Why the Patriots Should Win a Great Super Bowl Matchup

The two best teams in the NFL are probably meeting in the Super Bowl, helping to make this one of the best matchups in years. Continue reading

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Another Wild Ride Past their Nemesis Ravens for the Patriots to Reach This Year’s Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks is shaping up to be a great match-up. It pits the dominant team of the past 15 years against their former head coach, leading a team seeking to be the first NFL team to repeat since none other than the Patriots themselves did it back in 2003- 2004, and a dominant defense that in last year’s Super Bowl dismantled what had been one of the best offenses of all time.

But the New England Patriots almost lost in the playoffs to their nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens weren’t very good this year. But in the AFC divisional round to this year’s playoffs, Baltimore came into town; and playing Baltimore in the playoffs should never make the Patriots feel comfortable.

Never mind that the Patriots were at home, where they almost never lose. Or the fact that Baltimore hasn’t typically been a great road team. (Or at least during the regular season, in 2012 they made it to and won the Super Bowl, winning two of three playoff games on the road en route, and in the playoffs have won multiple other games on the road.)

Or the fact that but for the Chargers losing against the Kansas City Chiefs back up quarterback, Baltimore never would have been in the playoffs in the first place. Or that as an underdog they had to beat the division winning Pittsburgh Steelers to even make it to the divisional round. (They did, 30-17.)

For the Patriots first playoff game, the Ravens were coming to town. And in January,  that normally means trouble for the Patriots – one of the winning-est playoff franchises in modern NFL history:

The Ravens beat the Patriots handily in the first round of the playoffs in 2009, knocking them down 33-14 (Though after the game, then Ravens’ running back Ray Rice was quick to correctly surmise “their era is not over.”)

And the Ravens beat them again, 28-13, in the 2012 AFC Conference Championship Game for the right to play in the 2012 season Super Bowl. (Which the Ravens won, fending off a furious near come from far behind 49ers victory, interrupted by an infamous, and very long, stadium power outage during the game.)

In the 2011 AFC Championship game, the Ravens should have beat the Patriots as well. But a dropped pass by wide receiver Lee Evans –  as well as a strong play by an undrafted rookie cornerback waived by the team that originally signed him earlier in the year – changed who went to Super Bowl 46 (XLVI).

Evans was a former star for the Buffalo Bills – drafted 13th overall by them in 2004, and traded to the Ravens before the start of the 2011 season for a mid round draft pick. And had Evans caught that pass from Flacco, the New England Patriots would now have five total Super Bowl appearances since the 2000 season – not six – and the Baltimore Ravens would have four – followed by Seattle, Pittsburgh, and the New York Giants at three each. Instead it’s six, three three three and three for the five teams.

The Giants incidentally are the same team who lost to the Ravens in the 2000 season Grand Finale. And it was the Giants, of all teams, that would have faced the Ravens again on February 5, 2012 in Super Bowl XLVI, but for that drop which vaulted in the Patriots instead.

(A Patriots team who, even more coincidentally, in a duplicate of Super Bowl XLII, lost a Super Bowl to the Giants for the second time in four years, as the New York team’s only other Super Bowl appearance of the millennium, after the Ravens, was also against the Patriots.)

But here’s what happened on the pass play that changed NFL history (although what happened two plays after that pass play is often referenced even more). Coverage was strong by rookie cornerback Sterling Moore, an undrafted free agent by Oakland who was then waived and picked up by the Patriots. (And who is currently with the Dallas Cowboys.)

Evans caught the near perfect pass, with two hands comfortably wrapped upon it, cradled up to his body. But he didn’t really secure the ball or catch it correctly. So a light hand swipe well after the ball hit Evans gut, and which needle threading connection by Flacco should have vaulted the Ravens into the Super Bowl – knocked away what should have been a catch, as well as another Ravens Super Bowl appearance. Here’s the play:

New England was leading 23-20 at the time, and the Ravens had driven from their own 21 down to the Patriots 14, in just under 80 seconds. Only 27 more seconds remained, and it was 2nd and 1. Flacco then hit Evans – who from examination of subtle body language, basic kinesthetics, and the ease with which Moore’s desperation swipe knocked away a ball that should have been easily secured, likely went into pre-celebratory mindset mode the moment he “caught” the ball.

Had the pass been held onto, the Patriots would have had 22 seconds left (minus any taken off by the ensuing kickoff), and would have trailed by 4 points, 27-23. That is, but for a “music city miracle” type of play, the game was over.  (Even if the Patriots had just over a minute left but not much more than that, trailing by more than field goal they still would have had almost no realistic chance to win the game.)

The story, as assuredly all Ravens fans remember, got even better for the Patriots, as Baltimore then got stopped on 3rd down and with 15 seconds remaining, lined up for the “gimme” 32 yard game tying field goal: A field goal rarely missed in the NFL, and that Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff very rarely misses.

But he did here. And the Patriots went onto their 5th Super Bowl appearance since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady entered the scene in early 2000.

This year, although New England was clearly the better team entering the playoffs, the Ravens again gave them trouble.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has long been underrated as a playoff QB, although that somewhat changed after his bulletproof (and never losing) performance in the upstart Ravens 2012 run all the way to Super Bowl victory.

But in this game, the 2014 AFC divisional round playoff, and just as Brady finally did years into his career (losing to Peyton Manning and the Colts in a game where the Patriots could have pulled it out at the end, and for the first time in his playoff career, they didn’t), Flacco finally came back down to earth when it ultimately mattered most.

Despite some prognostication otherwise (save from those who have vivid memories of the Ravens Patriots playoff history), the game was once again a very tough match-up for the Patriots; and if not a lopsided affair in the Ravens favor, it was certainly, as with their 2011 AFC championship tango, a reasonably even game.  And it came down at the end to a final drive, with the ball in Joe Flacco hands.

Flacco, as usual in tight spots, tried to make the most of the situation. But this time he pressed a little too much, didn’t pay quite enough or the right kind of attention to the clock, and threw too loosely for the situation; perhaps just in hope “something,” like a super catch or a huge penalty flag, would happen.  And something most definitely did happen. .

But the situation didn’t call for such a move, and there were enormous clock considerations:

After losing the lead on a Brandon LaFell TD, the Ravens started on their 11 yard line, down 35-31, with just over 5 minutes to go. This was probably not the situation the Patriots had wanted to be in. But it was better than losing, and the Ravens having the ball at the end. (As a side note, LaFell was part of an interesting team purge of the otherwise crescendoing 2013 Carolina Panthers.)

Minutes later, after a Patriots’ offsides, the Ravens found themselves with an opportunistic 1st and 5 at the Patriots 36.  Since a TD would only put them ahead by 3 and allow the Pats a chance to tie the game on a field goal, they needed to be careful with the clock; but since the Patriots only had 1 timeout remaining, a few plays in bounds should crunch off enough clock easily enough when and if they needed to.

But for their part, the Ravens, after a 3rd and 3 incomplete from their own 42 with 2:25 remaining, took their 2nd timeout. This would have been a bad move had they wound up scoring fairly quickly; it stopped the clock above the two minute warning and kept a lot of time left for New England if they did score quickly – which does happen – and took away their clock flexibility for later control.But they probably wanted to think about the play longer, since it was 4th down and the game was on the line. And unless they scored very quickly, it was probably not going to be a problem. (Still, since there is little support for the idea that “thinking” about what play to run even more than the 20-30 seconds an incomplete allows, just because the situation is crucial, necessarily increases a team’s chances, they probably shouldn’t have called it, but it wasn’t at all a horrendous move, like this strategy call in the Packers Seahawks NFC Conference Championship Game was.)

More likely than not the Ravens were not going to score right away from the 36. But the 1st and 5 gave them a few shots at making up significant yardage (which is part of why getting that clock lower for control would have been a good move), and then making sure to pick up the 1st down and keep the chains rolling regardless.

