Cardinals Don't Believe Closer is Better

With three minutes left in the game, the Cardinals got the ball on their own 15-yard line, down 16-13 to the Bills. John Skelton, in for the injured Kevin Kolb after the fourth play of the drive, leads the offense to the Buffalo 43-yard line where they stall on three straight incomplete passes. So, it's 4th-and-10 with 1:14 remaining, do you attempt the 61-yard field goal for the tie, or try to convert the 4th-and-long?

Groupthink in the NFL says attempt the field goal, but as those avid readers will certainly know, groupthink is often far too conservative. Here is the breakdown, via Brian's 4th-down calculator:

4th-and-10 is converted 35% of the time on average. A successful conversion means 40% chance of winning because a) the game-tying field goal is much more manageable and b) the Cardinals would actually have a full minute to go in for the go-ahead touchdown. A missed field goal or turnover-on-downs results in a 3-4% chance to win, just by giving the ball back to Buffalo.  But, what about the field goal? 60-61 yard field goals convert around 15% of the time -- not impossible, but I wouldn't bet my savings on it. A made field goal (surprisingly) results in a 42% chance to win the game -- more than the conversion. Numbers say to go for it if you are convinced you can convert over 13% of the time.

Even if you have supreme faith in Jay Feely, the numbers still say to go for it. In fact, it only makes sense to kick the field goal if you believe your kicker can make that field goal more often than you can convert. Given our baselines, the Cardinals would need to think Feely could make it at least 35% of the time. Again, keep in mind, all these probabilities are baselines and different values apply to different situations and match-ups, but they are the necessary starting point for any decision-making.

Numbers be damned, Jay Feely banged it home confidently and left me to turn to twitter for everyone's astounded reactions. The number Gods, however, would have their vengeance.

After a quick Buffalo three-and-out, the Cardinals moved the ball to the Buffalo 20-yard line with about 0:40 remaining. Rather than running any more plays to either get closer or center the ball, Arizona waited until there were three seconds left to spike the ball for a game-winning field goal. The thought running through everyone's mind: "Jay just stuck it from 61, 38 is a guarantee." 38-yard field goals are mostly gimmes, but one out of five misses. With seven more yards, that falls to one out of 10. If you get it to the 8-yard line, kickers miss only one of 20. Obviously, with more plays you increase the chances of a mistake or turnover, but time and time again we see this same decision made. It's the "I'm in field goal range" myth -- as Brian says, "closer is always better".

 From Brian Burke's "Just For Kicks"
Feely doinked it off the upright and Buffalo would win in overtime after a John Skelton interception.

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

8 Responses to “Cardinals Don't Believe Closer is Better”

1. nottom says:

I'm not convinced the Cardinal's offense would convert 4th and 10 more often than Feeley can bang home a 61 yarder. I don't see this as nearly as big a mistake as Tomlin's call on Thursday night although "the numbers" surely disagree.

2. Anonymous says:

I watching Redzone so I didn't pay 100% to the circumstances but I could have sworn the Lions kicked a FG to tie the game with 1 second left on the 1 yard line rather than go for it and the win. Fortunately for them, they won the game. But I'm pretty sure that is a bad decision. Can you run the numbers on that?

3. Keith Goldner says:

Don't like to talk about the Lions game cause I'm an Eagles fan, but they had 0:05 left with 3rd-and-1 on the 1. So, if we treat that like it's their last play (so like a 4th down), numbers say to go for it, like you said. Success rate is 68% on 4th-and-1, gives E[WP] = 67%. WP of a made field goal (assume 100% conversion) is only 48%. So, as long as you think you can convert/score a TD over 48% of the time, correct decision is to go for the win.

4. Anonymous says:

Keith: not only is that true, but there's also a chance you could throw a quick slant/out that only lasts four seconds. Obviously, you run the risk of the home clock operator running all five off anyway, but there's a non-zero chance you could get two attempts out of it.

Of course, I think we all know there was a 0% chance of any NFL coach making a "ballsy" call like that. I'm sure Jaworski would have gone to his standard ironic statement of, "In that situation, you play the numbers and kick the field goal."

5. Wizard says:

Regarding Tomlins call, I am from Pittsburgh and the discussion was pretty split between going for it and punting. I think the field option should be the last choice. any numbers on this, Keith?.. seeing that there were 3 'reasonable' choices?
thanks

6. Wizard says:

To anonymous about the 0%. you dont think the Patriots go for that there?

7. Keith Goldner says:

Numbers are almost dead even for the final PIT field goal. 42% conversion on 4th-and-7, 48% chance of making the 54-yard field goal. Expected Win Probabilities are 60% for go-for-it, 61% for field goal, 49% for punt. Numbers are close enough that either going for it or kicking the field goal are reasonable options.

The interesting thing is, they had the same three options 8 minutes earlier while up 20-16. They kicked and made the field goal and numbers are expectation are 75% go for it, 75% field goal, and 76% for punt. But, if you don't take the score into account, going for it is the better option in terms of raw expected points (+0.7 go for it, +0.54 field goal, +0.16 punt)

8. Wizard says:

Keith, by the way, it surprises me that Suisham has a 48% chance of making a 54 yard field goal. how do you arrive at that by looking at all kicks 50 yards and more? if that is the case, I would highly suspect that perhaps 50-54 has a much better chance of being successful than 54 and up.