Thank You for Not Coaching, Week 15

AP Photo/Wade Payne

This week’s Thank You for Not Coaching seems to revolve around team and context, which are absolutely critical in decision-making. I can’t stress that enough. It isn’t right to go for it on every single fourth-and-short or to try to win the game at every opportunity for aggressiveness. Slapping league-average win probabilities onto situations and using them as irrefutable measures of proof is stopping in the middle of the process. Using the numbers as baselines is great, but part of that process — for coaches and fans alike — is taking the league-average and applying it to the situation at hand.

That’s what made Carolina’s conservative play before Ron Rivera went aggro so frustrating: They were a team built to succeed in short yardage! They had been great in short yardage on third down and near the goal line, but on fourth down, Rivera took the keys away because that’s the way he had been brought up to coach. Had the Panthers looked something like the 2013 Ravens, a team that can’t run the ball whatsoever and that makes its offensive hay through the threat of big plays (and actual big plays), Rivera would have been right.

It’s important to keep roster construction and context in mind when you’re evaluating those key decisions. One of the week’s biggest calls came from a coach who didn’t do that — or didn’t weigh his team’s identity properly — in doing so. But that’s on the wrong side of town. Let’s start with the decisions where coaches got things right.

The Best Decisions of Week 15

3. Chip Kelly goes for it on fourth-and-a-foot on his own 24-yard line in the third quarter. Chip!! I mean, I know that the Eagles have Nick Foles and all, but this was a call where even I blushed. The Eagles were trailing at this point, but it was still a very competitive game: They were down 24-9 with 21 minutes to play. I think about 28 of the 32 coaches in the league would punt in that situation without even thinking and laugh at you for even suggesting they should go for it. Most of the examples of teams going for it in this situation in recent years, from what I can tell, are fake punts. Chip lined his team up after a questionable spot on third down, tried to get the foot his team needed by giving the ball to Shady McCoy, and they didn’t get it.

The Advanced NFL Stats calculator suggests that the Eagles should have tried the conversion if they had a 50 percent chance of succeeding. It’s hard to imagine that Philly’s chances of succeeding weren’t higher than that: They have the league’s best rushing offense, while the Vikings have the league’s 20th-best run defense. McCoy also didn’t even need the full yard to succeed. If anything, you might argue that the Eagles should have considered a sneak with Foles were one available. (Kelly used a challenge to try to overturn the spot when McCoy was stuffed on fourth down, which seems less advisable given the success rate of challenging spots.)

You know what? Going for it and failing didn’t really hurt the Eagles, either. The Vikings went three-and-out and kicked a 38-yard field goal to go up 27-9, and the Eagles promptly went out and scored touchdowns on each of their next two possessions, and only a failed two-point conversion prevented them from making it a 27-24 game. They never got any closer than that, but failing deep in their own territory didn’t do much to blow Philly’s chances of coming back. It’ll be interesting to see if Kelly goes for it again in this situation sometime down the line. He would probably be right to do so.

2. Miami goes for it on fourth-and-5 on its own 45-yard line with 2:40 to go, succeeds, scores, and wins. A team going for it on fourth down late in the fourth quarter while it’s trailing doesn’t always imply some work of genius from the coach; obviously, there are times when a team is desperate and just needs to try to score. What makes Joe Philbin’s decision a really great call is that he successfully resisted the urge to play things conservatively and call for a punt. With 2:41 left and all three of his timeouts still remaining while down three points, Philbin could have pieced together an argument to play conservatively and punt the ball away, which would have forced Tom Brady to pick up at least one first down (depending on when he actually moved the chains) to avoid giving the ball back to Miami with meaningful time left on the clock.

Instead, Philbin rightly saw how close his team was to a possible tying field goal and decided to play it aggressively. The aforementioned Advanced NFL Stats calculator has this one as a no-brainer; the Dolphins would only need, on average, a 16 percent chance of success to justify going for it. I would bump that up a little higher given that the Dolphins would be handing the ball over to Brady, who can probably manufacture a first down with the game on the line, but it was still clearly the right decision. The Dolphins ran a truly ugly play, with Ryan Tannehill throwing a screen behind Charles Clay, but Clay tiptoed through the defense to pick up six yards and extend the game. It was one of the best individual efforts of the year, and given that it’s placed Miami into a favorable playoff position, it’s one of the most important plays of the year.

1. Washington goes for two to try to win its game against Atlanta at the end of regulation. I wrote about this yesterday in the TYFNC Tidbit. If the Shanaclan get fired after this season, my only regret is that they will stop doing press conferences. Can we hire them to do press conferences like they’re still coaching Washington next year?

Board Short

The old adage is that you never want to take points off the board. (It’s a dumb adage.) The Steelers had an interesting play on that this weekend: They had points taken off the board for them. They might not have realized it at the time, but they were lucky to have it happen.

The play in question saw Bengals punter Kevin Huber — who later would suffer a fractured jaw and cracked vertebrae and, somehow, find the humor in the whole thing — drop a punt and wildly scramble around with the football. He appeared to have been taken down in the end zone for a safety, but after a conference, he was ruled to have been down at the 1-yard line. Some Steelers fans booed. Fans in crowds aren’t always rational, but I couldn’t understand why they were booing. Isn’t it obvious that the call had worked out better for the Steelers?

Think about this one for a moment. By spotting the ball outside the end zone, the Steelers were handed first-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line. That’s really valuable! An average team will score right around six points in that situation, given that they’ll have at least three cracks at a touchdown from a yard out and the downside of a field goal, with only a turnover to worry about to keep them from scoring. The Steelers are not a great power-running team by any means, but that possession is still going to be worth about 5.5 points, minimum.

The safety gives you two points and another possession with very good field position, thanks to the free kick. I don’t have numbers on the average return length from a free kick, but let’s estimate that the Steelers would take over on their own 40-yard line. A drive that begins 60 yards away from the end zone, depending on the team, will score an average of somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 points. Even if we’re trying to take the sides that make the safety look like the right call, the safety is worth about four points to the Steelers, and the possession on the 1-yard line is worth 5.5 points. It’s going to be really hard to make the estimates line up in a way that makes the safety even remotely close to the superior option.

It doesn’t mean anything in a vacuum that the Steelers fans booed. What’s interesting is the psychology of having points on the board versus having an excellent likelihood of producing more points. By not having the safety, the Steelers didn’t have the sure thing (the two points), nor did they have the best possible outcome (the nine points for the safety, a touchdown on the ensuing drive, and an extra point). Their new possession would likely net them getting three or seven points (with a slim chance of zero), but in all, their expectation with the possession was much higher with the ball on the 1-yard line than it would have been with the safety.

Riverb— Hey, Wait, Stop Kicking!!!!

It’s all falling apart! After weeks of staying aggressive, Ron Rivera spent most of the Jets game playing relatively conservative football. And when he did get aggressive, for the first time in two months it didn’t go his way.

Rivera’s Panthers team scored 23 points on offense against the Jets, but they still had a relatively tough day. The Jets have the league’s best run defense, and the Panthers are still a team built around using the run to get — and stay — ahead. They had success with a long screen pass to DeAngelo Williams for a touchdown, but mostly, they battled the Jets up and down the field. When they did get in or around the red zone, Rivera actually kept things pretty conservative. The Panthers kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line in the second quarter to go up 6-3, and later in the quarter kicked another field goal on fourth-and-2 from the 22-yard line to make it a 16-6 game.

Sadly, when Rivera did make an aggressive move, it backfired. When the Panthers went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Jets’ 14-yard line in the third quarter with that same 16-6 lead, they decided to throw the ball and couldn’t find anybody open, with Cam Newton eventually hit by Quinton Coples as he tried to get the ball out, forcing an incomplete pass. It was Carolina’s first failure on a fourth-down try since Week 5, when an open Brandon LaFell dropped a Newton pass that would have extended a drive in a similar situation to Sunday’s spot. It didn’t end up hurting the Panthers, as Carolina eventually prevailed, 30-20.

I’m mostly kidding about the conservative stuff. To be honest, I think Rivera coached the situations pretty well, all things considered. If there was ever a game to be conservative on fourth down with the Carolina offense, this was the one. The Jets have a dominant run defense and Geno Smith at quarterback, and the Panthers were heavy favorites. I mention the concept of David strategies a bunch in TYFNC; if anything, this is the sort of game that would call for a Goliath strategy from the Panthers. Maybe Rivera should have gone for it on the 22-yard line. You know what? He deserves a pass.

The Week in Halftime Draws

The 49ers, Raiders, and Jets all ran pre-halftime draws this week in roughly similar situations: Deep in their own territory, little time left on the clock, carries where the only significant outcome would be a turnover or an injury. The Raiders did use it as a chance to get Marcel Reece a touch, which is good for the #FreeMarcelReece campaign, but those plays are pretty indefensible.

A more curious call came from the Patriots. New England took over on its own 20-yard line after a kickoff with two timeouts and 32 seconds on the clock. Miami had just one timeout left itself, so it couldn’t have stopped the clock had the Patriots wanted to kneel and go to halftime up 10-7. Instead, Bill Belichick had Brady hand the ball to Shane Vereen, who ran for seven yards. The Patriots then used a timeout, which would normally indicate that they would then try to use the yardage gained from the running play to start a real drive in an attempt to set up for a field goal. Instead, they came back out and ran Vereen again, gaining six yards, before going to halftime.

I guess I just don’t understand the logic from Belichick here. If you want to run the clock, kneel. That’s fine. If you want to try to advance the ball into field goal range, you’re going to need to throw the football at least once early in the drive. You’re not going to want to burn one of your two timeouts running for seven yards at a time. Running the ball and using timeouts doesn’t fit either beast, and that’s without considering that the Patriots have had fumbling issues with their running backs over the past month. How did that move make sense?

