Should it be called “roughing” the passer or “touching” the passer?
The talk of the NFL today is about the two roughing the passer calls in the Baltimore-New England squeaker yesterday. Judging from comments around the blogosphere (plus Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy), the verdict on whether those calls were justified is pretty clear. In this post, I’ll mathematically prove that those calls were errors…No, just kidding. But what I will do is look at how crucial those calls were to the Patriots’ win. I'll also take a look at a critical 4th down call.
Both drives in question ended in touchdowns for the Patriots, worth a total of 14 points in their 26-20 victory over the Ravens. It might be temping to just subtract 14 from 26 and claim the Ravens would have won, but it’s obviously not that simple. From the point we change anything within the game, everything after that would unfold differently. We need to look at it probabilistically.
Unlike penalties like pass interference or holding, Sunday’s two “roughing” the passer calls (is my Baltimore bias showing through?) did not affect the outcome of the play itself. So we can look at the natural outcome of those plays and estimate the Pats’ WP assuming the penalties were not called.
The first penalty came as the Patriots trailed by 4 with 3:35 first quarter. A 3rd down and 9 pass from the Baltimore 37 fell incomplete. Without the penalty the Pats’ WP would have been 0.28, but with the 15 yard penalty their WP was 0.48, a difference of 0.20.
The second penalty came with 5:16 left in the second quarter. This time the Pats’ were up by 3 points. Their 2nd down and 11 pass from the Baltimore 43 was incomplete. Without the penalty the Pats’ WP would have been 0.63, but with the penalty their WP became 0.76, a difference of 0.13. Since New England still had the 3rd and 11 opportunity to convert (which are successful 30% of the time), the difference in WP was not as stark as the for the first penalty.
In total, that’s a difference of 0.33 WP, which is either substantial or extremely substantial depending on how you look at it. To win a team needs a 1.00 WP, so one way to think of it is that the calls accounted for about a third of the game outcome. But each team starts with about a 0.50 WP, so maybe we’re talking about a much greater proportion.
Thus concludes my biased rant. Admittedly, you can probably pick out a couple bad calls from any game and show how much they changed the outcome. The problem is that these particluar calls were judgment calls subject to vague interpretation. The NFL understandably wants to protect its marquee players, but in the process it’s allowing games to be decided by subjective opinions of officials as much as the play on the field.
I agree with Chase Stuart's distinction between violations of the rules of football (like off-sides) and 'disincentive' penalties (like roughing the passer). A better solution would be to have relatively severe fines and suspensions instead of in-game penalties for players who are truly unsportsmanlike. This would allow a detailed review of each play and not put game officials in the position of making split-second judgment calls that often decide game outcomes.
Another critical moment of the game was Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th down. Following the first roughing the passer penalty, the Patriots faced a 4th and 1 from Baltimore’s 3-yard line toward the end of the first quarter. The Patriots converted the 1st down with a 2-yard plunge by RB Sammy Morris, and they scored a go-ahead touchdown in the ensuing series.
Had they went for the near-automatic field goal, the Pats would have a 0.35 WP. Going for it, which could be expected to be successful 68% of the time, was worth 0.46 WP, a clear advantage of 0.11. The successful conversion gave them a 0.51 WP, and New England never relinquished the advantage for the rest of the day.