There were a plethora of interesting coaching decisions this week, especially in the early games on Sunday. Avid readers cringe at these conservative calls so let's look at a few of them a little closer.
Cleveland Browns: Punted on 4th-and-1 on the Indy 41-yard line down by four with a little over six minutes remaining.
On what was likely the worst decision of the day, the Browns cut their expected win probability almost in half by punting. On 4th-and-1 from the opponent's 41, you should almost always go for it. You are expected to score +1.58 points by going for it (74% league-wide conversion rate) versus -0.04 points by punting.
The Browns would actually get the ball back, as Pat Shurmur had planned, but they would ultimately fall to the Colts. The fact that they got the ball back does not mean it was the correct decision.
Washington Redskins: Attempted a 44-yard field goal down seven on 4th-and-5 from the Giants' 27-yard line with about seven minutes remaining.
Not as absurd a decision, but a field goal converts at 68% and 4th-and-5 converts at 49%. Successful conversion means 31% chance to win the game while a made field goal only increases win probability from 19% to 21%. That means the break-even point is if you believe you can convert above 40% of the time. With the offensive weapons available for Kyle Shanahan and RGIII, the Skins should have gone for it.
The Redskins would stop the Giants and score the go-ahead touchdown, only to have Eli complete a 77-yard bomb to Victor Cruz. Again, the fact that the Skins ended up ahead of the Giants (briefly), does not make kicking the field goal the correct decision. Given that we are using league-wide baselines, though, this was not nearly as egregious an error.
Baltimore Ravens: Attempted a 54-yard field goal down 26 to the Texans on 4th-and-27 with about 13 minutes remaining.
Potentially a negligible decision, going for it, punting and kicking a field goal all result in ~1% chance of winning. A successful conversion, however, results in a 2% chance of winning. As an underdog, it is extremely important to play high-variance strategies. Attempting a 54-yard field goal to change the deficit from 26 to 23 is the opposite of high-variance. For the record, the 4th-and-27 converts about 10% of the time.
Dallas Cowboys: Ran a dive on 3rd-and-9 from the Panthers' 15-yard line down one with 3:28 left.
This situation gives the Cowboys about a 60% chance to win the game. They have a chip shot field goal to take the lead. But, in today's NFL with amazingly accurate kickers, leading by a field goal or less when your opponent has time left on the clock does not mean much. Rather than try to convert on 3rd-and-9 and score a go-ahead touchdown, the Cowboys were content with a two point lead -- even though Cam Newton would have over three minutes to lead a field-goal drive.
If the Cowboys were able to convert, their win probability would jump to 68%. A touchdown means a 77-81% chance of winning depending on the two-point conversion. Why run the ball not hoping to convert, especially when there is a 90% chance to make the field goal as is?
These were the one's I happened to notice, I'm sure there were others too. I do give credit to Mike Shanahan for going for it on 4th-and-2 from the Giants' 48 and 4th-and-1 from the Giants' 30 during the game. It just gets tough to watch coaches continue to shoot themselves in the feet based on groupthink mentality.
Some notes from the Jaguars/Raiders game:
Down seven to the Jaguars with 3:30 left in the game, the Raiders trotted out their field goal team on 4th-and-10 from the Jaguars' 26-yard line. The Raiders then burned a time out and decided to go for it instead. My initial reaction was, "Yes, finally!" -- a field goal is pretty much meaningless and the Raiders had just burned a timeout. The numbers actually say the field goal is the better option. 4th-and-10 converts at 35% which leaves expected win probability at 12% going for it versus 16% kicking the field goal. Palmer threw a ball to the end zone where the Jags were called for pass interference -- another plus of passing the ball.
Then, with 1:50 left, the Jaguars punted on 4th-and-4 from the Raiders' 49-yard line in a tie game. This is a clear example of playing "not to lose" instead of playing to win. Especially for a team like the Jaguars that has very little to lose, going for it there should be the call. Yes, they had both a backup QB and running back in the game due to injuries and had only gained 7 yards on offense in the second half up to that point. The break-even point, though, is if you believe you can convert one out of every three times -- 20% less than the league-average 53% success rate on 4th-and-4.
Keith Goldner is the creator of Drive-By Football, and Chief Analyst at numberFire.com - The leading fantasy sports analytics platform. Follow him on twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook.