Thank You for Not Coaching, Week 7

Thank You for Not Coaching is celebrating a lot of very reasonable decisions by coaches this week! Sure, there’s still the occasional questionable call that we’ll get to at the very end, but the bad coaching choices this week were mostly good processes with bad outcomes. That’s preferable to the alternative.

As always, let’s start with the best. Let’s thank these coaches for actually coaching with my picks for the three best decisions of Week 7.

The Three Best Calls of Week 7

3. Cleveland’s David strategies against the Packers. I was fond of Jacksonville’s high-variance strategies against Denver one week ago, and Rob Chudzinski came into Green Bay with Brandon Weeden knowing he needed to create a few extra opportunities to come away with a victory. I like to think that’s why he went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 37-yard line and went for a fake punt on fourth-and-1 from his own 43-yard line before the end of the first quarter. The former failed, as Weeden was intercepted by Davon House on a desperate throw. The fake punt narrowly worked, as a Chris Ogbonnaya run moved the chains despite a challenge from Mike McCarthy suggesting that Ogbonnaya came up short.

Of course, the Browns did later punt on fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 49-yard line in the third quarter before trying to convert on fourth-and-15 from the 31-yard line early in the fourth. Sometimes David gets beat up and just resorts to throwing jabs at Goliath before launching a wild haymaker, but I think Chudzinski had a good plan early on.

2. John Fox goes for two down 36-23 with 12:11 left. Second-guessers step off! I wasn’t enthralled with Fox’s performance on Sunday night, notably how conservative he was on fourth down during the first 40 minutes of the game, but he got the most notable two-point conversion choice of the game right.

People saying that Fox didn’t need to go for two on this possession ignore how bad the Denver offense had been up to that point. By making this call, the Broncos were creating the possibility of turning a two-touchdown game into a one-touchdown, one–field goal game (with a successful two-point conversion). They would also still be within two touchdowns (without any two-pointers) if they converted and the Colts later added a field goal (as they would actually do). Denver didn’t get the two-pointer when Peyton Manning uncharacteristically put too much zip on a pass to a wide-open Demaryius Thomas, who dropped the throw.

Fox was then also right to kick the extra point down 36-29 when the Broncos scored following the Trent Richardson fumble. The value of winning with a touchdown there is enormous; the footballcommentary.com two-point model suggests that you kick unless you have about an 85 percent chance of picking up the two-pointer in that situation. Denver would have loved to have that earlier extra point given that the team would go down nine later, but if it had hit the two-pointer, it would have been able to tie the game with an extra point on the drive that ended with the Ronnie Hillman fumble. By kicking the extra point earlier, a Hillman touchdown would have made the score 39-37 and the Broncos just would have had to go for two then, with little recourse upon failing.

1. The Bears run an unexpected onside kick in the fourth quarter. Marc Trestman had every reason to be desperate. His defense couldn’t stop RG3. His offense, having lost Jay Cutler, was down 38-34 and needed an extra possession with a short field to try to get the lead. Given his needs, Trestman rolled out the perfect play for the situation: the first unexpected onside kick of the 2013 NFL season.

Unexpected onside kicks work significantly more frequently than expected ones. Historically, unexpected onside kicks work about 55 percent of the time. There’s a good amount of selection bias in that, since teams are only calling for the onside kick when they see something on film that suggests it might work, but that’s totally fine; it’s entirely likely that Trestman or somebody on his staff saw that Washington was susceptible to such a play, and when he needed to try to create an extra possession, Trestman called for veteran kicker Robbie Gould to give the onside kick a shot.

The play didn’t work … although it probably should have. Bears special teamer Zack Bowman recovered the onside kick, but the referees ruled that Chicago was narrowly offside at the time of the kick, forcing a re-kick that Gould booted deep. Kudos to Trestman for nearly creating a game-winning opportunity for his team.

Begrudging Applause

Some folks take a failure on a fourth-and-1 conversion as a sign that teams should always take the points from a field goal. (These folks are called “color commentators.”) It’s a terrible way to look at things; true knowledge comes from looking at the outcomes from hundreds or preferably thousands of plays in the same situation to see the expected return from each possible choice.

With that being said, I really hate it when a coach gets lambasted for being aggressive and failing, especially when the math says he should be trying for a touchdown. I’m going to honor two such decisions here.

The Rams are a weird team. Jeff Fisher is usually very conservative once he gets inside Greg Zuerlein’s range, happily settling for long field goal attempts of 50 yards or more, but Fisher is also usually pretty aggressive once he gets near the goal line. On Sunday, perhaps buoyed by the presence of TYFNC Comeback Coach of the Year Ron Rivera on the opposite sideline, Fisher went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line down 7-0 midway through the first quarter. Sam Bradford was unable to find an open receiver and basically threw the pass away. That’s why they call it risk-reward and not just reward. Right decision, reasonable play call, unfortunate outcome. The Panthers picked up so much momentum from their fourth-down stuff that the Rams tackled Mike Tolbert in the end zone for a safety on the very next play. Then Tavon Austin fumbled in Carolina territory three plays into the next drive. You get the idea.

