Archive for December, 2013

Why NFL coaches should go for it more on 4th downs

December 30, 2013

There was an interesting discussion thread started yesterday by readers Jay and Trav concerning 4th downs. I wanted to write a post on this because this is something I often get worked up about! And I also see a (very) gradual evolution in football that may eventually lead to NFL coaches coming around to my view on this. Anyway, here are the posts that got this started with my commentary beneath. Let us know what you think.

Read Jay wrote:   Oh hey… Question for you. I am sure you saw the stories on Pulaski HS in Arkansas. What do you think of the statistics based strategy? Think it could work in the NFL? I really enjoyed seeing Rodgers convert though 4th downs today!

Reader Trav responded:   Jay – Read that same article some time ago and it is an interesting use of the data to make game management decisions. We talk about this at work all the time with our business partners: “the data doesn’t lie”. I think it’s a matter of who will have the guts to step up and embrace a data driven decision model like this and be willing to take the heat for it when they don’t make a 4th down conversion and force a short field for the D.

I think what hurts NFL and College Head Coaches to the same extent, is that they have the precedent of “this is always how it was done” that rules their judgment along with, generally, being way too conservative in their management style.

Using the NBA as a counterpoint, it is such a statistics driven league to the point of how to defend a player to push them to a particular point on the court because their shooting percentage is X percentage points lower than at a different spot. Same with MLB.

You don’t read that much about the NFL using similar statistics, or I should say I haven’t seen cover stories pointing this out like the SI article you referenced. They may do it and it would be interesting to see how often the “gut” of the coach would override the data. I have to believe MM has a chart about when to go for 2 along with Asst Coaches with him and in this case went with his gut to kick the PAT rather than try it earlier in the 4th.

My Comment:  Good points Trav and Jay. Trav, I agree there is really an element of “this is how it’s always been done” – something that I find so unfortunate about the approach to 4th downs. And I also agree Trav that it often comes down to coaches not wanting to take the heat for bucking what has unfortunately become the conventional approach to 4th downs. While coaches may understandably fear the immediate and seemingly relentless scrutiny of the now ubiquitous NFL media and the wrath of the fans, that’s no excuse in my book because on a fundamental level, their overly conservative decisions are not supported by the available analytics.

Jay, I have read those articles and a few others about teams that have done this. The best guy to read on this stuff is Gregg Easterbrook – ESPN’s Tuesday Morning QB. Like me and the coaches of these teams, he can’t stand the weak coaching decisions to punt at times when it really doesn’t make sense and every week in his article he calls out the coaches that made poor 4th down decisions. Now, I’m not sure I’d go as far as some of these coaches go when they virtually never punt as there are actually some situations where I would punt. But overall, the numbers really do support being far more “aggressive” than coaches are on 4th downs and it’s really a wonder that more coaches don’t take more “risks”. And I don’t find it coincidental that the coaches that are usually more willing to take “risks” are simply better coaches (Belichick, Sean Payton, now Chip Kelly, etc). As you note Trav, I think MLB is a good example of how numbers can help make decisions (though I have to say, there are times when I think some MLB managers go perhaps too far the other way relying solely on numbers and discounting other factors).

Admittedly, there are a number of other factors to consider when going for it on 4th down like: how far do we have to go (stats obviously say the shorter the distance better chance of converting)?  where on the field am I? how good is my offense? how good is their defense (or how well has their defense been playing lately)? how good is my defense (if I have a stifling D, playing a field position game makes a tiny bit more sense)? how good is their offense? is it a home or away game? how good is my punter/kicker? is it early or late in the game? could my team use a momentum jolt? will not converting cause a major confidence meltdown for my team? past short-yardage conversion percentage? do I have good short-yardage conversion plays available? A good coach should be able to consider all these questions quickly in the moment when making a 4th down decision. And these factors do matter – and can and should at times cause a coach to perhaps disregard analytics.

