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.
NEW YORK GIANTS 24, BUFFALO BILLS 10
If there's a single NFL skipper willing to take any opportunity by the throat, it's got to be Rex Ryan—right? Despite a well-earned reputation for building aggressive defensive teams, his tissue-soft approach to offensive decision-making cost his Bills a chance to take control of a winnable game.
The Bills started with the ball. First drive: Three plays, zero yards, punt. The Giants were able to drive 35 yards on eight plays, before kicking a field goal from 4th-and-2 on the Bills' 29-yard line (don't get me started).
So on the Bills' second possession, a good return by Marcus Thigpen set them up on their own 35. Three plays later, they'd gone nine yards, leaving them a 4th-and-1 from their own 44:
Win Probability: 0.37
Adjusted Win Probability: 0.56
First Down Success Rate: 0.74
The Bills are 5.5-point favorites, so even though they're down 3-0 a little more than halfway through the first quarter, they're still more likely to win than lose. Going for it from this distance works about three quarters of the time, so, duh.
This isn't just a case of "Eh, it's likely to work, so why not." Whether the Bills waste this possession or not is actually a HUGE pivot point. If they go for it and convert—if they just get one measly yard—their Adjusted Win Probability jumps from 59 percent to 64 percent! If they go on to get an equalizing field goal, it climbs to 65 percent, and if they finish the continued drive with a touchdown it's an AWP of 0.77—a commanding lead, considering the squads' assumed relative strength.
Now, a punt with a touchback would have dropped the Bills' AWP from 59 percent to 57 percent. As it happened, they got a great coffin-corner punt from Colton Schmidt, pinning the Giants on their own four-yard line and holding the AWP steady at 0.59. If the Bills went for it and failed, as math suggests they'd do about a quarter of the time, that would drop from 0.59 to 0.49.
Rex probably thinks he's trusting his defense to get a stop in this situation, and that makes a degree of football horse sense. But turning down a 74 percent chance to extend a crucial early drive in favor of hitting the probabilistic pause button while you're down 3-0 is questionable at best.
Strapping on our Hindsight Goggles, the Bills would end up with 14 possessions, running 68 offensive plays—but fully half of those offensive plays came on two 17-play drives from which the Bills got no points. Do the math: 12 other possessions, 34 other plays… 2.9 plays per drive. The Bills literally averaged less than a three-and-out on their other dozen possessions.
Looking back, the chance to tie the game or take at 10-3 lead early would have dramatically re-shaped the rest of the game—but while that might not have occurred to Ryan, VICE Sports readers surely saw it coming.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 16, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 13
Gus Bradley is another firey defensive guy who cooled his jets when it came to winning a winnable game. Facing the division-favorite Indianapolis Colts without Andrew Luck for what might be the only time he ever does so as Jaguars head coach, Bradley wasted the best drive of quarterback Blake Bortles' young career.
With 3:45 left in the first quarter, the Jags were down 3-0. Taking over on his own 20, Bortles covered an astounding 74 yards in two throws, one each to Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Bortles and company set up shop on the Colts' six-yard line, and had four downs with which to take a four (or more!) point lead.
Bortles sandwiched two incomplete passes to Robinson and Hurns around a four-yard run from T.J. Yeldon, and the Jags faced 4th-and-goal from the Colts' two-yard line:
Win Probability: 50 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 23 percent
Touchdown Likelihood: 42 percent
Field Goal Likelihood: > 99 percent
Yes, the field goal is a gimme, and yes, a nominal NFL team is likely to fail on 4th-and-goal from the two more often than they succeed. But A) The Jaguars are nine-point underdogs and need to capitalize here, and B), the difference between tying it at three and going up 7-3 is huge at this point in the game.
The 4th-down calculator pins the break-even point at 0.33—that is, if the Jaguars are more than 33 percent likely to convert, they should go for it. That's well south of 0.42. That's because of the potential upside: Scoring gives the Jaguars a WP of 65 percent, and an Adjusted WP of 36 percent—versus the 23 percent they got after kicking the field goal.
