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.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 39, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 17
Five weeks into Inopportune Knocks, and even the less-astute VICE Sports reader will have detected a theme: Go for it.
Go for it, go for it, go for it—no matter the down, no matter the distance, no matter the time or score, this column always seems to exhort coaches to go for it. Not today.
Granted, Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles went on to win this one handily—but with 6:10 left in the second half, and the game still tied at seven, they faced a 4th-and-9 from the Saints' 35. They went for it. They didn't get it.
Mike Tanier, co-author of the Football Outsiders almanac, had an immediate and visceral reaction against this crazy gamble:
There's no question Tanier understands modern football decision-making—and yes, running the numbers, reveals kicking was the right thing to do:
Win Probability: 51 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 60 percent
First Down Success Rate: 36 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 50 percent
Both the Win Probability and Expected Points model suggest kicking is the optimal choice—but even then it's really, really close. The WP in case of success is almost identical: 0.62 for a conversion, 0.61 for a field goal. The WP in case of failure is almost identical: 0.46 for a conversion, 0.45 for a failure. The extreme to-go distance, nine yards, makes the difference here: A 52-yard field goal is a 50-50 shot for the nominal NFL kicker, while NFL teams convert in this situation only 36 percent of the time. Brian Burke's 4th-down calculator targets the break-even point—how likely going for it would have to be to make it the best choice—at 44 percent, just beyond our 36-percent figure.
The New York Times' 4th-down Bot, using a new Win Probability model developed by data scientist Trey Causey, also preferred kicking, but by an even smaller margin.
That Tanier—a Football Outsiders O.G, former high school math teacher and one of the smartest football minds on the planet—rejected Kelly's "gamble" out of hand shows how deep the chasm is between football culture's Mister-Burns-playing-the-percentages gut checks and the actual percentages.
BUFFALO BILLS 14, TENNESSEE TITANS 13
Ken Whisenhunt taught a graduate-level class in coaching derpitude last Sunday, and he learned a valuable lesson.
On the Titans' opening drive, Marcus Mariota led his Titans to the Buffalo 44-yard line. On a crucial third down, the Bills defense pressured him into a scramble that ended just two yards short of the sticks.
Whisenhunt's offense needed two yards to convert and extend the drive into scoring position:
Win Probability: 48 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 31 percent
First Down Success Rate: 60 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 48 percent
This is the madness of Coach Whiz.
It's 4th and 2. He's a four-point home underdog. He's got a 60 percent chance of extending a drive deeper into enemy territory. He's got a 48 percent chance of making a field goal.
If he'd gone for it and failed, the AWP would have fallen from 0.31 to 0.28. If he'd kicked the field goal and missed, it would have fallen from 0.31 to 0.27. The punt, which pinned the Bills at their own 11, held the Titans' Adjusted Win Probability steady at 0.31.
Had the Titans kicked the field goal successfully, it would have gone up from 0.31 to 0.41. Had the drive continued and resulted in a touchdown a minute later, it would have gone up from 0.31 to 0.54.
Whisenhunt turned down a more-likely-than-not opportunity to put his team in command of the game in order to keep his 31-percent chance of winning from falling to 28 or 27 percent.
Then he did it again. With 3:01 left in the first quarter, he punted on 4th-and-2 from the Bills' 39. In between, he'd punted on 4th-and-9 from the Bills' 48. Three first-half punts from inside enemy territory, not to mention a field-goal attempt on 4th-and-2 from the Buffalo three-yard line.
The Titans' last possession came with just 1:41 left in the fourth quarter. On the first play, Mariota went deep for Kendall Wright—and misread the coverage, resulting in both a game-ending interception and a head injury for Wright.
After the one-point loss, Whisenhunt reflected on that decision for Jim Wyatt of the team's official site.
"I wish," Whisenhunt said, "I would've done something a little more conservative."
NEW YORK GIANTS 30, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 27
The 49ers had no business winning this game. As seven-point road underdogs, they had no business even being in this game. Yet, they showed up and played well enough that only a patented Eli Manning Helmet Pass-Catch Miracle could defeat them in the game's dying minutes.
Truly, though, they lost the game much earlier.
With 1:11 left in the first half, Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers down to the Giants' 13-yard line. Already down 13-3, Kaepernick had four downs to get to the Giants' three and earn another four downs to score.
Two quick throws to Anquan Boldin netted nine yards, but a third straight Boldin target on 3rd-and-1 fell incomplete.
This set up 4th-and-1:
Win Probability: 26 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 13 percent
First Down Success Rate: 55 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 98 percent
That Adjusted Win Probability shows how dire the situation really is: As seven-point underdogs down by 10 just before halftime, the 49ers have only a 13 percent chance of winning. After the field goal, they have...a 14 percent chance of winning, per AWP.
Had the 49ers converted, and gone on to score the touchdown, they'd have cut the Giants' lead to three, run the clock down to almost nothing and had a 23 percent chance of going on to win—a 61% increase in AWP over kicking the field goal.
Oh, they also would have scored the four points they needed to pull off the season-saving upset.