Yet the Ravens did something ill advised. After a short incomplete, they threw deep down the left sidelines. Almost to the end zone.

This was a bad move, for two reasons. It was a low probability play that was also well covered, and had they scored it would have left the Patriots with over a minute and a half and just a 3 point deficit.  (The strong coverage and poor angle for the throw in combination with its low odds are the key reasons it shouldn’t have been attempted; if open, even if it will leave the Patriots some time, take it.)

You don’t want to leave any team with that kind of time. And Tom Brady and the Patriots in particular don’t fail to score very often when there is over a minute to go and they trail by 3 and have the ball – and the score would have stood at 38-35 at that point, not exactly a low scoring game. (One of the few times it did happen was in 2012, after a 46 yard near Hail Mary type of pass put them behind 24-23, but with over a minute left. That game was in Seattle, against the Seahawks, the same team they face on Sunday in the Super Bowl.)

But as Flacco had likely wanted, “something” did happen on the play. A catch into the end zone. Unfortunately it was by Duron Harmon, who happens to play Safety for the Patriots. And that was the ball game, and a slight change in NFL history.

Ironically, there is a good possibility that the Ravens would still be matching up with the Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl had that game gone differently at the end. The Patriots, “deflategate or not,” went on to crush the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship game. The Ravens easily beat the Colts back in the 2012 playoffs – although it was in Baltimore and both teams were a little different, and the Colts easily beat the Ravens in Indianapolis earlier this season, where this game would have been as well.)

The long ball to the end zone into extremely good coverage with far too much time left on the clock for the Patriots to still easily pull out the game, on an otherwise manageable 2nd and 5 in unambiguous four down territory with plenty of time to throw numerous incompletes and still get to the end zone, was a poor decision by the Ravens and Flacco – who is usually both clutch, and makes fairly good decisions for the given situation.

An occasional commentator has questioned some of Flacco’s moves.But they usually have a bigger upside times their chances than downside times those chances relative to the situation – which is the most crucial aspect of good quarterback decision making. Brady, of course, has long been the master at this. (Although Russell Wilson, who Brady faces in this upcoming Super Bowl – and who also possesses a great set of feet to both complicate and expand his decision making process and potential – like Brady early in his career has fast become very good at it as well.)

But regardless of what happens in this year’s Super Bowl coming up on Sunday versus Wilson and those same Seahawks (pick: Patriots win), if Brady returns for another year, – likely – and if the Patriots make the playoffs (based on past history also likely, as they’ve made the playoffs every year but 2 since Brady became the starter in 2001), they probably would rather not have to face the Ravens, one way or another.

Packer’s Make Hideous Strategic Call Against Seahawks In Championship Game, Then Do It Again

Football strategy decision making is about maximizing value by the decision made.

Normally, this means simply maximizing the expected point value of a decision. When points have differing values – usually near the ends of football games, and under specific circumstances – maximizing value then takes that into account as well.

But the right decision in football is always to maximize overall value.

Most of the time, as your team doesn’t know how the end of the game will play out, which points you absolutely need, which ones you should have given up for a better chance at more points, etc, each point is simply worth a point, equal in value to every other point.

So unless your team is already way ahead (then decrease volatility to decrease any chance for your opponent of scoring a huge number of points), way behind (then increase volatility to increase any chance of scoring a huge number of points yourself) or often late in the game when there are additional factors based on oddities of the scoring structure of football (clock, certainty, the value of a certain number of points depending on the score and situation and most likely way that it is going to or can play out, etc – all a key subject of the book I’m currently working on), the only decision that maximizes overall value is the one that maximizes overall point value.

And so it was in the first quarter of the 2014 NFC Conference Championship Game, when – after an interception by the Seahawks Richard Sherman, then an interception off a tipped ball by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of the Packers 3 plays later, then a 12 yard pass and a 6 yard run down to the 1 – the heavy underdog Green Bay Packers got stopped twice in a row from the Seattle Seahawks 1 yard line on goal to go plays.

