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​Inopportune Knocks: Self-Sabotage by NFL Coaches, Week 8

That feeling when you pass on a relatively easy fourth-and-short to settle for a field goal, and then lose by three.

by Ty Schalter
Nov 3 2015, 6:35pm

Dale Zanine-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.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 23, ATLANTA FALCONS 20

The message of Inopportune Knocks is a simple one: NFL coaches are generally far too conservative, especially in the first half.

Of course, there are game contexts where aggressive risk-taking is even more necessary: when a team is a big underdog and needs to grasp any chance at victory; when a team is a huge favorite and can afford to make a mistake in order to press an advantage; and when you really, really need to win.

For the Atlanta Falcons, this game ticked the latter two checkboxes.

Read More: Dumb Football with Mike Tunison, Week 8

As seven-point home favorites, a 6-1 team hosting a 2-4 team, the Falcons had every reason to believe they would outclass the Bucs on both sides of the ball. They had a huge talent advantage, and should have felt comfortable pressing it.

Second, the Falcons badly needed this win. After being shocked by the New Orleans Saints in Week 6, the Falcons were looking up at the undefeated Panthers—and with that Saints loss being a divisional loss, the Falcons were also at a disadvantage in the No. 2 tiebreaker. They should have given the Bucs everything they had from start to finish.

The Falcons' talent advantage was immediately obvious: they drove from their own 26-yard line to the Tampa Bay six in just eight plays. Then, at 1st-and-goal, the Falcons:

  • Ran Devonta Freeman for no gain
  • Caught the Bucs offside, threw a pick on the free play (half the distance to the goal)
  • Ran Devonta Freeman for no gain
  • Threw incomplete

So on the 4th down, at the Buccaneers' three-yard line, the Falcons kicked a field goal. We hardly need to run the numbers here, but for the record:

Win Probability: 57 percent

Adjusted Win Probability: 79 percent

Touchdown Success Rate: 39 percent

Field Goal Success Rate: 99 percent

Brian Burke's Win Probability model, which understands high-leverage situations like the ends of halves or games, calls this a wash: the high-risk, high-reward choice of going for it pays off just enough to even out with the all-but-guaranteed safe bet. After all, going up 7-0 this early in the game isn't a dagger, no matter how much of an underdog the Bucs are.

However, on an initial drive like this, we should favor the Expected Points model—and it thinks the Falcons should go for it, setting the break-even point at 34 percent. With a success rate of 39 percent, math says go (and, Gambler's Fallacy here, but after four failed attempts from this close, an offense this good is due to break through).

What really sells it, though, is the failure case: If the Falcons go for it and fail? No biggie! It's unlikely the Bucs drive 97 yards for a touchdown on their 13th-ranked defense—so unlikely that the Falcons' Adjusted WP would only drop from 79 percent to 72 percent on failure.

However, if they went for it and converted, the Falcons' AWP would soar to 87 percent—again, not a dagger, not a certainty, but a huge position of strength from which to dictate the flow of the game.

Of course, they kicked the field goal. Four straight Falcons turnovers later, the Buccaneers built up a 20-3 lead—juuuuuuuuust big enough to hold off the Falcons' comeback attempt and force overtime.

The last play of the game was a 4th-and-7 from the Falcons' 42, with the Falcons trailing by a field goal in overtime. Due to the situation, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was compelled to go for it.

You think he'd rather have been able to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the Bucs' three?

To go for it, or not to go for it and then end up losing by 3. That is the question. Photo by Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports.

BALTIMORE RAVENS 29, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 26

The Ravens are already playing for pride, but the San Diego Chargers had a chance to stay relevant with a win here. Despite being 3.5-point underdogs, the Chargers could have stayed alive in the AFC Wild Card race by upsetting the 1-6 Ravens.

At 3-5, they would have been even with the just-won-in-London Kansas City Chiefs and within striking distance of every other non-undefeated AFC team.

Instead, when facing 4th-and-2 from the Ravens' 24, already down by three points, the Chargers attempted to equalize the score rather than finish the drive:

Win Probability: 43 percent

Adjusted Win Probability: 32 percent

First Down Success Rate: 60 percent

Field Goal Success Rate: 72 percent

These last two numbers are critical. "From the 24" doesn't sound like very far away, but a 42-yard field goal is no gimme—and in this part of the field, NFL teams convert 4th-and-2 far more often than not.

Both the WP model and EP model strongly favor going for it here, with EP pegging the break-even point at 49 percent, and WP a far lower 36 percent. This suggests WP sees this as a high-leverage moment, a chance when being aggressive could swing the odds strongly in one team's favor.

By laying up here, the Chargers cut their chances of winning by almost half. How?

After the field goal, the Ravens took over on their own 20, with the score tied and 5:44 left in the first quarter. Per Brian Burke's Adjusted WP model, the favored Ravens then had a 66 percent chance to win; if the Chargers had converted the first down and gone on to score, the Ravens' AWP at the start of their next drive would have been just 51 percent.

The Chargers passed on a 1-in-2 chance of victory for a 1-in-3 shot, all because a field goal was 20 percent less likely to fail than a two-yard conversion attempt.

Oh, and they also gave up a great chance to score four more points in a game they went on to lose by three.

OPENING THE DOOR

The New York Giants-New Orleans Saints game was one of the craziest ever played, and there's very little first-half Butterfly Effect to be found in a game that swung back and forth so wildly in the second half.

Tom Coughlin and the Giants deserve a pat on the back for recognizing a crucial early opportunity and taking advantage of it. On their opening drive, they got down to the Saints' one-yard line. They twice tried to plunge it in from there, getting stuffed once and driven back a yard on the second attempt.

On 4th-and-2, they found the biggest tool in their box—Eli Manning to Odell Beckham, Jr.—and hit the situation on the head with it. The touchdown gave the Giants, three-point underdogs, a 7-0 lead in a winnable game they desperately needed in order to stay ahead of the rest of the NFC East.

They didn't get the win, but they got the most out of that critical early possession.