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Inopportune Knocks: Self-Sabotage by NFL Head Coaches, Week 10

This week in bad math by NFL coaches: Dan Campbell is aggressive and manly until fourth down comes around. Jason Garrett can't pull off a win without Tony Romo. John Harbaugh finally figures it out.
November 17, 2015, 6:05pm
Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY Sports

In the NFL, teams only get a dozen or so possessions each game with which to score points. Unfortunately, most coaches never remember that until they've wasted most of them. In the fourth quarter, conservative-to-a-fault coaches who punted away points and dawdled minutes off the clock become desperate, reckless aggressors.

Every week at VICE Sports, Inopportune Knocks will take a hard look at first-half opportunities NFL teams passed up—sealing their second-half fates.



Dan Campbell! Firey guy! Oklahoma Drill!

When we talk about the Miami Dolphins' interim head coach, we talk about a retired tight end who looks like he'd rather be in shoulder pads and a helmet than a polo shirt and visor. Against the Eagles, the goateed Campbell, sporting camo Dolphins gear and well-honed jawline looked ready to line up and hit a few guys, maybe go out and bag a buck afterwards.

Read More: Dumb Football with Mike Tunison, Week 10

But late in the first quarter, Campbell's aggressive act either let him down, or old-school football thinking dragged him down.

His Dolphins faced a 4th-and-2 on their own 39-yard line—well into their own territory, for sure, yet still pretty close to midfield. Here's what their odds were:

Win Probability: 17 percent

Adjusted Win Probability: 10 percent

First Down Success Rate: 60 percent

So, being down 16-3 by the end of the first quarter is kind of a bummer. Being down by that score when you came into the game as five-point underdogs is a major bummer. Adjusted WP already gives the Dolphins just a 10 percent shot of winning from this point, and conversion from here is a likely outcome, with a 60 percent average success rate.

Brian Burke's EP model puts the break-even point at 52 percent. It's close, but unless Campbell believes his offense (ranked 17th in passing yardage and 19th in rushing yardage) has significantly worse-than-average odds against the Eagles defense (16th in passing yards allowed, 19th in rushing yards allowed), the Dolphins should go for it.


Interestingly, the WP model disagrees.

Because the Dolphins' odds are already so low, the leverage gained by picking up the first down is nonexistent. In fact, across the universe of NFL game data factored into Burke's model, teams at 1st-and-10 on their own 42 while down by 13 with 2:00 left in the first quarter have gone on to win just 16 percent of the time—one percent less than the teams facing 4th-and-2 from their own 39 ten seconds before!

Now, this is a quirk in the data; even if teams converted this 100 percent of the time, it would still suggest punting—and we know continuing a possession is better than punting. This is also the exact reason we consider both EP and WP in these decisions.

Use this man less. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports.

In the late first quarter, there's no time pressure or end-of-half leverage swings to consider; who'll be kicking off in the second half doesn't matter. (As an experiment, I moved the exact same situation up to the end of the second quarter, and WP set the break-even point at 38 percent—making the 60-percent odds a no-brainer).

All that matters is whether the Dolphins are more likely to be in a more advantageous position if they go for it or punt—and though the numbers say to go for it, the Dolphins punted.

After Matt Darr's 32-yard punt, the Eagles took over on their own 29; the Dolphins' AWP dropped to just eight percent. Yes, they ended up on the right side of the less-than-one-in-ten odds, but if they'd hung on to this possession, maybe they wouldn't have needed Mark Sanchez to come in and save their bacon.



Just two or three wins and it's fine. I mean, in that division? You really only need two. Two wins, or at the very least one, and it'll be okay that Tony Romo is going to miss seven games with a broken clavicle.

I mean, maybe. Maybe, if the Cowboys get one win—just one win!—without Tony Romo under center, they'll still be able to finish strong and clip the New York Giants for the NFC East division title. They'll still have a chance to reclaim the all-in Super Bowl redemption narrative that drove them from the second Dez caught didn't catch that ball.

All head coach Jason Garrett and the Cowboys needed was one win to save their season, and after six straight tries they still didn't have it.

So why did they punt on a 4th-and-1 on their opening possession? Why did they attempt (and miss) a field goal from 4th-and-6 on Tampa Bay's 30-yard line in the second quarter? And why, for the love of all that is holy, did Garrett and the Cowboys punt on 4th-and-1 from their 45-yard-line with 51 seconds left in the first half while nursing a 6-3 lead?

I mean, come on:

Win Probability: 60 percent

Adjusted Win Probability: 57 percent

First Down Success Rate: 73 percent

p class="photo-credit">This man coaches like he fears losing more than he loves winning. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports.

The Cowboys were 2-6! Losing meant, in all likelihood, the end of the season! Losing meant having to go, at worst, 6-1 against a back-half schedule that includes the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills!


The worst-case scenario here was going for it, failing, and giving the hapless Bucs a short field. But there was a 74 percent chance the Cowboys would have extended the drive.

When the Buccaneers opened the second half with the ball, down 6-3, they had an Adjusted Win Probability of 57 percent. Had they been down six, that would have been 44 percent. Had they been down 13? A measly 22 percent.

Garrett turned down a 3:4 shot to dramatically cut his opponents' odds of victory, and he didn't take it because he feared falling to 2-7 more than he wanted to claw back to 3-6. He and the Cowboys got the finish they deserved.


We're going to have to start calling him "Riverboat John."

John Harbaugh, roundly jeered in this space for his callow decision-making earlier in the season, is finally starting to appropriately value possessions. When his Baltimore Ravens faced off against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the two teams immediately engaged in a punters' duel; the first three drives all ended in turnover by boot.

On the Ravens' second possession, they drove to the Jaguars 36-yard line, facing a 4th-and-3. Harbaugh correctly decided to go for it, realizing a 53-yard field goal with a kicker who's 2-for-5 from 50-plus yards this year was a shakier proposition—and that in what had been a game of nothing but field position, going for the conversion and failing could give the Jags the ball up to nine yards further back than kicking it and missing.

That's exactly what happened: The Ravens failed to pick up the first, and so gave the Jags on their own 35 instead of their own 43.

Sadly, it didn't matter: After the Ravens failed to keep the drive going, the Jaguars suddenly caught fire and drove for a touchdown AND the Ravens ultimately lost by the field goal they didn't get. BUT! Harbaugh still had the guts to make the right decision.