In the NFL, teams only get a dozen or so possessions each game with which to score points. Unfortunately, most coaches forget 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 JETS 19, DALLAS COWBOYS 16
We've been through nearly an entire regular season of Inopportune Knocks, and NFL coaches with their backs against the wall are still passing up golden opportunities for rusty ones. It's almost like they're not reading the column. It's weird.
Look at Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys, for instance. They hosted the New York Jets with their entire season on the line; a loss would officially eliminate them from playoff contention. On Saturday night, in front of a captive national audience, Garrett's Cowboys walked into their ultra-luxury stadium knowing it was do or die.
A Week 15 lose-and-you're-out contest is getting the ball on your own 20 with three minutes left to play. You're deep in Fourth Down Territory, where every risk has to be taken and every opportunity leveraged. You can't punt and play for the next drive, because there won't be a next drive. This is the attitude Garrett should have had all game, and certainly one he should have adopted when their opening drive culminated in a 4th-and-4 from the Jets' nine-yard line:
Win Probability: 50 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 42 percent
Conversion Success Rate: 40 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 98 percent
This early in the game, the Cowboys—three point underdogs—still have a raw 50 percent chance of winning, and the spread-adjusted WP of 42 percent is simply that. But while top-notch kicker Dan Bailey from 28 yards is as automatic as it gets, 4th-and-4 from the opponents' nine is an eminently makeable target.
The New York Times' 4th-Down Bot gives the Cowboys a 40 percent chance of converting from there, far above the 21 percent break-even point it targets. Forget taking risks, this is just the smart choice.
Now, let's go back to taking risks for a second. The Dallas Cowboys ended this game with just four red-zone opportunities out of twelve possessions. This field goal—this conservative, play-it-safe, just-get-points field goal, which Bailey naturally booted straight through the uprights—blew one of their few chances to score a touchdown.
You might chalk this up to hindsight, but let's be real: So far this year, the Cowboys have had just 151 drives, tied for second-fewest in the NFL. They faced the Jets, who've allowed the second-fewest points per drive and joint-second fewest plays per drive. There is no rational way Garrett could have watched his Cowboys move the ball down the field on the opening possession and thought, "This is going to happen many more times in this game."
If Garrett understood his team or his opponent, he'd have known that this might very well be the only chance his offense had to mount a full-field touchdown drive. If Garrett has such baseless, boundless faith in his offense as to believe otherwise—unlikely, as he benched quarterback Matt Cassel in the second quarter—why doesn't he believe that offense can get four yards when they need it?
The Cowboys said no to a 40 percent chance to set up a first-and-goal and an all-but certain touchdown, in favor of an all-but certain field goal. The Cowboys lost by three.
HOUSTON TEXANS 13, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 10
This game was hardly a battle of titans, but it had outsized importance in the AFC's weakest division—the winner got a one-game lead over the other with two games to play, and an edge in the crucial head-to-head tiebreaker (and in the divisional tiebreaker after that). Both teams should have been going all-out to win at all costs.
So when the Colts received the second-half kickoff, up by a slap-fight score of 10-3, they should have done everything in their power to finish with points and take a commanding two-possession lead.
Instead, they faced 4th-and-1 from their own 39, and...
Win Probability: 78 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 80 percent
Conversion Success Rate: 67 percent
Now, Inopportune Knocks generally looks at first-half opportunities, but I've made a few exceptions for egregious failures with second-half-starting possessions like this one. And, hoo boy do we have an egregious failure, here.
One of the most consistent failures of NFL head coaches is understanding just how easy it is to get one yard or less. A quarterback sneak, a dive up the middle, whatever—no matter where it happens on the field these short-yardage situations are converted far more often than not.
The New York Times 4th-Down Bot pegged the Colts' odds of converting here at 2:3. That's not a slam dunk, but it's well above the bot's projected break-even point of 53 percent. Should the Colts continue the drive and score even a field goal, their adjusted win probability would jump to about 90 percent, per the Pro Football Reference WP calculator.
As it happens, they had the decision made for them: Pat McAfee punted, but Texans defender Whitney Mercilus ran into him, giving the Colts 1st-and-10 from the 44. (It was not a very good football game.) As the Colts approached midfield, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck committed intentional grounding to avoid getting sacked by J.J. Watt. The penalty set up 4th-and-19, scuttling the drive.
The Colts didn't score another point.
OPENING THE DOOR
Process, not results. Make good decisions based on rational analysis and probabilities, judge after the fact based on rational analysis and probabilities. It does not sound that complicated, but NFL coaches apparently find it much more difficult than it looks.
So let's congratulate Lovie Smith for looking at a 4th-and-1 from his opponent's 23-yard-line, then looking at the NFL's second-leading rusher standing on his sideline and thinking, "Yes, we can convert this."
Whether Smith knew his offense had a nominal 67 percent chance of converting on 4th-and-1, nobody knows. But as the 4th-Down Bot confirms, Smith rightly went for it to maximize his chance of scoring a crucial touchdown, thus closing the gap between his Buccaneers and Rams from 11 points to four.
As it happens, Martin got stuffed by Aaron Donald for a loss of two, the Rams scored a touchdown on the following possession and the Buccaneers lost.
It's easy to point at that decision and say, "See? The Bucs lost the game right there." This is doubtless a big part of why so few coaches make this decision. But had Tampa kicked the field goal and made the game 14-6 instead of 14-3, it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. This is the dark seduction of the conservative play: it fools you into thinking the risk of an aggressive play is losing the game, when failing to seize on a good opportunity still seals your fate.