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.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 15, DENVER BRONCOS 12
This was always going to be a low-scoring game, and most everyone knew it. Vegas set the under at 43.5 points, per Oddsshark, and was right to do it. With the NFL's top scoring defense likely to shut down the Raiders, and the Broncos' offensive staff treating new quarterback Brock Osweiler with kid gloves, there was no way either team was going to put up points in bunches.
Although three of the Broncos' first four drives ended in points, and the fourth included a wise conversion attempt on 4th-and-1 from the Raiders' 37-yard line, none of those ended with touchdowns. On the Broncos' fifth drive, the last one before the half, Osweiler ran a perfect four-minute offense: With 3:36 left in the half, he led his squad from the Denver 37 to Oakland's two-yard line in 3:18.
With 1st-and-goal at the two and 18 seconds left on the clock, this was a golden opportunity; Pro Football Reference's Win Probability calculator gave this situation an Expected Points value of 6.74—a touchdown almost every time.
But after three Osweiler incompletions, the Broncos faced 4th-and-2:
Expected Points: 3.25
Win Probability: 82.6 percent
Adjusted Win Probability: 89.6 percent
As I've written before in this space, the nominal success rate of scoring from a yard or two out is very high, and leveraging those odds with four trials leads to very high success rates indeed. A true goal-line stand, where a team starts with 1st-and-1 or 1st-and-2 and gets stuffed four times, only happens about one out of twenty times.
With a likely low-scoring game playing out exactly as expected, and the Broncos—six-point favorites—up by nine and pitching a shutout, they needed to go for the kill. The New York Times 4th-Down Bot chose not to render a verdict, "because there may not be enough time to complete the drive." With 10 seconds left before halftime, the Bot didn't want to suggest going for it on 4th-and-2 from the opponent's 37-yard line, because with just ten seconds left the extra field position wouldn't matter.
In this case, it was very clear that 10 seconds would have been enough time to finish the drive, and that the opponent would not have time to answer. Had the Broncos gone for it and succeeded, that would have put them up (at least) 16-0 at the half, giving them a spread-adjusted win probability of 97.7 percent. If they go for two and make it a three-possession game, it rises to an all-but-prohibitive 98.2 percent.
Instead, head coach Gary Kubiak shrank away from giving his young quarterback a chance to finish the drive. Kicker Brandon McManus converted his fourth field goal of the afternoon, and the Broncos went up 12-0.
They didn't score another point. They lost 15-12.
This is the lesson of Inopportune Knocks: Never take a possession for granted. Don't kick the can down the road, or more to the point kick the football through the uprights when you've got a chance to do more than that. Don't pass up easy opportunities to win the game in the first half in favor of harder ones in the second half. Please don't.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 10, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 3
In order to win this game, Mike McCoy, you have five minutes to complete a 20-play touchdown drive. It's driving wind and rain. Your offense is facing a defense that's allowed an average of 14.4 points over their last eight games.
You'll need to convert on 4th-and-3 from their 45-yard line, 4th-and-10 from their 39-yard line, 4th-and-10 from their 23-yard line, get down inside their one-yard line with 0:05 on the clock and then somehow get three chances to score a touchdown.
Oh, what's that? You somehow accomplished all of those wildly improbable things, but ran out of time after failing to cash in on the third straight scoring try from goal-to-go?
Maybe you shouldn't have punted from 4th-and-2 on your 41-yard line on the opening drive.
Maybe you shouldn't have sent a kicker ranked 18th in field-goal accuracy this year to try a 42-yarder in a downpour, allowing his resulting miss to waste a golden chance offered by a muffed Chiefs punt return.
Maybe you shouldn't have punted on 4th-and-7 from your opponent's 42 in the middle of the second quarter.
Maybe you should have taken advantage of one of the many opportunities you had to actually stay in the game, rather than coaching to "stay in the game" and then praying that your miracle-worker quarterback could work four miracles on a single drive.
OPENING THE DOOR
Going into Monday Night Football, the Miami Dolphins were 5-7 and had absolutely nothing to play for—well, nothing but pride, their jobs, and the 65,408 customers who paid to see a good show. Their opponents, the 5-7 New York Giants, were also 5-7, but somehow playing to hold on to their share of the NFC East division lead.
Nevertheless, Dolphins head coach Dan Campbell—who has been pilloried in these pages—coached like he was the one with something to lose.
After Dolphins tight end Dion Sims fumbled away the ball on the third play of the game, the Giants mounted a quick, short scoring drive. However, they pulled up short: Facing 4th-and-3 on the Dolphins' 17-yard line, they opted to go for the field goal.
On the ensuing drive, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was effective and efficient, quickly moving the ball down field. When Campbell had to make a 4th-and-1 call on the Giants' 28, he made the right call. Power back Lamar Miller got two yards when the Dolphins needed one; the extended drive resulted in a Miller touchdown run.
What a massive swing: Had the Giants been aggressive and the Dolphins conservative, the score might have been 7-3 or 7-0 to New York, instead of 7-3 to Miami.
In the end, there was just too much Odell Beckham for the Dolphins to finish the win—but their first-quarter aggressiveness kept them in it all the way to the end; the game was tied 24-24 going into the fourth quarter.
Campbell proved that for the right kind of coach, pride and job security are reward enough to justify pulling out all the stops.