The stoppages ultimately brought up a 4th and goal from well inside the 1; inches, more than anything, from the goal line. The score was 0-0, and 8:10 remained in the 1st quarter.

Mike McCarthy, who leads the Pack, is a fantastic head coach. But to be a HC and excellent in the required fields of leadership, teaching, motivation, management, public relations, football knowledge and play designs and strategy, can also make it difficult to have a solid grasp of the sometimes more obtuse area of the underlying structural strategy of the game.

This often leads to a lot of poor decisions. (Here is but one such example among many hundreds from this NFL season alone.)

In the Packers situation, with the ball so close to the goal line that the ensuing field goal has been recorded as an 18 yarder rather than the traditional 19 yarder from the “1” yard line, McCarthy made an extraordinarily counter productive decision. (That’s French slang for “horrible.”)

It was a decision that at the time made, significantly helped his opponent’s chances in the game, and lessened those of his own team: And this ultimately, is all that strategic decision making in NFL football games comes down to; namely, increasing your team’s chances of winning by the decision at the time the decision is made, and not your opponents’.

Clearly McCarthy was worried about the fact that the Seahawks have an excellent defense, an excellent goal line defense, and had stopped the Packers on the two prior plays, and in the past. (Sportscaster and former Cowboy Great Troy Aikman even made this point at the time during the broadcast of the game.)

But here’s why it was an absolutely horrendous, if “understandable” decision: First, prior performance – particular recent prior performance, does provide a small clue regarding how a similar ensuing play or attempt may work out. But that’s all it does.

It doesn’t indicate how a successive or later similar play will work out, or heavily change the odds from what they are in that situation in general, with that particular offense, against that particular defense.

The Seahawks no doubt have a strong defense. But unless there is almost no time left to play in a football game and the offensive team finds trails by 3 or less or leads by 2 or less, no team, no matter how poor their offense, and no matter how good the defense, should ever kick a field goal in that situation that close to the goal line. (Or, most of the time, even anywhere in that general area.)

Such a situation – as we’ll shortly see is so lopsided that the above statement can be made so categorically yet accurately.

But, the Packers also don’t have a poor offense. In fact they they have a very solid offensive line; which at times, if not on the past two plays, was getting a little bit of push against the Seattle defense and sometimes opening up holes for running back Eddie Lacy. And had been doing so for much of the season.

But regardless of offenses or defenses and prattle about “good offenses, bad offenses,” etc. Here’s the essence of the situation: The value of going for that 4th down conversion is the value of the touchdown times the chances of that touchdown being made, plus the value of being stopped (versus an ensuing kickoff after a touchdown or field goal) times the chances of being stopped. (And if a team is that poor relative to their opponent that in an otherwise categorically lopsided situation it may not be a greater value to go for it – hard to imagine here regardless – that team is likely going to get crushed in the game anyway and needs to increase variance or volatility, and thus go for it anyway.)

Understanding what that means is crucial for a team being able to make the right decision in these situations – and we’ll look at what it means in a moment. And there probably are no great statistics that can do justice to the actual chances of the Packers successfully making that 4th down conversion.

Yet by putting statistics too far aside – or more accurately any prior record of relevant probabilities – the problem that human nature leads to and that head coaches sometimes understandably over indulge in, is to take “hunches” over what might or might not happen on the next play, and conflate those hunches or guesses with some sort of relevant knowledge about the outcome of an ensuing play.

In close situations these hunches are fine. (More on this and how to differentiate between subjective guesses and analyses made based upon specific, observed factors in conjunction with a history of such experience, in another post.)

But coaches can’t know outcomes in advance. And the fact is the probability of scoring from well inside the 1 yard line is reasonably high. Even if the Packers had been stopped on the two prior plays and the Seahawks defense is very strong, their chances are not suddenly that out of whack with the Packers general overall chances against strong defenses in that type of a field down and distance situation.

