This blog is about to share something with you, that, if you happen to come across this post in your online football travels, from a football strategy perspective will absolutely blow you away. (You may disagree; but comments of disagreement and even critique are welcomed, so please comment away even if you disagree, and share why below.)
Let’s preface this by adding, frankly, that when it comes to the basic underlying structural strategy of the game of football, NFL teams often do not know what they are doing.
Case in point:
The 5-4 Miami Dolphins trail 5-4 division foe Buffalo Bills 6-3 in a game that may ultimately wind up determining who gets in to the post season as a wild card team. (And with a loss hurting the Dolphins more, since they lost to the Bills earlier in the season; so as far as a heads up tie breaker goes, they will effectively be two games behind the Bills if they lose this one as well.)
They face 4th and 3 from the Bills 41 yard line. There are 41 seconds left in he half.
A punt here by the Dolphins is a gift to their opponents, and a remarkable, if again, common, example of teams playing “not to lose,” and to avoid even small chances of “something bad” happening, to the exclusion of much higher probabilities or much higher value “good things,” And leading to absolutely ludicrous strategy decisions, but ones that often go under the radar.
We’ll use some basic math to illustrate. We’re going to estimate some numbers, but feel free to fill in some of your own, and see if you can find any numbers that support a punt here, that are reasonable. You won’t.
If the Dolphins punt, the Bills, barring a fluke, will get the last possession of the half. They’ll only have about 35 seconds or so, so barring some solid luck on a few successive passes, they will very likely not score. (A fluke muffed punt or other could occur as well, but essentially the chances of the Bills scoring after the punt to the Bills, though still low, are higher than of the Dolphins scoring after a punt to the Bills.)
So there is no dispute over the fact that punting away the ball, as opposed to the half merely ending at that moment, is a negative for the Dolphins.
Then the question becomes “is punting a positive or a negative?”
The value (or harm) avoided by electing to punt and not go for the conversion has to be compared with the negative of punting. If it is also a negative – meaning going for the conversion was a positive value – then the Dolphins decision to forego a positive and opt for a negative was strategically boneheaded. (Although this is clearly not realized, or teams would not do it, and game analysts would talk about when they do.) In other words, it would mean that the Dolphins gave up a positive – trying to keep the ball – in favor of a negative for them – punting.
It turns out, punting is a negative for them, as not punting is a positive. It is a positive versus the half simply ending. And, another way to look at this, and avoid having to then compare it to the punt, it is a positive versus the punt itself.
On a conversion requiring 3 yards, teams normally have a 50 percent chance or better of making the conversion. In this game the Bills defense has played tough. That factors in, but it is not solely determinative: Past performance is indicative of how teams may be playing, but it is not a measure of future performance.
But let’s be ultra conservative and say that the Dolphins had only a 40% chance of making the first down. This is probably very low, even in this game, as 3 yards is not that difficult. But we’ll use it.
What happens if the Dolphins make the 1st down?
It means that by definition they are on the Bills 38 yard line or better: I.e, they can’t get a 1st down and not be at least at the 38. In all likelihood they will be a little better off, perhaps around the 36 or 37 on average.
This is a key part of the field. And it also already puts them in position to try an end of half field goal from a place they might not otherwise. That is, if they miss on a field goal try from the 36, their opponents take over out at the 44. But at the end of the half this doesn’t matter.
Even if they don’t eke out the 10 yards necessary for another first down, but only get some of those yards, the Dolphins can end the half with a very reasonable, and make-able field goal attempt:
The average from the 30 yard line on field goals is between 70 and 80%, depending on kicker. (And simply picking up another first down gives them a highly make-able field goal. And if they do it quickly, they can take one or two “free” shots to the end zone to try for 7, as from solidly inside the 30 yard line, it’s no longer a “Hail Mary” type of passing situation, but quarterback Ryan Tannehill can reasonably throw specifically to wide receivers running routes.)
If the Dolphins make that 1st down, what is it worth? Most of the time, barring a large backward collapse or a bunch of penalties they don’t make up – or some fluke that is always a part of any play in football and only relevant if a team is already up by several scores late and simply trying to close out the game – the Dolphins will at least get off a field goal try.
Most of the time they will get at least 6 to 15 yards more (leaning more toward the 6 here perhaps, given the way the Bills are playing, but 15 yards is certainly reasonable), giving them a 40-49 field goal try, and they will be about 80% at that range. (Maybe better.)
It’s reasonable enough to say Miami will wind up making that field goal 80% of the time. Or 75%, accounting for occasional foul-ups, though with enough time for several plays that is probably well more than offset by the legitimate chance, to score a TD and get 7 points instead of 3. Thus the value of making that 1st down for them is at least .8(3), or about 2.4 points, or more.
What if the Dolphins get stopped on their conversion try?
By their common decision to not go for it, given the strong opportunity at reasonable odds they are giving up to not go for it, one might think that it means that the Bills are immediately awarded the game, or at least a touchdown; or the Dolphins bench falls into a small earthquake on the sidelines and several the players will brake their ankles. (In which case it would be a good decision to probably not go for it, despite the great opportunity it presents, otherwise, at little game cost.)
On a 4th and 3 Miami might try a short pass, and either throw incomplete, or come up short. Or they may try a run, and simply get stopped somewhere short of the 38. They could go backward a little, but the odds are low. (Particularly for a sack, where a throw for 3 yard would likely be quick.) Overall, on average, the Bills will start out somewhere outside of the 38, probably near the original line of scrimmage, say around the 40 yard line, give or take, if they stop the Dolphins. (The exact place on average isn’t all that relevant here, as several yards in either direction still doesn’t change much.)
If the Dolphins make the 1st down, picking up around 4 yards on average (which is conservative), they would start around the 37: Two yards from the 35 and a 53 yard field goal try, and 7 yards from a solidly make-able, but sometimes missed, 48 yard try. The Bills on the other hand would be not 2 yards, but 25 yards from the Dolphins 25, and a 53 yard field goal try, and 30 yards, not a mere 7, from the Dolphins 30.
Their chances of making any field goal would be far lower, and their chances of scoring a TD reduced to probably a mere fluke at that point. And, without 35 seconds left, the Bills challenge to get down to the 30 yard line – about 30 yards away – is doable, but further compounded by the fact that they will only have 35 seconds left with which to do it.
It could be done. Sometimes it happens. But it’s unlikely. To say that the Bills will both get into some sort of field goal range – likely long field goal range given where they would be starting out, and how much time they will have left – and make the field goal 1 in 4 times would be very conservative. (In terms of using numbers to make the case for the correct decision.)
Buffalo may get to some sort of long field goal range close to 1 in 4 times (particularly in a defensive game like this), if that, and then make that field goal 2 out of 3 times (more if they get closer to or just past the 30, less if they are still well outside of it.) Which if so would mean they will make a field goal 1 out of every 6 times. (.25 x .667)
But let’s use the very conservative 1 in 4 figure. That means if the Dolphins get stopped, the value to the Bills (or harm to the Dolphins) is 3 points times their 25% chances of getting those 3 points, or .25)3 or .75 points.
In other words, and being overly conservative, the value of the Dolphins making that 1st down from the Bills 41 yard line on 4th and 3 with 41 seconds left in the half, is about 2.4 points to them, give or take. And the harm of being stopped – to the Dolphins – is the value to the Bills (versus just having the ball punted to them, putting aside that said punt still gives them an outside, if very slight, chance of a long pass and long field goal.) And that value is .8
The value of going for 1st down would be the value of making the 1st down times their chances of making it, minus the harm (value to the Bills) times their chance of that accruing – aka getting stopped: Or, on these numbers, 40% times the 2.4 points that making it is worth (if not more), MINUS 60% times the negative .8 points that is worth (it not even less), or .4(2.4) – .6(.8) = .96 – .48 = about a half of a point.
On these very conservative numbers, they move is on average like simply handing the Bills half of a point.That might not sound like much, but strategically, it is as foolish as at a random point in the game having your team’s quarterback take the snap, run backward 14 yards and simply fall down – on purpose – as your team’s play call.
All plays have a range out outcomes. The fact that the range is a little larger here at this point in the game – where there is no extra value in “ensuring
that the Bills don’t have long shot at 3 more points – is meaningless. Not largely meaningless. Completely meaningless.
The decision, albeit not as obviously, is as foolish as if the Dolphins simply just gave up a bunch of yards on a random play – moving solidly backward, thus losing the yardage and the down – on purpose.
It’s actually a little worse, because again after the punt, the Bills do again have that slight outside chance at a score. that is, a punt will probably end the half, but it is still a slightly negative move on its own. (Meaning that even if the conversion attempt was only neutral, it’s the clear correct call, albeit it’s not as big of a deal since the punt is not super harmful here with only 41 seconds left prior to the snap. It’s just harmful because to elect to do it means the Dolphins willingly gave up solid positive value.)
And if the Dolphins make the 1st down, there is a solid chance they will pick up 6 or 7 yards instead of just the minimum 3, and can then try two pass plays and maybe hit on one for about 7 or so down to the 28 (or more or less) and then take 2 throws to the end zone.
And again, the Bills are probably not as high as 1 in 4 to even score a TD if the Dolphins get stopped. (Particularly since the Dolphins have a very good defense, and the Bills offense is not as strong as their defense.)
And, the chances of the 4th down conversions – crystal ball reading guesses about one particular play in advance notwithstanding – are probably not as low as 4 in 10.
But again, even on conservative estimates, not only is the move strategically harebrained, more critically, for good football strategy, there is absolutely no rational reason for it. (There’s plenty of irrational ones. Misplaced fear – aside, obviously, from miss-assessment of the situation – being among the top). It is just not yet recognized.
Notice I wrote “yet.”