But one other key factor that isn’t talked about much in discussions of all of this is that 4th downs are often made more difficult because of the play calls made on 3rd downs. In fact, if I were a coach, I would make the decision to go for it on 4th down, most of the time, before it is even 4th down. I would decide to go for it when making the play call for 3rd down. For example, if it’s 3rd and 7 at the 50 yard line, most teams try to throw it 7 yards to get the first. If they don’t get it they punt. That’s conventional wisdom (yet that’s not supported by the widely available/proven analytics). If I were a coach, I would tell the team on 3rd down that this is 4 down territory and I would call a run play or throw a short pass for 3-4 yards or so, leaving a much shorter 4th down conversion (of course still hoping my guy can get those 7 yards). Going about it this way would greatly increase the overall odds of converting then on 4th down and short. And defenses would likely be caught off guard as they’d be playing for the 7 yard pass and giving up pretty much anything less than that. Interestingly, this is how coaches should approach down/distance on 1st and 2nd downs too in order to increase the odds of a 3rd down conversion – part of why I find the Dallas Cowboys games so unwatchable (they face more 3rd and long plays than anyone it seems…). Anyway, if coaches embraced this approach (again, generally deciding on 3rd down that they will be going for it on 4th down if need be, and then going after shorter/higher percentage yards on 3rd down), the numbers that already support going for it on 4th down would be even harder to ignore because the yardage needed to convert on 4th down will have been decreased most likely by the 3rd down play. And the shorter the yardage needed to convert, the higher the chance of converting. Of course. (And I should add, that if the 4th down play call could be immediately ready for the team after 3rd down – i.e. no huddle – the 4th down conversion attempt would be considerably more difficult for a defense to defend as they likely wouldn’t have the right personnel on the field.)

Bottom line is – if I were a coach, I would go for it on 4th down quite a bit more than NFL coaches do. And that’s why I state often during Packer game live blogs that “this is 4 down territory”. While I can admit that I’d be concerned about the aftermath of a decision that didn’t quite work out if I were a coach, I wouldn’t let that guide my decisions making. In most cases after considering other factors, I would most likely let the numbers guide it.

Support for this viewpoint can be found in this fantastic article at the New York Times. Be sure to check out the chart that breaks down what NFL coaches typically do vs what they should do. Just fantastic.

Wasn’t Cutler over the line of scrimmage on that Hail Mary?

December 29, 2013

No it didn’t matter ultimately, but there was no flag – would have been another missed call by the officials. (Just saw a replay of that and remembered that I had seen that during the game too.

Orton with a tremendous throw to Witten there – but he still has awful hair

December 29, 2013

Watching Cowboys game – frustrating

December 29, 2013

Don’t get me wrong, I hate the Cowboys and like to see them lose. But I get so frustrated watching the coaching incompetence of Jason Garrett/OC Bill Callahan. They consistently call plays that end up leaving 3rd and long, which of course dramatically decreases the chances of converting a first down. And there are a seemingly huge number of improbable deep shots they take that often set up the 3rd and long. And Jason Garrett also continues to prefer kicking FGs to scoring TDs. He coaches as though he has a Dick LeBeau in-its-prime-Steeler defense and he doesn’t. So foolish.

Meanwhile, Philly is going for it on 4th and 1 at the goal-line. I love it.

Fantastic reaction from Badger football players

December 29, 2013

Click here for video of Badger football players watching the finish of the Packers/Bears game. Hilarious disappointment by the one Bears fan in the room.

