Coach Smith’s Gutsy Call
November 16, 2011 17 Comments
Coach Mike Smith was facing a tough decision. His Falcons were in overtime against the division-rival Saints. His team had been stopped on their own 29 yard-line and were facing fourth down and inches. Should he tell his players to punt, or go for it? A punt would be safe. Trying to get the first down would be the high-risk, high-reward play. Success would mean a good chance to win, failure would practically guarantee a loss. What play call would give his team the best chance to win?
He decided to be aggressive. He called for star running back Michael Turner to try pounding up the middle of the field.
It failed. The Saints were given the ball in easy range to score, and quickly did so. The media and fans criticized Smith for his stupid decision.
But is the criticism fair? If the play call had worked, I bet he would have been praised for his guts and brilliance. I think my favorite reaction came from ESPN writer Pat Yasinskas:
When Mike Smith first decided to go for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime, I liked the call. I thought it was gutsy and ambitious. After watching Michael Turner get stuffed, I changed my mind. Smith should have punted and taken his chances with his defense.
What a perfect, unabashed example of Outcome Bias! We have a tendency to judge a past decision solely based on the result, not on the quality of the choice given the information available at the time.
Did Coach Smith know that the play would fail? No, of course not. He took a risk, which could go well or poorly. The quality of his decision lies in the chances of success and the expected values for each call.
Fortunately, some other people at ESPN did the real analysis, using 10 years of historical data of teams’ chances to win based on factors like field position, score, time remaining, and so on:
Choice No. 1: Go for the first down
…Since 2001, the average conversion percentage for NFL teams that go for it on fourth-and-1 is 66 percent. Using this number, we can find the expected win probability for Atlanta if it chooses this option.
* Atlanta win probability if it converts (first-and-10 from own 30-yard line): 67.1 percent
* Atlanta win probability if it does not convert (Saints first-and-10 from Falcons’ 29-yard line): 18 percent.
* Expected win probability of going for the first down: 0.660*(.671) + (1-.660)*(.180) = 50.4%
Choice No. 2: Punt
* For this choice, we will assume the Falcons’ net punt average of 36 yards for this season. This means the expected field position of the Saints after the punt is their own 35-yard line. This situation (Saints with first-and-10 from their 35, in OT, etc.) would give the Falcons a win probability of 41.4%.
So by choosing to go for it on fourth down, the Falcons increased their win probability by 9 percentage points.
That’s a much better way to evaluate a coach’s decision! Based on a simple model and league averages (there are problems with both of those, but they’re better than simply trusting outcome!) the punt was not the best option. Smith made the right decision.
Well, sort of. There are different ways to go for the fourth-down conversion, and according to Brian Burke at AdvancedNFLStats, Smith chose the wrong one:
In these situations, quarterback sneaks have proven much more effective than having your running back take the ball. In a perfect game-theory world, defenses would realize their weakness and focus more effort on stopping it. But for now, it remains something more offenses teams can exploit. According to the numbers, the Falcons probably could have made a better decision.
And, of, course, it was OBVIOUS to me at the time that they should have called a quarterback sneak. </hindsight bias>