We could go into pages of statistics, but to come to the correct strategy call here we don’t need to, because the call is so lopsided. For instance, even if McCarthy, from inches out, decided that his team only had a ridiculously low 1 in 3 chance of making that touchdown (a near ludicrous assumption) it was still a poor decision to go for it.

But their chances were not that low, or likely anywhere close – average teams are about 50% from the two yard line. And this pitted a good offense against a good defense, from a half yard out or less, so it was very likely above 50%, prior plays notwithstanding. As we’ll see, an upgrade in their chances from a near ludicrously low 1 in 3 to a more reasonable figure makes the correct strategic call here remarkably lopsided – and it’s not what the Packers opted to do.

However, even if the chances of making the touchdown were a miserably, unrealistically, low 1 in 3, the value of the attempt in terms of scoring alone is still the value of making the touchdown, times the chances of being successful. Here that would be 7 points times 1 in 3 or 33%, or .33(7) or  2.31 points. (On the other hand, if the chances of making that conversion were 2 in 3, the value of the attempt in terms of scoring alone would be worth 4.7 points.)

Wait, you say, 2.31 points is less than the 3 they get from a field goal. Or you might even say “but they might not get the 7 points!”

The fact (at the ridiculously low chance of only 1 in 3 of making a foot or so) that it is less than the 3 points from the field goal does not mean the attempt is worth less than the field goal, as there is also substantial value in getting stopped around or inside of an opponent’s 1 yard line versus kicking off and having their opponent start out around the 20 yard line or better, as we will see in a moment.

But on the latter point of the two above, it also does not matter that they might not “get” the touchdown. They might not score the next time they have the ball, the next 3rd and 8 with a receiver open past the 1st down marker might not make the catch, or their opponents might not score on the next possession, or their opponents might, etc. Every play in football involves an unknown; and for most of them the unknown is the biggest element.

This decision is no different. Since all points are equal in value (1 point equals 1 point) barring special end game circumstances where the conditions make some points more valuable than others – and the team with the most points at the end wins – all that matters is maximizing them.

You don’t neglect to throw to an open receiver 48 yards down the field and choose to throw a much easier to catch pass to an open receiver 8 yards down the field (unless there is a minute and one timeout left in the game and you faced a 3rd and  7 from your opponents 28 yard line, for example, and you either led by a small margin and needed to close out the game or trailed by 2 or less), simply because you don’t know the outcome.

And so it is, again, with every play and every decision in football – unless, in certain specific, often late game and condition specific circumstances knowing the outcome or having a higher probability of an outcome on top of the point value of it, offers some extra value. (Such as when leading by 6 with 3 minutes to play and coming upon a very short 4th down conversion well inside field goal range, where the right call would normally be to keep the ball (despite the fact that teams normally don’t), here you do kick the field goal because of the extra value of ensuring that you make it a two score game under those clock conditions.)

To play winning football, all you do as a team is maximize value, which takes into account what maximizes your team’s chances of ultimately winning the game. Nothing more – and nothing less. And in most situations (and certainly here in the first half of a game where one team is not completely blowing out the other) that means maximizing your points or expected point value alone.

In the situation the Packers were in, you can’t know whether each point from the “3”  you will get from kicking the field goal is going to wind up being worth more or less per point by the end of the game then each point from the “7” you will get if you score the touchdown. All you do know, and can know, is that the field goal is worth 3 points, and you will get it if you try, and the touchdown is worth 7 and you or your team may get it if you try.

There is no value here in definitely getting the 3 points. None. Zilch. This is a tough concept. But not getting it is a big impediment to good football strategy, whereas getting it is critical to good football strategic decision making.

The team (or head coach, or strategy advisor) who does, and who also knowns when – under what circumstances – and why there is extra value in some degree of certainty, will have an immediate advantage over all other teams.

