and it was a gimme from a half-yard away.
Coaches shouldn’t have to look at a two-point chart for every touchdown, but there are a number of situations when it’s obvious to go for two at just about any point during the second half, some more so than others. Going for two when you’re down two points seems pretty clear. It’s also logical if you’re down 10 pending the extra point, since a two-pointer would make the game a possible one-possession contest, while an extra point would only really help by turning a tie into a win if you kick a field goal and score a touchdown (without having to attempt a two-pointer).
In all, the footballcommentary.com chart yields 11 score situations where a two-pointer is the right choice. They fit into a few simple categories. There’s the two-pointer to tie it up, for when you’re down two points after a touchdown. There’s the two-pointer that makes the opposing team score an additional touchdown to tie, which comes with leads of 5, 12, 19, and 26 points. There’s the two for a three-point margin, which comes up with a one-point lead and a five-point deficit, bringing you three points away from the other team in a situation when the alternative extra point is of little value. Then, there’s the two-pointer to eliminate a possession, which comes up when your team is trailing by 10, 13, and 18 points, which does exactly what it says it does: If you convert the two-pointer, you’ll need one fewer possession to tie. Finally, there’s the get to the two-pointer, which is when you’re down 16 and need to go for two on one of your three touchdowns. Remember those five basic rules and you won’t even need a chart.
Coaching Arguments: I’m not sure where the “only look after [arbitrary time]” rule came into play, but it’s pretty well kept by coaches and commentators at this point. That logic breaks down pretty quickly after you ask somebody to explain it at any great length. It’s understandable that you don’t want to chase a team’s particular score at a given time in the game because it’s likely to change, but if you’re going to be forward-thinking about that, you also have to be forward-thinking about those situations when you can protect your lead and dictate the other team’s desperation, as Smith failed to do in the Seahawks game.
Don’t Get “Field Goal Range” Twisted
It’s amazing to see what head coaches do once they enter the magical realm of their kicker’s “field goal range.” Even if they moved the ball steadily up the field with a number of easy passes to open receivers against a tired defense, they take the ball out of their quarterback’s hands and hand it to their running back, whom they instruct to keep the ball safe at all costs. They run the ball into the line three times, don’t gain more than a yard or two of field position, and force their kicker to kick from the spot where they entered his “range,” even if that’s a disadvantageous kick. It’s like Jesse Camp winning the MTV veejay job and turning into Kurt Loder the second he walked through the doors on his first day. Well, it’s not like that, but you get the idea. Jason Garrett does this a lot, which is why he might be more likely to be an MTV veejay than Cowboys head coach in a year.
The problem is that kickers don’t have a steady rate of success3 from every single spot within that range. Jeff Fisher fell in love with Greg Zuerlein’s big leg last season, but he took a few early-season hits from 50-plus yards and seemed to infer that Zuerlein was just as good from 55 as he was from 35. This simply is not the case. The chart below is a smoothed estimate of how successful field goal kickers will be on a given field goal attempt, given their performances over the past three seasons:
Here, you can see how just valuable a few yards can be in changing the likelihood of a successful kick. If a team gets the ball into the edge of what would be considered the range for any healthy NFL kicker — 48 yards — it can run the ball into the line three times for no gain, run clock, and expect to get a successful field goal about 67 percent of the time. If it can get just one more first down and turn it into a 38-yard attempt, its success rate rises all the way to 82 percent. That’s a pretty notable swing.
There’s also the possibility that you could accidentally stumble upon a win, too. Remember that crazy 49ers-Saints game from the playoffs a couple years back? The 49ers were down three points with 40 seconds left and completed a pass to Vernon Davis for 47 yards, giving them the ball on New Orleans’s 20-yard line. This was back when David Akers was great and Alex Smith was under center, so about 80 percent of the league’s coaches would have settled for a pretty easy field goal attempt and pushed the game into overtime. As an underdog,4 Jim Harbaugh knew he probably couldn’t trade punches with the Saints in a situation where a bad coin flip could have allowed the Saints to score a game-winning touchdown on the first series of overtime. So, he drove forward: Smith completed a pass for six yards on first down, spiked the ball on second down, and then threw a fateful touchdown pass to Davis on third down for the game-winning score. By being aggressive, Harbaugh won a game as opposed to simply extending it into overtime.
Coaching Arguments: The obvious risk here is of a turnover, but there’s a difference between balancing risk and reward and simply being risk-averse. If you have a quarterback who you trust enough to drive the team within the two-minute warning, can’t you also trust him enough to not turn the ball over or take a bad sack? And even if there’s the occasional situation when that happens without any recourse, there are also turnovers that come when a runner is trying to protect the ball with all his might; Ryan Williams had one while trying to kill clock against the Patriots just last season. Heck, you can even start kneeling and lose the ball, as Philip Rivers did on Monday Night Football two years ago. Either kick the first chance you get and leave time on the clock or keep genuinely trying to move the football forward until you’re in an advantageous kicking situation.
Don’t do it. The numbers say it doesn’t work. Coaches do it because it’s a free opportunity to influence a game: If they ice a made kick and then get a miss, they’re hailed as geniuses for forcing a re-kick. If the opposite happens and they ice a missed kick before allowing a make to go through on the second try, we talk about the game-winning kicker, not the stupid coach. This is another case when correlation (the “icing”) has nothing to do with causation (the kicker making or missing a kick). Just save the timeout. Even if you’re not going to use it, just donate it to charity after regulation is over.
Coaching Arguments: “But this one time … ” Anecdotal examples mean nothing here, because we see from the bigger picture that the kicks are independent events; there’s no relationship between icing and forcing missed kicks, which suggests that even when there’s a make, an icing, and a miss, the icing didn’t cause the miss.
Of course, there are underlying concepts here — focus on process and ignore outcomes; don’t confuse correlation and causation; scale your thinking to the big picture at the right time and the tiny one when it’s appropriate — that might be more valuable than any of these football examples. Regardless, if your head coach simply handled these five simple situations better, chances are your team would be better off in the long run. At the very least, he would be on the right side of Thank You for Not Coaching.