Andy Reid called for a fourth-and-goal attempt from the 1-yard line in a more daring situation, with his team only up 17-16 on the Texans with 13:50 to go in the game. A field goal does require the Texans to score a touchdown, which seemed unlikely given how great Kansas City’s defense can be, but Reid likely sensed the possibility of a knockout blow with a touchdown. After a run play was stuffed on third-and-1, Reid called for a play-action rollout on fourth down that managed to get three receivers open; unfortunately, Alex Smith first decided to try to scramble into the end zone for a score, and by the time he changed his mind, the receivers weren’t quite as open and the Chiefs turned the ball over on downs. Houston did complete a pass for 35 yards on its second play from scrimmage after the change of possession, but it would stall out after that and punt.

The Inch Challenge

Reid’s desire for a touchdown on that possession was made clear two plays before the failed fourth-and-1 try. There, on second down, a pass from Smith to Anthony Fasano came up a foot short of the end zone. Reid challenged, even knowing that he would get the ball back for third-and-a-foot, but the challenge failed and the Chiefs came away from the drive with zero points.

Amazingly, this same situation popped up on the other side of the ball, too. During the third quarter, a pass to Garrett Graham gave Houston the ball on the 1-yard line with a new set of downs, but Gary Kubiak chose not to challenge. With both his active halfbacks injured at the time, the Texans tried a quarterback sneak, ran the ball with fullback Greg Jones for a loss of two, and threw an incomplete pass before kicking a 21-yard field goal to go down 14-13.

The third and final version of this story was in Carolina, where TYFNC Gold Star Winner Ron Rivera saw a Steve Smith catch move the ball to the 1-yard line for a new set of downs. Despite the presence of his dominant running game, Rivera challenged for the Smith catch to be a touchdown and failed, costing his team a timeout. The Panthers also, coincidentally, did not score a touchdown; Tolbert was stuffed twice and then committed a personal foul, pushing the ball back to third-and-goal from the 16-yard line. Carolina would eventually kick a field goal.

I just got into explaining why one example of an aggressive decision working doesn’t prove anything, but here are three situations on one day when a team had the ball on the one-inch line with at least two plays to go and didn’t score. Should teams be throwing the challenge flag in these situations in an attempt to ensure that they scored on the earlier play?

Probably not. On a typical first-and-goal from the 1-yard line (the situation facing the Texans and Panthers), the average team will finish its drive with a touchdown 78 percent of the time and with a field goal 14 percent of the time, per advancednflstats.com. If you throw the challenge flag on a would-be touchdown that narrowly came short, you’re using one of your wishes on a play that will end up the same way regardless about four out of five times. For the Chiefs, who were going to face third-and-a-foot, their odds of scoring a touchdown were just above 50 percent, which does change their math. And with that being said, the Panthers are one of the best short-yardage teams in football, so their odds of scoring were probably higher than 78 percent. But we can use that as a base. The odds that all three of the three teams in these situations Sunday would fail to score from the 1-yard line is roughly about 43-to-1; high, but nowhere near so much that it couldn’t just happen by randomness.

As a simple rule of thumb, I think it’s reasonable for coaches to throw the challenge flag on a possible touchdown that’s a yard short of the end zone if they think their chances of winning the challenge are higher than their chances of scoring a touchdown on the ensuing plays. For most teams, that’s going to be right around 78 percent. None of the challenge possibilities on Sunday were that cut-and-dried.

Furthermore, there’s an interesting question of player psychology here. On one hand, it’s easy to imagine that a coach who challenges that his player scored a touchdown will win points in the locker room, especially from the player in question. But what does challenging a touchdown that came up short say to your offense? Does it tell your offense that you’re really weak and you don’t trust them to score the points on the ensuing plays? That’s why it’s a coach — not a calculator — making those decisions.

Referee Error

You can’t blame Jim Schwartz for being conservative in tossing out his challenge flag after last year’s Thanksgiving Day fiasco against the Texans. On Sunday, though, Schwartz had an unlikely candidate forcing him to keep his flag in his pocket: a mistaken referee.

When the Bengals blocked a David Akers field goal attempt just before halftime, they engaged in some shenanigans on the return. Reggie Nelson scooted for 16 yards, but as he was being taken down, he either fumbled the ball forward or just flat-out tossed it forward to another Bengals defender. It was eventually picked up by Dre Kirkpatrick, who added an extra nine yards to the return from the spot where Nelson was tackled.

The Bengals should have been called for an illegal forward pass or an illegal forward lateral. At the very least, Schwartz should have been able to throw his challenge flag to prove that there was a forward lateral. But he didn’t. A postgame interview with Schwartz suggested that the officials told the Lions coach he couldn’t challenge the forward fumble because there’s no such thing as a forward fumble on a blocked kick.