By the numbers, kicking the field goal didn't make the Jaguars any more likely to win. In fact, it robbed them of an opportunity to making themselves more than half-and-again more likely to triumph.
Did those four points matter? They sure did. The Jaguars and Colts were tied at the end of regulation, and the Colts came away victorious. This is a textbook example of passed-up early opportunities losing games late.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 13, DETROIT LIONS 10
Astute readers such as yourself are certainly familiar with the idea that underdogs should pursue aggressive strategies, well, aggressively.
The winless Lions, 9.5-point road underdogs to the Seattle Seahawks, could, should and all-but-certainly would have pulled off the upset—if only back judge Gregory Wilson not failed to call a penalty that would have given the Lions the ball within the shadow of the goal line in the game's dying minute.
However, the Lions had plenty of opportunities to win the game before that fateful play.
There's the first-quarter 4th-and-1 the Lions faced on their own 43 with the score still tied at zero—but that's practically the same situation as the Bills faced above, and we don't need to run those numbers again.
Let's look at a thornier call: One that resulted in the Lions' first (and ultimately only) offensive points of the game. With 5:20 left in the first half, the Lions faced 4th-and-6 from the Seahawks' 23:
Win Probability: 30 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 14 percent
First Down Success Rate: 45 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 76 percent
So, let's start from this baseline understanding: When a 9.5-point underdog is down by a touchdown five minutes before halftime, there's an 86 percent chance they're going to lose.
Both the EP and WP models of the 4th-down calculator suggest this is extremely close—a wash, basically. When you calculate the "Total WP"s of both going for it and kicking, the former's is 0.30 while the latter's is 0.31. That's partly because the Lions were deep in Seahawks territory; gaining one-too-few yards would give Seattle the ball on their 18-yard line, while missing the 41-yard kick (far from a gimme, with a 76 percent rate!) would turn it over on the Seahawks' 30.
The AWP in case of success isn't amazing, but again: nine-and-a-half-point underdogs. It was almost halftime and the Lions hadn't even crossed midfield before this drive. There was no way for Jim Caldwell to know his team wouldn't get within scoring range again until the fateful last possession— but they were playing the Seahawks in CenturyLink! Caldwell should have known he wouldn't get many, if any, more opportunities to hit paydirt.
Had, in fact, the Lions gone on to score there, their AWP would have risen to around 25 percent (depending on how much time they wound off the clock in the process). That's still not great odds, of course—but wouldn't those four points have come in handy at the end?
OPENING THE DOOR
Yes—YES! A million times yes!
With his back against the 0-3 wall, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh finally started coaching to win. Harbaugh made several aggressive decisions that lined up with rational numbers. Whether it was realizing that his 22nd-ranked scoring defense isn't quite the all-powerful unit he was used to leaning on, or total blind panic, it was clear on Week 4's Thursday Night Football that the penny had dropped.
Technically, our mandate covers only the first half. But in the middle of the third quarter, down 20-14, Harbaugh—whom we'd knocked two weeks in a row for laying up—faced a 4th-and-2 on the Pittsburgh 20. The Ravens lined up for a field goal, to cut the deficit from needing-a-touchdown to still-needing-a-touchdown—and then, to the announcers' horror, the Ravens faked the field goal.
It was a beautifully drawn up and executed play. If linebacker Sean Spence hadn't made a tremendous individual play, it would easily have succeeded—and maybe have gone for a touchdown.
Despite it not coming off, the numbers clearly favored going for it. The 4th down calculator suggests a nominal 59 percent success rate, and the WP model puts the break-even point at 47 percent. We come to praise Harbaugh for his process, not bury him for his results.
Of course, the results prove the entire thrust of this column: Harbaugh took appropriate risks at appropriate junctures—and not only did the failed fake field goal and failed late quarterback not cost him the game, the so-assumed risky moves didn't actually present much risk at all.