The Three Worst Calls of Week 15

3. The Packers don’t go for two early on in their comeback over the Cowboys. Green Bay’s second touchdown of the third quarter came with just over one minute remaining, when Matt Flynn found Andrew Quarless for a three-yard touchdown. It left the Packers down 29-16, pending the extra point. Mike McCarthy kicked the extra point to make it a 12-point contest, ensuring that the Packers would still need two touchdowns to tie the game or take the lead. In doing so, he passed on the opportunity to try a two-point conversion, which would have left the Packers down 13 with a miss or 11 with a make.

The advantages to being down 11 are pretty clear: You can tie the game with a touchdown, another two-pointer, and a field goal. The disadvantages to staying down 13 (as opposed to kicking and going down 12) aren’t really all that obvious. You’re still down two touchdowns, but you can still take the lead if you produce both those scores. It’s still a two-score game if Dallas kicks a field goal. It’s a three-score game if Dallas scores a touchdown, but that’s still the case if you kick the extra point.

Indeed, this is one of the more obvious situations to try for a two-pointer; footballcommentary.com suggests that McCarthy should have gone for two if his team had a 29 percent chance of succeeding, which was surely true with room to spare.

2. The Titans decline the chance to run a play from the 1-yard line to try to win the game against Arizona, and go into overtime instead. Facing the same game situation that saw Washington try to win the game in regulation on Sunday, the Titans ran in the opposite direction. After launching a furious comeback aided by a recovered onside kick to score two touchdowns inside the final minute, Tennessee was down 34-33, pending the extra point. Unlike Mike Shanahan, Mike Munchak chose to kick the extra point, tying the game at 34-34. That wasn’t all, though: The Cardinals were offsides on the kick, giving Munchak an opportunity to take the ball on the 1-yard line and try a game-winning play from there. He instead declined the penalty and went to overtime, where the Titans won the toss, only for Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw an interception that set up Arizona for the game-winning field goal.

There are two separate questions here. You can ask whether Munchak should have kicked the extra point to begin with, and then you can wonder whether it made more sense to decline the kick and try a conversion from the 1-yard line.

I think the decision to kick the extra point is more reasonable here than it would have been in Washington. The Titans were underdogs at home in this game, with Arizona favored by 2.5 points, but they weren’t quite as weak, since Washington was a six-point underdog in Atlanta. You would expect Tennessee to have a better chance of winning in overtime against Arizona at home than you would of Washington beating Atlanta on the road. Furthermore, Arizona’s strength is its dominant defense, which was third in the NFL against both the pass and the run, while Tennessee is a roughly balanced team on offense and defense. Playing for one snap against a great defense is very different from Washington playing for one snap against Atlanta’s porous defense while keeping its own defense (and special teams) off the field.

Now, does trying the same play from the 1-yard line change things? Surprisingly, no. Over the past 10 years, teams are 263-of-528 on two-point conversion attempts, a 49.8 percent conversion rate. During that same 10-year stretch, teams have converted 49.2 percent of their 246 tries on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Those numbers would suggest that it was well within the margin of error for Tennessee to do whatever Mike Munchak thought was best. What did Munchak think?

“I just felt that we played so hard to get back into it, to put it on one play, that all of a sudden the game is over, the high to low. Now you sit there and think, We might as well have done it. We had a better chance to win. I felt the momentum was on our side. We got the ball, which I hoped we would. We were in position to take over the game. We have to make plays there and win it. Now that we didn’t get it done, I wish we did go for it.”

Paul Kuharsky of ESPN gathered that quote and noted that Munchak didn’t consider the difference between converting from the 1-yard line and the 2-yard line to be meaningful. Kuharsky also explained why I think Munchak’s call was wrong.

The Titans, as an organization, spent this entire offseason investing just about everything they had into running the ball well near the goal line. Their head coach was already a Hall of Fame offensive lineman. They already had a running back, Chris Johnson, who was among the highest-paid backs in football. That wasn’t enough. They signed Shonn Greene away from the Jets specifically to be their short-yardage back, giving him a three-year, $10 million deal in a market that didn’t pay the veteran middle class or give running backs contracts with much money at all. They made Bills guard Andy Levitre one of the highest-paid interior linemen in football by giving him a six-year, $47 million deal. Then, they used their first-round pick on mammoth Alabama guard Chance Warmack to play across the center from Levitre.

And yet, on Monday, Munchak said that running the ball from the 1-yard line wasn’t an option because his team, which had run the hurry-up for most of the fourth quarter, hadn’t run the ball in an hour. How perfect do the conditions need to be for a team that invested all that money and its biggest draft asset to run the ball in short-yardage to actually give it a shot? At what point do you try to prove that all those changes were the right idea? If it’s not when you need one yard to win a football game, when will it be? I think that the numbers have this one as too close to call, but given what the Titans have tried to do as a franchise, taking the extra point and moving on was just embarrassing.

1. Mike McCoy punts late in the fourth quarter deep inside Denver territory in a one-score game. This came up in Thursday’s review of the Broncos-Chargers game. Like McCarthy’s decision to kick the extra point, McCoy’s punt didn’t come back to bite his team. It was still comfortably the wrong call.

Filed Under: NFL, Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers, Marcel Reece, Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Mike Munchak, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell