Playing to Lose, The Miami Dolphins Make A Critical Ostrich Call at the End of the Game Against the Green Bay Packers

(Last updated 7-3-15)

For multiple reasons, the Miami Dolphins couldn’t hang on and win at home in the heat and humidity over the normally tundra housed Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

Not the least of these reasons was execution in tackling. But one typical “head in the sand” decision stands out. And it helps emphasize the fact that as great as NFL head coaches’ skill sets are given their overriding myriad of functional responsibilities, they sometimes make extremely counterproductive decisions when it comes to fundamental game situational strategic calls. That is, they make decisions that help their opponents chances of winning the game, and lessen their own.

The decision involved a third down end game situation where given the timing and basic end game rules and field structure, the Dolphins would essentially win the game if they managed to get a first down; and if they did not the game would be “anybody’s” to win.

This made getting the first down remarkably critical relative to any other consideration.

You play to win the game. And here, that game could essentially be won (or, for similar but not quite identical situations, your team could suddenly increase your chances of winning dramatically) on that one play, with very little downside relative to this remarkable upside.

The Dolphins however, in order to “run clock,” or “not take chances” (chances to what, win?), greatly decreased their chances of getting the first; which at that point decreased their overall chances of winning, and thus was a decision the Packers should have been paying the Dolphins a large salary to make for them. (Though the Packers have made their own strategy mistakes: Here’s an interesting one from last season’s NFC Conference Championship game against the Seattle Seahawks.)

But, again,to be clear, with little time remaining and a small lead, “run clock,” right? Generally, yes, but not quite as a cardinal rule, and not as the only consideration:

Adding scores to make it an impractical lead to overcome relative to the time left, or holding onto possession (which means also trying to keep your chances of making first downs reasonably high) until there’s not enough time left for your opponent to have a realistic chance of scoring what they need are both obviously more important, since the reason to run clock is only because it generally helps increase your chances of winning in the first place. So if you actually decrease your chances of winning just to “run clock,” in certain situations, it’s counterproductive. So, understand your situation first:

You want to run clock late with leads because in general it increases your chances of winning by leaving your trailing opponent with no opportunities, fewer opportunities, or a less valuable opportunity (without larger sacrifice, in the process, of your own opportunities to increase your chances even more by leaving them no opportunity relative to your current score gap lead, or a potentially increased one when applicable).

But in the common situation the Dolphins faced – with not enough time for their opponents if they got the first down, and sufficient time for their opponents if they failed, and regardless of the clock impact of the third down play – getting the first down all but wins you the game (or in similar ones dramatically increase your chances), but failing to get the first down not only fails to win you the game, it also leaves the game still very much up in the air and with your opponent still having a very good chance to win.

When running that extra clock can dramatically change your opponents chances – itself completely dependent on the specific game and clock situation – then it’s a different calculation. (And not the situation the Dolphins were facing.)

In those cases the value of running each extra unit of clock has to be balanced out with the value of possibly picking up a first down – and in some cases trumps or completely trivializes it – versus any inherent low chance of increased bad outcome risk and possible loss of clock advantage whenever the first down isn’t achieved. (It’s also one of the many reasons why coaches need someone to help with this type of game related strategic decision making; game related strategic decisions are botched all the time – far, far more than is realized – and not easy decisions to make unless someone has spent years studying it and is particularly good at it.)

The Game Clock Mechanics of the Play

In the contest, Miami had a significant home, heat, humidity, and, sunlight reflecting light colored jersey advantage over a team visiting from the Northern part of the country. (In warmer settings our blood stays thinner, so there is a slight edge to the team that is fully acclimatized.) And in a hard fought game, with plenty of mist blowing fans on the sidelines, the Dolphins arrived at 3rd and 9, at their own 36 yard line.

They led at the time 24-20. The clock was stopped with 3:01 left. Green Bay had just used their last timeout two plays earlier.

If Miami got the 1st down, the clock would continue to run, and they would need to snap the ball on that ensuing 1st a little before the two minute warning, which would then stop the game clock before the next play. The 2nd down snap would occur at the 2:00 mark, and Miami could take the clock all the way down to about 1:15 before snapping 3rd down, which in turn would take the clock all the way down to about :30 left before punting; leaving the Packers with no timeouts, and about 25 seconds to drive the field and score a TD.

That is, but for an extremely wild fluke, in essence game over. (In addition, the Packers would likely be starting from reasonably deep on their own side of the field, because if Miami picked up the 1st down and then failed to gain even a single additional yard on their next three “just protect the ball” running plays, they would be punting, likely worse case, from their own 45 yard line. A kick from here can be angled high, providing plenty of coverage time and making it extremely unlikely that the Packers would have a chance at any return: And very likely that the Packers would be starting at or inside their 20 yard line.)

And, even if Miami picked up the 1st down and somehow went out of bounds – thereby stopping the clock – again Miami wins but for a very rare event: 3rd down would be snapped at the 2:00 warning instead of 2nd down, the punt would occur at about 1:15, and Green Bay would have about 70 seconds to drive from well on their side of the field. While this is obviously better than 25 seconds, an end game TD drive attempt starting from solidly on one’s own side of the field, with the game on the line, has almost no chance with near a minute left to play, for very basic structural reasons.