The league seemed to take Schwartz’s side after the game, but I can see both arguments. It’s Schwartz’s job to know the rulebook, even if the referee tells him he can’t challenge. After last year, nobody should know that better than Schwartz. But it has to be frustrating when a referee says you can’t challenge a situation that certainly seems like a viable candidate for the red flag. Or, you know, frustrating that the refs didn’t spot an obvious forward lateral on the field. Thank You for Not Officiating, anybody?

Possibly a Good Idea?

The Ravens fought back late on Sunday to come within one point of the Steelers, 16-15, pending the extra point. With just 2:02 to go, the Ravens then caught a break when itinerant line-jumper Troy Polamalu literally jumped over the center, giving them an interesting choice: Should they still kick the extra point to tie the game, or would they be better off going for it from the 1-yard line to try to take the lead?

I don’t know that it makes sense for the Ravens. You should go for it if you think you have a better probability of converting a two-pointer than you do of winning the tied game after the possession. Baltimore was on the road and about to give the ball back to Ben Roethlisberger in a close game before overtime, with little likelihood of getting a possession in before the clock hit all zeroes. Its chances of winning in that situation probably aren’t great — maybe 40 percent — but they’re better than the putrid Baltimore running game, which is especially bad in short yardage this year.

The hidden factor is how you change the other team’s aggressiveness. If you’re up one after converting the two-pointer, you obviously force the other team to throw the ball downfield to try to create a game-winning field goal. If you’re tied with them, chances are that they’ll be more conservative with overtime just around the corner. And if you’re down one because you missed the two-pointer, the team will just try to drain the clock, which is easier than driving downfield to score.

Throw that in and I wouldn’t have gone for two in Baltimore’s shoes. Had it been from the half-yard line, as Atlanta’s opportunity was during the playoffs last year, I think the odds would lean in favor of trying to convert the game-leading two-pointer. As it was for the Ravens, they were right to go for one and tie up the game.

Halftime Draw

For those of you who incurred hazard pay in watching the Giants-Vikings on Monday night, sorry about the Vikings handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson for a meaningless draw just before halftime. Peterson might be more likely to break a big one than just about anybody, but this draw was of little consequence and could have possibly led to a Peterson injury, which nobody wanted to see.

The Jets also ran a halftime draw with the experienced, safe option of Tommy Bohanon with 10 seconds left for four yards, while the Lions took over on their own 20-yard line with 41 seconds left and actually ran Joique Bell twice on draws, when they could have run off the clock with one shotgun kneel. Stop it, guys.

The Three Worst Calls of Week 7

3. Mike McCoy invokes the Schwartz Rule. One thing every coach needs to do is be aware of the situation before he throws his challenge flag. Chargers coach Mike McCoy really wanted to challenge that an Eddie Royal fumble should have been whistled as down by contact, but when the Jaguars recovered and ensured that the play would go to the replay officials, McCoy still threw his challenge flag. That’s the Schwartz Rule, and it cost the Chargers a timeout. They still beat the Jaguars comfortably, but this is a pretty blatant mistake.

2. Marvin Lewis’s challenge flag fiasco. Try to keep this straight. With Detroit facing a third-and-11, the Lions threw a pass to Bell that earned them 19 yards and a first down. That was wiped off the books by a Brandon Pettigrew offensive pass interference call, which would have given the Lions third-and-21 on their own 46-yard line.

Lewis, however, wanted the drive over. He challenged to see whether Bell had ever caught the ball at all. He had not, and so the challenge was overturned. At the same time, though, the successful overturn meant that the Bengals could then decline the pass interference penalty, which they did. So, instead of third-and-21, the Bengals’ defense settled for a fourth-and-11 play, which produced a punt. Is that really much better? Given the possibility of losing the challenge, I don’t think it is.

1. Chip Kelly’s 60-yard field goal attempt against the Cowboys. Chip, no! Things had been going so great in the NFL for you, and on Sunday, your offense finally puts up a stinker and you make a very curious fourth-down choice. With the ball on the Dallas 42-yard line and 14 seconds left in the first half, the Eagles faced a fourth-and-1 with one timeout left. Of the three options available to him, somehow Kelly chose a 60-yard Alex Henery field goal attempt as the optimal one.

You could piece the logic together for this one for a team like the Raiders, but not here. Henery doesn’t have the sort of leg to boot a 60-yarder. A likely miss gives Dallas excellent field position to try for a field goal of its own after a couple of completions, which is almost exactly what happened. Punting basically ends the half. Why, with one of the best offenses in football, didn’t Kelly try to pick up one yard? Even a failed conversion attempt gives Dallas the ball back with worse field position than a missed field goal would. If the Eagles can convert with a short run or a pass play, they can call timeout and end the half with a closer kick; the odds of Henery hitting even a 52- or 53-yard field goal are much better than they are a 60-yard one. Kelly knows that, and maybe he attempts the conversion with Michael Vick in the lineup. In any case, though, Henery’s field goal try was the worst of both worlds.

Filed Under: Andy Reid, NFL

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell