Should The 49ers Have Taken Points Off The Board?

San Francisco fans are now questioning Jim Harbaugh's decision to defer enforcement of a penalty on a successful field goal that would have given his offense a first down deep in Dallas territory. Taking points off the board is often the smart play, so did Harbaugh make a good call?

On 4th and 1 with 11:16 in the 4th qtr, 49ers kicker David Akers booted a 55-yard FG to put his team up by 10. Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking was flagged for a 'leverage' penalty, meaning he used teammates to help elevate himself attempting to block the kick.

As I understand the rule, Harbaugh had the option of accepting the penalty for a 1st down at the Dallas 22 or deferring enforcement to the ensuing kickoff. He chose to forgo the 1st down, take the 3 points, and take the 15 yards on the kickoff.

The 15-yard enforcement on the kickoff ensures a touchback. By taking the 3 points, the 49ers have a 10-point lead with the Cowboys having a 1st down at their own 20. This gave the 49ers a win probability (WP) of 0.90.

Accepting the penalty for a 1st down gives the 49ers the ball at the Dallas 22, up by 7. This is worth a WP of 0.91.

The percentage play would have been to take the points off the board and accept the 1st down, but just barely. In the grand scheme, this is a very small error. The common punt or FG attempt on 4th and short in most game situations is usually more costly, and most fans and analysts hardly take note of them.

To put the 0.01 WP error in context, on SF's following possession that resulted in a 3-and-out, EB Frank Gore gained 2 yards on 1st and 10, costing 0.01 WPA. Had he gained 4 or 5 yds, he would have broken even in terms of WP. So the error is no worse than the difference of a couple yards on first down.

I can see why Harbaugh felt comfortable with a 10-point lead. It meant the Cowboys would need a TD drive, a stop, and another scoring drive. A TD and then a last minute FG only gets Dallas a 50/50 shot in OT. Unfortunately for the 49ers, that's exactly what happened, and OT went the Cowboys' way.

Edit: I should have pointed out that the real mistake was not going for it on 4th and 1 from the 37. It's a no-brainer. Going for it gives the 49ers a 0.87 WP, and attempting the FG gives them a 0.84 WP, for an error of 0.04 WP. See below for the calculation.

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21 Responses to “Should The 49ers Have Taken Points Off The Board?”

  1. Dan says:

    Interesting one. What was the WP of going for it on 4th and 1 before the field goal attempt? And what was the WP of going for the FG? My guess is that the real mistake was going for the FG in the first place. But once it was made, it was basically a toss-up between keeping it on the board and accepting the penalty. And you can basically guarantee that a coach will make the safer move in a toss-up situation.

  2. Brian Burke says:

    It's a slam dunk you go for it on 4th and 1 from the 37 in just about ANY situation.

    WP(make FG) = 0.89
    WP(miss FG) = 0.77

    Prob of FG success from 37 = 0.50

    =>WP(FG attempt) = 0.83

    WP(conv 1st dn) = 0.90
    WP(conv fail) = 0.79

    Prob of conversion = 0.75

    =>WP(conversion attempt) = 0.87

  3. Ian Simcox says:

    Interesting to look at this one from an EP point of view too.

    Firstly, the decision to kick the FG rather than Go For It cost 1.66 EP (based on the .50 and .75 probabilities above).

    Then, the decision to leave the points on the board cost another 1.28 EP.

    For a man who wants to leave points on the board, he isn't shy about taking opportunities to score those points away from his offense.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Curious what the exact difference is between a guaranteed touchback and an average kickoff in terms of WP at that point in the game? Also, is your model assuming historical touchback rates, or adjusting to the rule change? I.e., I would imagine a guaranteed touchback is worth less this year to the kicking team than it has been in years past. Finally, I am wondering if the wind changed the expected FG success rate and touchback rate.

  5. G says:

    How appealing is an onside kick from the 50 yard line in terms of EPA? It seems like at that point you may as well since you're only giving up 20 yards of field position in exchange for a chance at possession (with great field position to boot).

  6. Brian Burke says:

    G-Great point. We actually have a guest post in work on that topic. Look for it soon.

  7. Mike says:

    There's some pushback on Chan Gailey for kicking on 4th and 1 early in the game, from around the 10 yard line (the Bills were down 14-0).

    My numbers sense tells me it was the wrong decision, but my gut - colored of course by a three-point victory - says that sometimes, you just need to break the shutout first and then start putting points on the board in earnest.

  8. James says:

    I wish there was some way to quantify the change in Tony Romo in the past week that made him go from a 4th quarter choke artist to someone with the will, determination, and leadership to orchestrate comeback drives in regulation and overtime.

    It really is a shame he only developed those skills in the past 7 days, and not during the offseason, as it would have be oh so useful last week.

  9. Brian Burke says:

    I think the only time to kick on 4th and 1 is inside the 20 down by <3 pts with less than 1:30 to play in the 4th. Maybe 1:00 to play if the opponent has 2+ timeouts remaining.

    That's not really true, if you're up by 5+ points in the final few minutes it makes sense.

    James-That has to break the record for driest, funniest comment here. Maybe Chris Berman arranged a conversation between Romo and Favre, and Favre 'taught him how to win.'

  10. Ravi says:

    What about not calling timeout with 38 seconds left when the Cowboys were obviously going to kick a field goal? That killed me - we had two timeouts and at least should have given Ginn a chance to return the kick. It seemed like a boneheaded move from a statistics standpoint...

  11. James says:

    While we're on a related topic, I'm not a fan of ESPN's QBR. ESPN says Romo had a QBR of 59.9 in the first half (remember, 50.0 is average) when he went:

    8-17, 47%, 144 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 8.5 NY/Att

    After the whole game he had a 94.0 QBR, with:

    12-16, 75%, 196 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 11.5 NY/Att (including 1 sack for 5 yards lost)

    Completion percentage goes up significantly, and NY/Att goes from well above average to extraordinarily high, but is that really worth a 35 point difference? Obviously QBR considers the situation, but it seems that QBR is too heavily WPA dependent and not really "performance" dependent.

    I know I'm preaching to the choir, but what's the point in telling me someone had a good game because the team won? I don't need QBR to tell me that, that's what the scoreboard is for.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think we should be grateful for Jim Harbaugh and what he has accomplished with the Niners even though he did not have a normal time frame to work with. The first 2 games the Niners have actually looked like an NFL team. The fundamentals are much better than anything we have seen in years. The O line has yet to come together but they are beginning to work together better. Ware's name was not mentioned in the first half. The shut him down. Nobody can make Alex Smith's footwork faster. He is a Clydesdale but given the extra second he needs he is very accurate. Remember how terrible this team was last year and how fat we have come. We can take this division if we play like we did on Sunday. Harbaugh is managing the team conservatively. He won't gamble till he has to. He's a first year coach

  13. Brian Burke says:

    One quick note here. This post has gone somewhat viral today, and the biggest criticism is that it's a 'hindsight is 20/20', 'Monday morning QB' thing.

    That's not true. In fact, this analysis was complete before the season started. I might have typed this up after the game ended, but this is the exact same advice the WP model would give a team on the fly and has been providing for a few years now.

    It's exactly the opposite of hindsight.

  14. Ravi says:

    Very good point. Brian, what's your take on the no timeout? That seems like it would have a very high impact on WPA. Getting the ball back with 38 seconds and a timeout seems like a solid opportunity to win the game.

  15. Bigmouth says:

    We were just discussing this over on Niners Nation with citations to your Win Probability calculator. Personally, I was surprised the difference in Win Probability was so small. One nuance I missed was the part about the guaranteed touchback making the difference .01, rather than .02, but it's a small amount either way.

    It's also funny that you mention the decision not to go for it on 4th down. I happened to be rereading your 4th down analyses right before the game. And when the question came up while my friend and I were watching, I was able to state with certainty that it almost certainly made sense to go for it as they were at the 37.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Just get a real QB Alex Smith is not the answer !

  17. Anonymous says:

    The analysis of these statistics have been combed over many times. Will a professional NFL coach REALLY play those cards for an entire season ? Not unless he is making an 'I do not care, this is the me' statement. Those coaches are pretty rare... especially in today's climate.
    I would Love to see it though, I am sure that you have all noticed this starting to take place to a degree at the HS level. Only a matter of time.

  18. Anonymous says:

    One thing I'd like to point out is that the 91% WP is probably even higher given this specific situation. For one, Akers is something like 93% on FGs under 40 yards so we need to account for the fact we're not using a random NFL kicker. Secondly, and correct me if I misinterpret how WP is calculated, but I assume the way Harbaugh would play this specific 1st and 10 at the 20 will be ultra conservatively. i.e he has the option to run three straight times and kick. Yes, it's possible we turn it over, miss the FG, but are these possibilities less than a standard situation given the personnel and nature of the play calls?

    In overtime, given two random teams we are 50%/50% but vs a team you are clearly worse than, you are not 50% as a model will assume. Brian, please correct me if my assumption here is off.

    Great site.

    -Dan

  19. Anonymous says:

    accepting the penalty would have also given the 49ers an opportunity to kill more time off the clock. How would that have affected the WPA? Just say they ran the ball three more times and kicked an easy field goal for Akers. They could have killed at least 2 minutes off the clock.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous said...
    "The analysis of these statistics have been combed over many times. Will a professional NFL coach REALLY play those cards for an entire season ? Not unless he is making an 'I do not care, this is the me' statement. Those coaches are pretty rare... especially in today's climate.
    I would Love to see it though, I am sure that you have all noticed this starting to take place to a degree at the HS level. Only a matter of time."

    The only coach that gets this is Kevin Kelley.

  21. Brian Burke says:

    Yes, the time considerations of accepting the penalty are factored in by the WP model.

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