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This Game of Inches

Despite all the Monday-morning quarterbacking of Falcons coach Mike Smith, you'd be surprised to learn he made the right call

This space is normally reserved for terrible coaching decisions. Let’s have a real good time this week and focus on some of the week’s braver and more appealing decisions. Obviously, we’ll start with Falcons head coach Michael Smith, who made the curious decision to attempt a fourth-and-several-inches conversion from his own 29-yard line with almost 11 minutes left in overtime.

When Michael Turner was stuffed and the Saints promptly kicked a game-winning field goal, it created the perfect culture for reactionary criticism. It hit almost every checkbox. It was an uncommon decision! The Falcons didn’t need to go for it! It put them in a spot where they would probably lose if they failed! It’s not what coaches are supposed to do!

Was it the right decision? It’s up for debate. Certainly, going for it on fourth-and-very-short from your own 29-yard line in overtime isn’t something that should happen very frequently, if ever. But if there were ever going to be a situation that called for such a move, this would be it. The Saints, as we’ve mentioned during the past couple of weeks, have the worst run defense in football, allowing in excess of five yards per carry. They have allowed teams to succeed 80 percent of the time in power situations,1 the third-worst rate in football. And while the Falcons have been just 26th in the league when running in those situations, they’d attempted to run for a first down on four different occasions during the game, including a fourth-and-1 situation in the third quarter. They had successfully converted each of them for first downs, even picking up another conversion on a fourth-and-3 during their final drive in regulation with a throw to Roddy White. When they had needed a yard during the game, the Falcons had been able to get it without much difficulty. Four plays isn’t a large sample size by any means, but combine that with the Saints’ struggles in these situations and it’s possible to see why the Falcons would be confident enough to go for it in that spot.

Keeping the ball away from Brees was also a pretty fair motivator. Although the Saints punted during their first drive in overtime, Brees had led four drives of 50 yards or more among his 10 regulation possessions, and the only reason that figure wasn’t higher came to a case of the dropsies from Jimmy Graham during the first half. The Falcons held the Saints to a three-and-out just twice during regulation. There was no guarantee whatsoever that the Falcons were getting the ball back, and if you’re the kind that says, “Well, they stopped them on the first drive in overtime,” you can’t then throw away the fact that the Falcons hadn’t been stopped with a yard to go.

Should the Falcons have run a quarterback sneak? Probably. The first four runs had been from their halfback, but they only needed a fraction of a yard; once you get the slightest push forward and move into the great mass of humanity, you’re probably going to get marked ahead with forward progress and pick up the first down. Refs are far more likely to give a first down in that situation than they are to decide a game with a bad spot, which is why quarterback sneaks succeeded 83 percent of the time last year. Carries by running backs in those same spots only converted 66 percent of the time. It would have even been a good time to run the not-yet-seen double-fake-snap play, where you go up to the line and shout out the hard count to make the opposing team think that you’re just trying to draw them offsides, only to then actually run the play with a couple of seconds left on the clock. That is a money play waiting to happen.

In fact, when you run the numbers with a Win Probability analysis that doesn’t adjust for the specific teams involved, as Brian Burke did on advancednflstats.com, the move rates out as a slight positive. The Falcons have a 47 percent chance of winning the game by going for it and a 42 percent chance of winning by punting. Part of that calculus is that the Falcons would still have an 18 percent chance of winning even after a failed conversion, mainly because teams often run the ball into the line for no gain and attempt a long field goal when they get just inside the 30-yard line during overtime.2 When you simultaneously consider just how bad the New Orleans run defense has been this year, it’s really not a bizarre decision from Smith. Just an unconventional one.

Thank You for … Coaching?

Smith wasn’t the only one with the gusto to make some bold decisions. We again pay praise this week to the world’s greatest coach, 49ers head honcho Jim Harbaugh. If there were some sort of Tiger Beat knockoff that had pinup posters of coaches looking at their play charts or sipping diet soda in the boxes upstairs, Harbaugh would be plastered all over our wall. Nobody in the league even comes close to managing his assets and making intelligent decisions the way Harbaugh does.