It probably feels like there is value (and is probably a large part of the reason the Packers went for it), but there is none. It’s just points. Staying 0 – 0 but possibly going up 7-0 versus assuredly going up 3-0 doesn’t have any less value per point simply because, in the first scenario, you do not know if you will “temporarily” take a decent but small single full score lead, nor does going up 3-0 have any more value simply because versus the first scenario you do know you will “temporarily” take a (piddling, minimal, 3 point field goal) lead.

This is so key to good strategic decision making in football in most situations it can’t be emphasized enough. (Once again, to be clear, in those situations where each point is not worth one point, and there is some additional value in either certainty, in a higher probability, or in achieving a certain number of points or achieving something relative to the clock, those become part of the same value equation in terms of simply doing that which maximizes your teams’ chances of having the most points at the end of the football contest and winning the game: Which again, in our instance here, and until end game situations in most instances of games, simply means maximizing your expected point value.)

But remember, there is a key second part to this equation that is often overlooked by teams (though less so over the past 5 or years as decisions in these general close in goal situations have become a little less abhorrent than in the past).

That part is the difference between making a field goal (the decision if your team does not elect to go for it on 4th down), and what happens after that field goal in terms of value; and going for it and failing on the conversion attempt.

Remember, if you make the touchdown on your 4th down attempt, you kick off. This is the same thing that happens if you make a field goal – after the field goal you also kick off. The ensuing results are identical – the only difference being that in the one (piddling) instance you scored a field goal for 3 points, and the other you scored a touchdown for 7.

Football plays are about probabilities. If the Packers go for the conversion, and try a pass play, they might take a sack, but it is unlikely. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers – who looked to finally be moving around well after that calf injury a few weeks back that hampered him in the season ending and division clinching win over the Detroit Lions, and slightly in their close (and somewhat lucky) win over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs last week – might roll out with an option to pass or run to the pylon, and lose a few yards. Or as with any play in football – but with such low odds that the negative value is negligible – something fluky could happen.

Most likely the Packers would try a run in such a short yardage situation, even if they thought the Seahawks likely expected it, and even a quarterback sneak,; which being able to move first off the snap, gives the offense a decided advantage even in goal line situations, in very short yardage situations. A sneak that failed would likely gain a couple of inches, or lose a foot or two, and a running play, even one designed only for very short yardage, could lose a little more.

Thus overall the reasonable yard line range if the Packers get stopped, is somewhere inside the 1 yard line  a solid majority of times, and probably around the 1 yard line or just outside of it, on average.

This is big. After a kickoff, the average starting point is about the 22 yard line. This represents a net gain for the Packers defense of about 20, 21 yards on average.

There are all sorts of ways to approximate the point value of x number of yards (which often tend to oversimplify, as yards have different values depending on where they are on the field relative to each team’s scoring range).

But assigning about a point value to 20 yards is in line with many of them, and a little bit on the low side, and about 1.2 points is probably also a decent accounting; again realizing that they are all just guestimates, no matter how rigorously arrived at, based upon assumptions. But the value of those yards, whatever the number, is very real.

Normally yardage for an offense deep inside their own territory is worth less than yardage close to or past midfield, which is why the assignment of a traditional half a point per 8 yards (thus say 1.25 points value for the Packers if the Seahawks start out 20-21 yards further back) may be a little high. But by the same token, this yardage could become worth more for the Packers offense after an ensuing punt, for the flip side of the same reason:

That is, suppose the Seahawks go three and out, and punt. The Packers will likely start in extremely good field position, close to scoring range, making the value of gaining ensuing 1st downs (with maybe just 1 or 2 1st downs putting them right back into scoring range) a little higher than at some other random point on the field for them.

But there is additional value here due to the structure of the field. Backing a team up very close to the goal line has additional worth because it hampers the flexibility of the quarterback – even a great decision maker and athlete like the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. He has to be very careful on any pass attempt. And it curtails the flexibility of the opposing team for the same reason. (Though sometimes defenses subconsciously let up a little bit when opponents are very deep, because the opponents “have such a long way to go.” This is a big mistake, and most great defenses that play to win do not do this.)

One decent pop in the end zone and it’s two points for a Safety and possession back of the ball (making the Safety a more valuable score than the field goal, because it delivers two thirds of the points, and more importantly, a brand new possession of the ball).

But even without the Safety, the quarterback will have far less time simply because he can’t risk taking that Safety, or worse, getting that ball stripped away in the end zone – where merely falling on it by the defense means an automatic 7 points.

On top of this, if the opponent can be contained near the goal line, their punter, due to the constraints of the end zone, won’t have as much room to get his punt off, and will have to hurry, resulting in a shortened kick, and less hang time and less coverage time for the punting team, often leading to immediate good field position on the punt recovery, as well as an increased chance of a solid punt return.

Thus when teams punt from inside their 5 yard line, very often they gain less than the average yardage from a punt where the punter can otherwise wail away and not worry about it bouncing into the end zone for a touchback (such when not punting from near mid, and often poorly advised past midfield punts), due to these same reasons, and thus start out across midfield or better: already knocking on the door, or near knocking on the door, of their scoring range.

Thus while a lot of time this value will not come to fruition, the reasonable chance at a Safety, initial curtailment of the offense, and the chance, if they can stay semi curtailed, at a bigger advantage off of their ensuing punt, add additional and specific value – beside the sheer differential in yards versus an kickoff – to getting stopped on a 4th and very short and leaving one’s opponent at or in this instance likely well inside their own 1 yard line.

Let’s give that a conservative value of half a point, which is probably low since it provides the Packers a good opportunity to get the ball back well past midfield and a 1st down or so away from field goal range or better.

This yields a value of getting stopped, on average, and conservatively, of about 1.5 points, and probably a little bit more (the traditional 1.25 + our semi-conservative half a point for likely leaving an opponent – though the term is far too loosely used for most “deep” punts – actually pinned against their goal line).

If the chances of making that touchdown are again a miserably underestimated 1 in 3, then the value of going for it would be the value of making the touchdown times the chance of that happening, or .33(7), plus the value of getting stopped and the average starting field position for the defense over kicking off times the chance of that happening, or .66(1.5), or 3.3 points total.

This is a decent amount more than the field goal. And it is using conservative estimates for the value of leaving the Seahawks on average around their 1 yard line or worse, and more importantly using a ridiculously, almost ludicrously low estimate for their chances of making the touchdown in the first place.

If with inches more than yards to go for the touchdown the Packers chances were really as low as 1 in 3 – never give up of course – but metaphorically they might as well have walked out of the stadium at that point and caught a flight home. Because if getting a fraction of a yard on any one play is that low of a probability, despite the generally high probability of getting such small yardage (even in general goal line situations, which is tougher because the defense has an extremely short field to cover and knows the opponent precisely needs only a very small bit of yardage), they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in you know where of winning the game.

Again, there is not a large enough sample size to really know the exact chances of the Packers, facing 4th and inches. You can look at all inside the 1 yard line situations, but 4th downs are a little different, because the offense knows it has to make it and defenses knows it’s pulled off a strong move if it gets the stop on that one specific play. (Not that that changes odds all that much, but it does introduce another element that may be relevant.)

You can look at all teams in general, but better information comes from strong offenses – in particular those with strong run blocking or off the line push offensive lines – against strong defenses, strong front seven defenses, and maybe strong inside the 10 yard line defenses against appropriate (also strong) offenses, if again the sample size is large enough to really make a substantive distinction within their overall defensive play.

And it comes from the general play of the Packers offensive line in recent weeks (and in those and similar situations) and the Seahawks defensive line play in recent weeks (and in those and similar situations) as well as, a little bit, so far in this game. (Which wasn’t much, although it did consist of some nice stops by the Seahawks, then some nice blocking, then the two stops from the 1). Going back to when the teams played 17 games earlier in week 1 of the season is probably pretty pointless, even if apt to stick in a coach’s mind too much.

