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.
DENVER BRONCOS 17, CHICAGO BEARS 15
John Fox fell victim to one of the classic blunders: Never punt in enemy territory.
This is nothing new to VICE Sports readers; Inopportune Knocks devotees consider such a critique old hat, almost cliché. But this is a special situation.
The Chicago Bears had a rare opportunity: What looked before the season like a surefire loss (Peyton Manning and the Broncos coming to town) transmogrified into a very winnable game. In fact, there was no better team to take on Brock Osweiler in his debut than the Bears; head coach John Fox is the only one of 31 non-Broncos head coaches with thorough knowledge of Osweiler's strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
Here's the thing: Given the surprisingly close betting line (Chicago was getting between two and three points, per Oddsshark.com), and knowing the Broncos defense was allowing the fewest points of any in football, it behooved Fox to be conservative.
That's right: For what might be the first time in the eleven-issue history of Inopportune Knocks, caution is being advised. This is sure to be a low-scoring game, and one mistake might be one too many.
That said, the numbers facing Fox on a late-first-half 4th-and-3 from Denver's 42-yard line were unequivocal:
Win Probability: 45 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 41 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 20 percent
First Down Success Rate: 57 percent
Brian Burke's 4th-down calculator provides two models: Expected Points and Win Probability. WP is better suited to high-leverage situations, like at the end of halves—like this one. It sets the break-even point at 40 percent, meaning the success rate of going for it would have to be higher than 40 percent to mean it would optimize the odds of winning. Now, again—we're trying to be conservative; the Bears offense against what was coming into the game the NFL's best defense is hardly the league-average-against-league-average this model assumes.
But with a success rate of 57 percent, going for it was clearly the optimal choice. The best-case scenario of punting would have been pinning the Broncos opponent within their own 20-yard line. Bears punter Pat O'Donnell pulled exactly that off, pooching it 30 yards and forcing a fair catch at the 13.
After this well-executed punt, the Bears had the same raw Win Probability, 45 percent, and the same spread-Adjusted Win Probability, 41 percent. Had the Bears gone for it and failed, their WP would have dipped to 39 percent, and AWP to 35 percent.
Had they gone for it and succeeded—at least as likely as not—their WP would have risen to 54 percent, and AWP 49 percent. Had they gone on to finish the drive with a field goal, their chances would have improved to 55 and 51 percent. A touchdown, 68 and 64 percent.
Instead, the Broncos took the ball on their own 13, drove deep into Bears territory and with just seconds left drilled a chip shot field goal of their own.
The Bears lost by two.
DETROIT LIONS 18, OAKLAND RAIDERS 13
At this point in the season, we've covered whole "underdogs should be aggressive" thing. Detroit, who was a home underdog of at least a point at kickoff should theoretically have been trying extra-hard to win. But here's the thing: The Lions were playing only for pride (well, and their jobs for 2016). The Raiders came into the game with a real shot at the postseason.
At no point did they play like it.
The Raiders have one of the NFL's better young offenses, and coming into the game the Lions were ranked dead last in scoring defense. Yet, the Raiders scored precisely zero first-half points while the Lions' Matt Prater booted field goal after field goal after field goal. The two teams combined for six first-half punts, two of which were questionable Raiders decisions.
The first came in the opening quarter, on the Raiders' first possession, facing 4th-and-2 from their own 43. Sure, conventional wisdom says you don't go for it in your own territory on the opening drive; it's too soon for all that.
Of course, conventional wisdom is super-duper wrong, because you're often trading a very makeable 4th-and-2 from your own 43 at the beginning of the game, for, say, a wildly improbable Hail Mary at the end of the game.
Let's look at the numbers:
Win Probability: 41 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 44 percent
First Down Success Rate: 60 percent
At the opening of the game, it's better to use the Expected Points model, as time and situation aren't yet a factor. A successful conversion is worth +1.77 EP to the Raiders, while a failed conversion costs them -2.49. However, with a 60 percent chance of success, the total EP of going for it is +0.07. A punt here is worth -0.42, which you don't need a slide rule to figure out is significantly less than +0.07.
In order to make punting the truly wise choice, head coach Jack Del Rio would have to have thoughthis better-than-average offense had less than a 49 percent chance of converting against one of the league's worst defenses.
An average offense against an average defense converts 60 percent of the time.
We won't look at the 4th-and-3 from the Lions' 47 in the middle of the second quarter in detail; it's too similar to the Bears' situation above. The outcome, of course, was the same: The Raiders committed a voluntary turnover on two first-half drives—when in both cases, the numbers were screaming for them to go for it.
In the end, a touchdown from either drive (or a field goal from both) would have won the Raiders a winnable road game. Now, they've not only fallen a game behind the new No. 6 seed, the 5-5 Kansas City Chiefs, they're behind three other 5-5 teams, and tied with two other 4-6 squads.
In their remaining six games, the Raiders face Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers and the Chiefs—twice. Not only are they going to have to beat their two weaker opponents, Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers, they're going to need to play to win in four game they'll be expected to lose.
Let's hope Del Rio learned a lesson against the Lions.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 24, ATLANTA FALCONS 21
One of the most interesting aspects of NFL ultraconservatism is how, over the past five years, the incredible improvement of kickers has slowly made some formerly-stupid decisions smart.
Kickers are far more reliable now than they were when today's NFL head coaches were getting their start, learning from their mentors or (especially) playing themselves. Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight.com did a great study on this.
Field goals from 40-49 yards are now made, on average, better than three of every four tries. At the start of the 2000s, that rate was under 60 percent. Yet today, we think of anything under 50 as automatic.
Fifty-plus-yard field goals were a crapshoot for most of NFL history; they didn't even become a coin-flip flier until mid-1990s. It's only in the last decade that the chances of converting 50-plus has become consistently better than even odds.
As a result, even situations where the numbers scream to go for it can give coaches an ends-justify-the-means argument: If my kicker is making everything under 50 every time I send him out, why would I ever go for it?
The answer, of course, is that turning touchdown drives into field goals loses games.
Let's take the case of Matt Bryant, a fine kicker who has been mired in a bit of a slump this season. Coming into the game, Bryant was 14-for-17—a respectable 82.4 percent success rate, but down from the excellent 89.8 percent rate he posted over the previous five seasons.
The Falcons got a very early gift from backup Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck; he threw a pick with his very first attempt. Though they took over on the Colts' 34—already in "field goal range," that deceptive old chestnut—the Falcons weren't able to get much closer.
Facing 4th-and-5, head coach Dan Quinn sent his kicker out to attempt a 46-yard field goal.
First-Down Success Rate: 49 percent
Field Goal Success Rate: 64 percent
The 4th-down calculator is probably a little low on the field-goal accuracy guess; the data model doesn't entirely account for kickers being so much better in the last few years than they were a decade ago. That said, Bryant was 6-of-8 from between 40-49 yards coming into the game; two of his three misses were from that range.
After he missed this early kick against the Colts, Bryant dropped to 6-of-9 on the year, putting his success rate at 66 percent—just about exactly what the model predicts from that range.
A 49-percent chance of success on 4th-and-5 from the opponent's 29-yard line IS above the break-even point of 46 percent. In this instance, the point isn't to illustrate that Quinn should have had supreme confidence in his offense from there, but that Quinn—and other NFL head coaches—need to stop and consult the real percentages rather than assuming their kicker will always make everything under 50.