Of course, it starts with the unexpected onside kick that Harbaugh called at the end of the second quarter. The unexpected onside kick is the perfect meld of statistics and scouting. In situations where teams would not have a reason to expect an onside kick from the opposition from the scoreline, an onside kick attempt will succeed about 60 percent of the time. You can’t run an onside kick every play, though, because teams will pick up on it and start planning accordingly. Even one every two or three weeks would be too frequent; you want to find a situation where the opposing team has players up front who “leave early” and turn around to run back toward their returner and block before the ball has actually been kicked.

The 49ers saw exactly that on tape, and Harbaugh was actually going to call the onside kick on the previous kickoff. They changed their mind, but when they saw Giants blockers Spencer Paysinger, Ramses Barden, and Jacquian Williams leaving early on that kickoff, there was no escaping the call on the next one. Kicker David Akers executed the onside attempt perfectly, the Niners recovered without a fight, and then promptly drove down the field for a field goal that gave them a halftime lead. It seems like Harbaugh pulls off one of these types of plays each week to get his team an extra possession or some smaller advantage at the margins.

One decision by Harbaugh later in the game was far more subtle, but it showed just how aggressive he can be with the tools available to him as a coach. As you already know, teams have a minimum of two coach’s challenges to work with per game. Once the two-minute warning hits in the second half, though, it doesn’t matter how many of your challenges are left. They’re gone for good, so use them or lose them.

Most coaches are content to leave their challenges in their sock, but Harbaugh decided to use his. When the Giants picked up a fourth-and-6 with 3:33 left by throwing a 19-yard out to Mario Manningham, he fell out of bounds near the sidelines with a couple of 49ers in his wake. It looked to everyone involved that Manningham had just completed a difficult catch to keep the Giants’ hopes alive, but Harbaugh decided to throw the challenge flag and make 100 percent sure.

This made sense as a challenge, even though it looked like Manningham made the play, because it was a low-risk, high-reward challenge. Harbaugh’s team had a seven-point lead with two timeouts, and the Giants were at midfield with three minutes left. Even if the Giants eventually scored a touchdown to tie the game, there probably would not be enough time for Alex Smith to lead a two-minute drill and set up a game-winning field goal. A failed challenge would cost the 49ers one of their timeouts, but the challenge itself was inconsequential. Even if the Niners wanted to challenge a play in the ensuing minute before the two-minute warning, they still had another challenge and timeout to work with.

Now, let’s consider the rewards. If Manningham did happen to struggle controlling the ball or somehow fail to step inbounds (or if the refs just blew the call on review), the 49ers would have the ball with three minutes left, a seven-point lead, and two timeouts for the Giants. That’s essentially ballgame. If the replay fails, you still get to “reward” your pass rush and secondary by letting them rest for 90 seconds. A timeout isn’t a terrible idea there, and if you’re going to take a timeout, a challenge isn’t much worse.

Most other head coaches in the NFL will flip this challenge on its head and employ the antithesis: The high-risk, low-reward challenge. Sadly for Harbaugh, the perfect example of this challenge is no longer available to confused head coaches. For some reason, coaches love challenging that a player didn’t make it into the end zone when he fell down a fraction of a yard shy of the goal line. In the middle of a game, it is one of the dumbest decisions they could make.

We’re not numb to the possible reward. Taking points off the board can be sweet, especially if the offense turns the ball over. The problem is that the points almost always go back on the board. A team that has the ball on first-and-goal from the one-yard line who runs the ball three straight times scores on one of those tries about 91.1 percent of the time. So better than nine out of ten times, you’ve wiped off those points for nothing, and even in the cases where you don’t stop them, a field goal from inside 20 yards is basically a lock. It’s like lotto; the reward is tangible and extremely valuable, but it’s extremely unlikely to come in for you.

On the other hand, consider the risk. If your challenge fails, there’s still seven points on the board. Even if it works, you’ve used a very valuable asset. If it’s your first challenge, you have now ensured that you need to get your second challenge correct in order to have the possibility of having two challenges over the rest of the game. If it’s your second challenge and your first challenge was wrong, you are out of challenges; even if it’s your second correct challenge, you’ve only got one challenge left.

That specific situation isn’t really available to coaches any longer, but there are other examples. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin — one of the most successful coaches in the NFL — challenged and won a spot of 14 yards on the opening kickoff in his playoff game versus the Ravens last season. When a Ben Roethlisberger fumble was returned by Cory Redding for a touchdown later on in the first quarter, Tomlin’s challenge was denied. Those 14 yards on the opening kickoff were nice, but they moved the ball from the Baltimore 49-yard line to start the game onto the Baltimore 35. The Ravens punted on the opening drive anyway, and 14 minutes later, they were up 14-7 and those yards on the kickoff were totally irrelevant. Coaches need to look for opportunities to use their challenge flag, but they also need to employ this sort of risk-reward analysis when they’re thinking about using their flag. With his challenge on Sunday, Harbaugh proved yet again that he had the bigger picture in mind.

Tebow-a-Go-Go

Tim Tebow is doing things that are nearly unprecedented! That headline would have meant drastically different things at different times during these past few months, but it’s a good thing this week. Tebow won his second game in a row despite putting up one of the ugliest passing lines in recent memory. How bizarre was it? Let’s go to the numbers.

Tebow finished the day going 2-of-8 for 69 yards. He threw a bubble screen to Matt Willis at the line of scrimmage that went for 13 yards, all of which came after the catch. And then, on a key third-and-10, he hit Eric Decker on a 56-yard streak with a perfect bomb for the game-sealing touchdown. That’s it. He missed a couple of open receivers, but even if he had hit them, he only would have made it to 120 yards or so. Despite losing their top two running backs to injury during the game, the Broncos ran the ball on 54 of their 63 offensive plays.

This just doesn’t happen for a starting quarterback very frequently. How rare is a line that bad? It depends on what aspect of the performance you’re looking at. Since the merger in 1970, only 34 teams have put up a completion percentage of 25 percent or below and emerged with a victory. Teams have won with exactly two completions all game 11 times, and they’ve won a game while completing fewer than two passes only five times in 41 years. Wow.

So was it the worst line from a winning starting quarterback ever? Hard to say. The Bills actually won a game in 1974 amid 40 mph wind gusts and rain where quarterback Joe Ferguson only attempted two passes, both of which fell incomplete. The Bills ran the ball 61 times and squeaked out a 16-12 win over the Jets, mainly because Joe Namath went 2-for-18 in the very same conditions. Ferguson would win a game later that year in Cleveland that was clearly worse than Tebow’s performance; in what appears to be better weather, he went 1-of-7 for nine yards. Somewhere, presumably, a 9-year-old Merril Hoge went into his backyard and watched 78 hours of tape and put on makeup before calling for Ferguson’s immediate benching.

It’s hard to win games with that little out of your passing game, but it’s probably about an optimal usage pattern for Tebow against the Chiefs. Kansas City has a pair of great cornerbacks, but a very weak defensive line; once the Broncos got out to an early 10-0 lead, it made sense for them to take the air out of the ball. For all his struggles as a passer, Tebow is a wildly effective and efficient runner, and we know from past research that running quarterbacks increase the yards per carry garnered by their running backs. Good coaches put their personnel in situations that highlight their abilities and hide their weaknesses, and that’s exactly what the Broncos are doing with Tim Tebow and their offense. And since they’re playing Darrelle Revis and the Jets this Thursday, it makes sense for them to stick with the super-heavy rushing attack.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Ultimate Fighting Is Ready for Its Close-Up
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0
The All-Bettis Team
NFL Midseason Report: The NFC
NFL Midseason Report: The AFC
Vegas Sportsbook Review: Caesars Palace
Breaking Down the Suck for Luck Campaign
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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