Game Thoughts Packers/Bears

December 29, 2013
  • Phenomenal win. No way. Just a fantastic win. We hung in there even when things looked quite grim. We overcame a number of mistakes on offense, defense, special teams and coaching. Seriously if we can win a game making those kinds of mistakes, imagine what we might be able to do absent a number of those mistakes.
  • Rodgers is amazing. That was one of the most clutch passes I’ve ever seen. Big moments call for people who aren’t afraid of the stage.
  • Jordy was also huge today. He is so underrated. 161 yards receiving.
  • Let Rodgers huge play here today on 4th and 8 erase our memory of 4th and 26! Completing 3 fourth downs on that final drive takes a lot of guts – just to execute under that kind of pressure is phenomenal. This team continues to surprise.
  • These wins are reminding me of the days of the “Heart Attack Pack” – when we kept winning barely, and at the last second. While I’d prefer less exciting endings, I’ll take them.
  • As excited as I am that we’ve pushed through to the playoffs, I think the fact that we’ve arrived here has more to do with our pathetic division (Bears/Detroit totally crumbled) than the Packers being great. But still, we did what we needed to do to win.
  • We won this game despite having to deal with some shady officiating. I don’t like to harp on that a whole lot typically but there were 3 calls that were terrible today. Quarless caught that ball, Eddie Lacy had that first down (which caused us to go for it on 4th deep in our territory), and Nelson was flattened on that last TD pass to Cobb. That last one was one of the worst no calls I’ve ever seen. Those were all critical plays.
  • I posted this a bunch of times throughout the game but McCarthy should have gone for 2 after that TD with 11 or so minutes left. Throw that decision into a pile of questionable coaching/game management decisions (end of the first half clock management issues, multiple timeouts that would have been avoided if our communication were better, continuing to throw on 1st down). McCarthy needs to be better on those game management decisions and I can’t help but think that if he weren’t so focused on playcalling, he’d be better at managing games and staying current with the flow of games.
  • The Bears D is really bad. They played hard today and eventually seemed to figure out our running game, but that is a bad defense. In the playoffs, there will be much better defenses we’ll need to contend with – starting next week.
  • Our defense wasn’t good either – though I suppose holding the Bears to under 350 yards stands as a positive based on the rest of the year. The defensive communication is such a problem it is just plain stunning anymore. Burnett not helping over the top on that Jeffrey reception, the timeouts that we should have never had to take, the Nick Perry play where he was playing zone and everyone else was playing man (and then Perry made one of the weakest tackle attempts I’ve ever seen). These things have to stop and I think a lot of that is on Capers (some on whoever our “defensive leader” is and some on the guy himself).
  • Tramon Williams didn’t have THAT good of a game, but he did have 2 huge tackles on Matt Forte that stopped him short of gaining a first down each time. They were the kind of tough tackles Tramon used to be accused of not being able to make.
  • Jarrett Bush had another good game. His contributions today were significant.
  • Starks ran hard again. I like that guy. And I love that Lacy toughed it out. He knew the magnitude of the situation and wasn’t going to let what is probably a nasty ankle injury keep him out. Just awesome stuff from both backs today.
  • While Forte just killed us – once again – I have to say Cutler and the passing game didn’t do the kind of damage I thought they would against this defense. The WRs had a few critical drops, but also just didn’t have many receptions overall – 15 total. Of course, part of the reason for the equal pass/run ratio (24/24) is that Trestman figured out in the second half that the Pack’s run D couldn’t stop the run. Still, Jeffrey only had 3 receptions and Marshall only had 6.
  • I suspected Cobb’s presence in this game would make a difference but I didn’t realize that he’d essentially be THE difference. He was fantastic with his 2 catches. His second TD was not only one of the most clutch TDs in Packers history, it was just smart. He caught his guy off balance and broke for the endzone probably figuring that if Rodgers could buy enough time he’d see him. That’s exactly what happened. Another 12 year veteran play by the youngster.
  • A much as Matt Flynn was painful to watch during most of his time filling in – we need to give the guy a thank you for pulling off the Dallas victory. He was key in that game and it really kept the season going.
  • I am actually excited that we’ll be playing San Fran. I think we would have gotten crushed by New Orleans. But San Fran has been inconsistent this year and at times they’ve looked a bit lost – despite finishing 12-4. They are beatable – and man, would I like to see us take it to them. I would love to see the same shot of Jim Harbaugh that we saw of Cutler today – sitting on the bench in disbelief.
  • San Fran is also beatable because Rodgers has worked off some rust, this team will be fired up to play against San Fran for sure and the team has to be starting to believe that anything can happen given the absolutely crazy finishes we’ve had in the last few games. There really is something in the NFL to how you finish games. And while the rest of the Packers’ games have left something to be desired, the fact is the Packers have closed out some huge games recently when everything was on the line (last week excepted). Man would I love to see the Packers rip apart San Fran.

We need to be careful here

December 29, 2013

The Bears have 3 absolutely huge dudes for a Hail Mary in Marshall, Jeffrey and Bennett.

That is a big time player making a big time play

December 29, 2013

The shot of Cutler on the sideline – priceless. Wow was that fun to see. That was a play by the best player in the NFL. Rodgers has been iffy today overall but that was a play that really only Rodgers could have made. I don’t think any other QB in the NFL could have made that.

Should have been pass interference flag there too

December 29, 2013

I’m thrilled that we scored a TD but Jordy Nelson was absolutely flattened on that play and no flag was thrown.


December 29, 2013

What a play! Rodgers earned his paycheck – oh my!