Giants Elect to Take Worse Down and Distance Option, Worse Field Position, Because?

The Giants got walloped 35-14 on MNF last night, by a Detroit Lions team that in the first half alone had more than twice as many defensive penalty yards assessed against it, than the entire Giants offense amassed in the first half.

But, when it came to the issue of defensive penalties, the Giants also made a strategic call that is mind-boggling; illustrating once again that NFL teams often don’t recognize the structural aspects of the game, and how to make the correct underlying strategic calls as a result.

If a team on offense has the option to take or refuse a penalty, it normally comes down to two things.  First, the down and distance situation – which of the two down and distance situations will be more favorable for the team?

The second is field position. Which will put them in a better position on the field? Normally, this means closer to their opponent’s end zone, or to field goal range.

Usually these two factors are in opposition to each other. Do you take the best down and distance option and sacrifice a little bit of field position, or vice versa?

If both of these factors are more favorable, there is no decision to make, unless there is some other very unusual factor present. The team simply makes the election that improves both of these things over the opposite choice, rather than the election that worsens both of these things over the opposite choice

It would be like a business that needs as many routers as possible being offered 10,000 routers for 1.4 million dollars. Or 8000 routers for 1.6 million dollars.  Again, there is no decision to make:

“Seriously? For $200,000 less, we get 2000 more routers? Great!”

Against the Lions last night, the Giants, with plenty of time to make the decision, took the football equivalent of less product, for more money:  “Seriously, we get better overall field position and a better down and distance to go situation? No thanks!!” They purposefully elected to give up both the better down and distance situation, and the better field position. For nothing else in return.

In other words, they made a nonsensical decision.

The score was 14-7 Detroit. New York had a 1st and 10 at the Lions 49 yard line, 1:29 was left in the 1st quarter.  Out of the shotgun, quarterback Eli Manning hit Rueben Randle for about 7 1/2 yards, bringing up a 2nd and a short 3. Except that a penalty, that carries with it an automatic first down if the penalty is accepted, was called. Bringing up, in theory at least, a “decision.”

Question number one. What is better for a team.  2nd and 2 1/2 yards, or 1st and 10?

It’s not even close.  A team’s equity – their chances of picking up a first down and moving the chains – is higher in the first instance, by a wide margin.

This has been analyzed to death. But comparing a 1st and 10 to a 2nd and 3 is so lopsided, it is pointless to go into detail. Nor does any real statistical analysis need to be done it is so lopsided. Bluntly put, it is simply far easier for a team – and thus far far more likely to occur – to gain 3 (or here, 2 1/2) yards on 2 plays – an average of 1 1/2 yards per play – than it is for a team to gain 10 yards on 3 plays – an average of 3.3 yards per play.

(Not only that, but with a 2nd and short 3 around the Detroit 42 yard line, unless they moved backward, the Giants would have likely had 3 more plays, not 2, to make the first down, since it would have been 4th and short near the Lions 40 yard line.)

So, obviously, if a penalty is called on the play, there is no decision here. You take the play…..

Unless….. unless the penalty yardage gives you more total yardage, and moves you even closer to field goal range and your opponent’s end zone.  For instance, a personal foul call that gives the Giants a 1st and 10 instead of a 2nd and 2 1/2, but gives them 15 total yards instead of just 7 1/2, and moves then down to around the Lions 34 instead of around the 42.

In this instance, the Lions’ penalty was not for 15 yards, but was a 5 yard, and automatic first down, illegal use of hands penalty. It was for less yardage than the Giants had gained on the play. And by accepting it the Giants would be in a far less favorable down and distance situation – 1st and 10 – than they would be – 2nd and 2 1/2 – by not accepting it.  And by accepting it, the Giants also lost total yardage, as they were only awarded 5 yards total, not 7 1/2.

By electing the option that harmed the Giants (relative to the opposite election) in both ways that it had any relevant affect, the Giants made a decision that, strategically, couldn’t have been any worse.

In total impact on the game, it is possible for “worse” decisions to be made; but from a pure decision making standpoint, it’s not. The Giants said “yes, we choose to have a less favorable down and distance situation, and a less favorable field position.” And committed the football equivalent of purposefully spending more money, for a smaller amount of product that they need in nearly endless supply.  In essence, saying to the selling company (or in this case, the referee, metaphorically), “no, even though we need it, leave some of the product in the truck, and also please charge us more total money.”

Perhaps the Giants did not realize that 2nd and short is far more favorable than 1st and 10. Which again, gets back to the original point. (Though more subtle, the second opening Monday Night Football game also involved multiple if more abstract strategic mistakes, as part of yet another San Diego Chargers 4th quarter meltdown to lose a large lead on MNF, and blow the game, for the 3rd year in a row.)

Maybe some NFL teams need savvy game strategists, because there is simply too much else going on; and, although it invariably plays a large role in the game, objective analytical strategic situational assessment involves a very different skill set from the rest of football.  And not only has it not kept up with the rest of football, it isn’t even being practiced in the same ball park – and sometimes even the same area code – as the professionalism/competence/expertise exhibited when it comes to so many other aspects of the game.

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