Andy Reid Is No Longer My Hero

Note: This post was taken from a series of comments on the recent Games of Week post. Thanks to all who contributed to the discussion.

About a month ago Eagles head coach Andy Reid was my hero of the week for his daring, and smart, onside kick to open the game against the Redskins. Although it failed and gave up 7 points, he got them back by going for it on 4th down inside field goal range, succeeding, and getting the touchdown.

This past week, however, Reid is again the goat. With 3 minutes left in a tie game against the Broncos, the Eagles faced a 4th and 1 from their own 49. The Eagles punted. This was a big mistake, and you don't even need fancy math or some win probability model to prove it. Worse, Reid made the exact same call a year ago in the infamous tie against the Bengals.

If you have a 4th and 1 at about the 50 and you go for it, the value of the two possible outcomes are exactly equal. In other words, either I have a 1st down at the 50, or my opponent has a 1st down at the 50. It's perfectly symmetrical. Now consider what punting means.

You know that punting will give the opponent the advantage in the game. You don't even need to know exactly how much. Just ask yourself if, with 3 minutes left in a tied game, you'd rather have the ball at your own 15-20 yard line or you'd rather let your opponent have the ball at their own 15-20 yard line. Would Reid rather have Brandon Marshall going deep for a pass, or DeSean Jackson? You'd obviously rather have the ball (unless maybe you're the 2009 Jets). As long as you think your chance of getting a yard and a half is close to or better than even, it makes sense to go for it. Punting takes you from a situation that's at least a 50% proposition to a situation that's well below 50%. No fancy math needed.

As it happened (in hindsight), the punt netted 40 yards and put Denver on the 9, avery lucky outcome for the Eagles. The Eagles eventually won the game, but only because the Broncos were unable to stop McNabb from converting on a 3rd and 25.

The exact numbers are stark: Punts from a team's own 49 typically net 33 yards, putting the Broncos on their own 18. In that situation, with 4 minutes to go, a team has about a 72% chance of winning. (You could think of it as a 22% chance of scoring to win, plus a 50% chance in overtime.) Punting gives the Eagles an expected 0.28 WP (1-0.72).

Fourth and 1s in that region of the field are converted about 74% of the time. Consequently, going for it gives the Eagles a 0.59 WP. That's an error of 0.31, ranking as the worst 4th down decision so far this year, nearly twice as costly as the next worst. But to be honest, it may not be quite that big. Although technically it was 4th and 1, it was more like 4th and 1 and 1/2, so the conversion probability was a little lower than I gave it. Still, 4th and 2s are converted 60% of the time.

Some may say the Eagles aren't known for their power running game, but would that drop their true, long-term probability below 0.50? On 4th and 1 this year, they are 4 for 8, hardly enough data for a conclusion. So let's look at 3rd and 1. The Eagles converted 16 out of 24 (67%) 3rd and 1 tries. On 3rd and 2 they converted 10 out of 15 (67%) tries.

Let's just be conservative and say it cost 0.20 WP instead of 0.31. Imagine being able to increase your team's chances of winning by 20 percentage points just by making a choice. It's like having Manny Mota on the bench and letting the pitcher hit.

Coincidentally, just like last year's Eagles-Bengals game, Reid was saved by a blunder nearly as atrocious. Following the Eagles' punt, the Broncos were unable to convert a first down. Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels faced a decision on 4th and 2 from their own 17 with just under 2 minutes left. You'd think going for it is suicide because failure gives the Eagles a short field goal in the best case, but you'd have a 60% chance of converting. The truth is, you're probably going to lose either way. A punt gives the Broncos a 0.31 WP, and going for it gives them a 0.46 WP, for a net difference of 0.15 WP. This ranks as the 4th worst 4th down decision of 2009.

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12 Responses to “Andy Reid Is No Longer My Hero”

  1. Anonymous says:

    "The Eagles eventually won the game, but only because the Broncos were unable to stop McNabb from converting on a 3rd and 25"

    Might want to get your facts straight: McNabb converted the 3rd and 25 before the 4th and 1 conversion, not after it. The only unlikely play on the final drive was Maclin's catch, but even if that catch had failed, it would've still been 3rd and 8.

  2. LarryinLA says:

    One thing that I question about these analyses is that you always use average yard line after the punt to get WP for the punt choice. I don't think that's right, though. One, is the WP(yard line) linear in the region being considered? That might be true as long as you are far enough away from the goal line, but it might not. Second, the distribution of possible starting yard lines won't be very symmetrical, due to touchbacks making the 20 yd line a very frequent outcome and starts inside the 10, and especially the five, very unlikely. Shouldn't this effect be accounted for? Maybe you've discussed it, or most likely it just isn't a big difference, but it always bothers me a little. Perhaps at least using the median rather than the average starting position might be an improvement.

  3. Brian Burke says:

    Ok. Thanks. I misremembered. Red Zone channel has given me football ADHD.

  4. Brian Burke says:

    Yes, the WP curves are very linear late in the game for field position. Only when you get inside fg range do they start bending upward.

  5. Marver says:

    "If you have a 4th and 1 at about the 50 and you go for it, the value of the two possible outcomes are exactly equal. In other words, either I have a 1st down at the 50, or my opponent has a 1st down at the 50. It's perfectly symmetrical."

    I'd argue it's actually in favor of the offense; the odds of a play exceeding the needed yardage is larger than the odds of an equivalent loss of yardage. More reason to criticize Reid.

  6. Joe G says:

    You said a team having the ball from their own 18 is 72 WP with 4 minutes to go. I'm wondering what the WP is for a team having the ball with 4 minutes to go on their own - say 5 yard line. I'm trying to figure the break even point similar to expected point - where the 15 yard line is the 0 expected points line.

    If you could say your punter could put it inside the 10 50% of the time, how much better does the punt decision get? (Not sure what punter %'s are for this skill.)

    Another view, given this analysis, how much time remaining would punting be equally as good as going for it? 5 minutes left? 6 minutes?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Considering that the Eagles had been at the short end of the field position battle for the entire 4th quarter up to that point and missing on a 4th down conversion puts them right back in that scenario (and as someone who was at the game, believe me, that was the worst possible thing that could have happened to that team), punting was hardly a bad decision.

    Plus, the Eagles have been having short-yardage difficulties for a couple of years now. Not to mention their starting center tore his ACL in the first quarter, which not only led to the running game performing poorly for the rest of the game but would make something such as, oh, I don't know, a QB sneak extremely difficult.

  8. Brian Burke says:

    The Eagles short yardage game is fine this year. See above.

    Are you really saying the Eagles should have forfeited a 20-30% chance of winning because they had field position problems earlier in the day, and that would have made them feel bad? And since you were there, you could sense these feelings?

    Good point on the center's ACL, though. Didn't realize that.

  9. Ryan P says:

    I don't think the coach should be thnking about any earlier field position battles if the current decision is in the final minutes of the 4th quarter. Field position matters when there is more time to go back and forth.

    That said, I still believe the reason coaches don't consider this type of analysis is the same reason politicians make certain ridiculous decisions...self-preservation. It's easier for Andy Reid to explain the punt, because if it backfires, it was the fault of the defensive scheme, plays called and the execution by the defensive players. If he goes for it and doesn't make it, the media descends on him as the lone scapegoat.

    Even if this only registers subconciously, I'm sure it influences coaches to play conservative.

  10. Anonymous says:

    "Field position matters when there is more time..."

    There was exactly enough time for the Eagles to get the ball back ~once. I don't see why field position wouldn't be as much of a deal as it was at any time.

    Andy specifically said that the reason he did it is because he thought they needed to flip field position.

  11. Jonathan says:

    "That said, I still believe the reason coaches don't consider this type of analysis is the same reason politicians make certain ridiculous decisions...self-preservation."

    Agreed. It's no coincidence that the most counter-intuitive decisions were:

    a) Either correct decisions or, at the very worst neutral decisions.
    b) Made by the two coaches in the NFL with the best job security.

    I'm talking about Mike Tomlin's onside kick and Bill Belichik's 4th-and-2. The Steelers never fire their coaches, while BB's job security is even more obvious.

  12. Daniel says:

    "You know that punting will give the opponent the advantage in the game. You don't even need to know exactly how much. Just ask yourself if, with 3 minutes left in a tied game, you'd rather have the ball at your own 15-20 yard line or you'd rather let your opponent have the ball at their own 15-20 yard line"

    But statistically, it's better to be on defense with the ball at the 14 than the offense, is it not? So it depends on how much you trust your punter at coffin corners.

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