To recap:  While a fluke could occur, for all intents and purposes a 1st down wins Miami the game.

Not getting the 1st down, on the other hand, makes it almost an entirely different football universe, changing the entire nature of the end game, and making it “anybody’s game to win.”  (And though end game drives can often be very different from the way the rest of the game went, and no team or QB should be counted out in such situations, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers – repeatedly eluding massive pressure and throwing accurate darts on the run – had been playing near lights out. And he also played pretty well on the final drive as well, as it turned out.)

On the other hand, and in wildly divergent game situation contrast with what will happen in terms of expectations if the Dolphins make the 1st down (again, essentially winning them the game and thus in some ways all but de-facto and but for a fluke ending it) – here’s what will happen if they don’t make the 1st down:

The 3rd down play will run the clock down to about 2:15 before Miami punts. (Unless they manage to pick up almost all of the 9 yards and rather shockingly go for it on 4th down on their own 44 or so – which, if they wind up with less than a yard to go, would probably be the right call, though it would still be extremely surprising to see any team, let alone the Dolphins, even try.)

This will leave Green Bay with time for a play, and the two minute warning, and then a full two minutes; which, again, totally overhauls the practical nature of the end of the game, versus having only a little over a minute to play and a field to drive for the TD (let alone 25 seconds), and gives the Packers a very good chance of winning the game.

In a league of explosive offenses and rules now designed and enforced to favor receivers over defensive backs, the “nothing to lose” desperation of end game drives, as well as the practical fact that on such drives there is no longer the customary “3 plays” per set of downs (i.e, 3 followed by a punt) but always a 33% increase in the number of effective plays to advance control of the ball from scrimmage per set of downs from 3 to 4, the game is completely up in the air when the one score or less trailing team has possession, the ball, and around two minutes to play.

In short, that 3rd down and 9 was, up until that moment, the most critical play of the game for Miami. This is, again, because barring a rarity, if they make the 1st down there, they win the game. If they don’t make the 1st down, it’s anybody’s game to win.

It’s a phenomenal difference.

What Did Miami Do, and the Key End Game Rule for Winning Football

Yet Miami ran a vanilla run play on the down, greatly decreasing their chances of getting that game winning first down. And in such a situation possibly even all but virtually eliminating such chances against a defense half expecting the run and that, regardless, is going to be jacked up with the game completely on the line for them – making anything past a couple yard run much easier to stop than pass plays that can target one or two defenders specifically, and which are hard to stop when effectively executed.

Run advantages over passes are that they increase the chances of picking up small but solid amounts of yardage, can use up clock time with more reliability when relevant, and they also slightly decrease the already extremely low chance of a turnover on any random play from the line of scrimmage. (They also decrease the chance of a 5-10 yard loss in the backfield, which also happens a few times a game on pass plays due to sacks.)

Passes have huge advantages over runs in terms of being able to stop the clock when incomplete or the receiver is able to make a near sideline catch and get out of bounds (in those situations when such is an advantage because the passing team wants to save time); because they can far more effectively target specific amounts of yardage; and because, while they give up the high chance at low but solid yardage that runs provide and often gain absolutely zero yards, they also have a far higher probability of picking up larger chunks of yards.

The last two reasons are central to what the passing game is all about, and why the chances of picking up a first down on a 3rd and 9 are far higher with a pass than a run in almost all instances, even when an opponent knows the offense is going to pass. (Here, since offensive teams often “turtle up” in end game situations, the Packers of course didn’t “know” the Dolphins were going to pass, and if anything probably expected a run, making the run call even more miserable, long shot as it was at picking up 9 or more yards even in those instances an opponent doesn’t expect it.)

The bottom line is that the Dolphins made an extremely counter productive (aka “horrible”) decision, but one that is preventable by adherence to the following cardinal rule of winning football:

If you can’t run the clock down to a level where it gives your opponent an unreasonable, versus reasonable chance of winning the game, then don’t sacrifice a higher chance of keeping possession of the ball, just to run a little extra clock.

Two Minutes Isn’t Just a Random Number in Football, and More on Why the Miami Decision was so Fundamentally Poor

There is a reason, even though just a casual expression, why it’s called the “two minute drill.” You need around two or so minutes, or near it, to have a good shot at pulling out a game when down by less than a touchdown, and a good portion of the field left to drive. And in recent years the importance of an even slightly more tight window of time has if anything increased, as the passing game has been expanded, and offenses have only gotten better, and quicker, and teams are becoming more proficient at slightly compressed two minute drills.

And important of all here, and in fact, the critical factor, the Dolphins weren’t sitting at the 2 minute warning on their critical 3rd down play, where with no Packer timeouts they could have run the clock down to close to a minute. They were sitting at 3 minutes, and could only run the clock down to close to 2 minutes.

Thus given the nature of end game play, skipping a pass attempt in this situation just to make certain to run a little extra clock run would only have a small impact on the Packer’s chances (and against some teams, almost no impact, but against the Packers, likely a little), due to the specific game clock situation.

While, on the other hand getting that first down not only has a large impact, it trumps the entire rest of the game, since it essentially wins the game. And essentially wins a game that is otherwise still very much still up in the air.

Thus, giving up a realistic chance of essentially winning the game outright just to ensure this little extra clock runnage – that was not going to keep the Packers from having a reasonable chance of winning the game anyway, and given the nature of “desperation” two minute drives, possibly not even much affect them much – was one of the more spectacularly counterproductive things the Dolphins could elect to do.

And they did it.

It is of course more likely than not that the Dolphins would have gotten stopped on 3rd down anyway. But good decisions mean doing what increases your team’s chances of winning. And even though it’s not as “easy” as a 3rd and 4 or 5, the conversion rate is still reasonable on 3rd and 9s.

Here, the Dolphins had two ways to win, and the Packers would have to stop them both ways (which means the chances of each have to be multiplied together to get the Packers true chances of winning): Stop a legitimate 3rd down attempt for the conversion and likely win, and then, if they succeeded, drive and score the winning TD.

But the Dolphins did not try a legitimate 3rd down attempt for the conversion. They went into a shell instead, as some teams still do at the ends of games, at the wrong moments. And so the Packers only essentially had to do one real challenging thing to win. Drive and score, since the third down stoppage, on the half expected vanilla run with long yardage to go against a team that loses if they don’t stop them, was practically a gimme.

Of course, it is also true Miami “could have” picked up the 1st down on their run attempt.

But by the very nature of football, their chances were undeniably much lower than with a pass. (Particularly when the Packers half expected run here – given that so many team over run in such situations, and it is considered the “correct” or at least routine, thing to do – and they easily bottled up the Dolphins here for a mere yard on the pitiful play.)

Runs, again, have more short to medium range predictability and far less volatility than passes; whereas passes can much more easily gain either no yards or a larger number of yards, and more particularly target a specific number of needed yards.

In other words, for sacrificing a higher chance at no yards (or the rare interception or occasional sack), the pass creates a far higher possibility of picking up more yards as well as a more specifically targeted number of yards – both critical for long yardage situations where essentially all of the yardage is needed or the play is worthless. (Unless in this type of situation it comes very close, in which case it may have a small value if it brings up a situation where the best strategic call is to try again on 4th down.)

On the other hand, by trying the run, while it could happen, it was extremely unlikely for the Dolphins to have picked up that 1st down. This is in part because such vanilla plays have low chances of breaking large – again, particularly with teams half expecting the run and even more so when the defense doesn’t care if it gives up a bunch of yards, so long as it doesn’t give up 9, and on the run can play accordingly. And in part because the defense tends to be more keyed in, and stopping runs from gaining a lot of yards is a consummate team effort where being keyed in can have a much larger effect than on a pass play that is somewhat isolated, and vulnerable to a good pass and catch even with good coverage. So it rarely happens in such situations, and is all but a throwaway; a near throwaway of a play that offered the highest value possible to a football team in a football game.The chance to win a game outright.

In essence, Miami’s decision was a classic and – but for the fact that it was real – “caricatured” example of playing “not to lose,” when the chosen action to avoid losing, wasn’t even very significant – i.e., – run the clock down to closer to two minutes for your opponent, when that doesn’t change their end game odds very much. And when what was given up to do so was a solid, if not overwhelming, opportunity to essentially win the game outright – with the only real relevant downside being again, that small loss of clock improvement. (Barring again, freak occurrences and flukes – a risk present on most plays, and when a game is up in the air, they don’t really factor in unless a decision is otherwise a toss up.)

The call is so lopsided, that barring extreme circumstances, all peripheral arguments “good run game, ” “we thought we might ‘catch’ them,” “bad passing game,” “I didn’t think we would make the pass” (coaches as psychics), etc., are just noise, and serve as bad rationalizations for “playing not to lose” when doing so only increases your team’s chances of losing versus winning, and the only thing that ultimately matters when it comes to whether or not a game strategic decision is a good one, or a poor one.

At that point, for Miami, getting that 1st down and all but guaranteeing a win without Green Bay even touching the ball with a realistic amount of time left for what they needed to do, was what the game was all about.  (And for Green Bay, it was preventing it.) To sacrifice, or greatly diminish that chance, just to “run clock,” when running that clock wouldn’t prevent Green Bay from having a very realistic – to very good – chance of winning the game, common as it is – strategically – was a huge gift to the Packers. (And, though it really has no bearing on original decision itself, it was also one the Packers were able to take full advantage of in pulling out the win 27-20 win that wound up somewhat breaking the Dolphins’ year, and ultimately their late season chances.)

The Dolphins may have lost anyway had they tried to get the first down. But at least they wouldn’t have all but simply handed the Packers the ball to give them the chance in the first place.

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6 thoughts on “Playing to Lose, The Miami Dolphins Make A Critical Ostrich Call at the End of the Game Against the Green Bay Packers

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