Let’s take a 50% chance at the touchdown just to get a more realistic feel for the value of trying for the touchdown here (which is again what matters – namely the value of the attempt itself), in comparison with the value of trying for the field goal.

In general 50% would be too low for such an extremely short yardage goal line situation (and ridiculously low if it were not a goal line situation, where the probabilities are closer to 80% or better). But even with the Packer’s good offense, the Seahawks have a strong defense, and at least the last two plays- simple variance of football and or good defensive guesswork or anticipation or not – Seattle had also played strongly, and the Packer’s offensive line not as much as usual. So keeping this figure low is reasonable.

(Generally the odds are around 50%, or lately a little higher, from about the 2 yard line, which also represents the place a team starts on a 2 point conversion. When there is only a foot or so to go, the odds go up, but again, we’re accommodating for the facts that the Seahawks defense had stymied the Packers at the line a few times – on the last 2 plays and very early in the drive before then being a bit run over – and that in general it is a very strong defense, notwithstanding the Packer’s strong offense and solid offensive line.)

This more reasonable (and possibly even still low) approximation puts the value of the attempt at 3.5 points (the 7 point value of the TD times the .5 probability of it occurring) + .75 points (the conservative 1.5 value, versus kicking off after a field goal times the .5 probability of the stop occurring, of leaving the Seahawks likely backed right up to their own goal line, times the .5 probability of getting stopped), or about 4.25 points.

Even these numbers may underestimate the value, since the Packers chances of making the touchdown, with only inches to go, may well have been higher. (If they were 60%, the value of the attempt becomes 4.8 points – almost 5 points) And leaving the Seahawks inside the 1 may be a little more valuable than what we’re assigning to it.

But the bottom line is that there is no realistic scenario where the value of going for that field goal is as high as the value of going for the touchdown attempt here.

Since there is no extra value in “making” the field goal (as, say, there would be if there were 3 minutes left and the Packers led by 6, or if there was 40 seconds left and they led by a couple or trailed by 1 or 2), the decision is categorically counter productive, and probably horrendous. And it cost the Packers significant value, and gave significant value to the Seahawks, all through strategic decision making alone.

There is also the psychological aspect. Or there could be one perceived, so let’s quickly address it, because it factors into games too often, and often in the wrong way:

In a nutshell, barring extraordinary and unusual circumstances, if a team has to harm it’s own chances – here significantly – just to create the right “psychology,” it either has much bigger problems, or the situation is not being explained properly.

Also, players normally want to play to win, not play to “avoid” losing.

As far as the other team goes, again barring unusual circumstances where there is little upside but huge downside (such as when way ahead and playing a sleeping – listless – but otherwise very competent team you don’t want to wake up), the same thing applies: Don’t worry about the psychology of the other team. Play to win and it will take care of itself.

Showing them you are not afraid of their defense, regardless of outcome, certainly won’t hurt that. And whatever imagined “spark” (as if the Seahawks needed spark in an NFC championship game) they might get from stopping your team, would quickly be offset by the fact that they will then likely find themselves pinned up against their goal line, and you can get it right back by stopping them and getting a shortened punt. Not to mention the anti spark for them om the flip side of your team”giving up” the measly 3, and slamming that football home on 4th down for the key full extra 4 points.

What likely drove even a great, and often less fearful, coach like McCarthy, on some level, was likely a “fear” of getting stopped, and a “fear” of coming away with “no points.” But what McCarthy and all teams and head coaches need to fear is losing the game; nothing else in terms of outcome during the course of it.

Since the possibility of “missing out” on those 3 points has no negative value in terms of the value opportunity presented here, and the value of a field goal attempt versus the value of going for the touchdown, “taking” the field goal in order to “ensure” getting 3 points had nothing to do with increasing the Packers chances of winning. Maximizing the opportunity here, and the value of their decision – instead of minimizing the value of their decision – had everything to do with it.

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Unfortunately, and even more surprisingly, but again likely for some of the very same reasons, finding themselves on the Seahawks 1 yard line (though this time not quite as close to the goal line) facing a 4th down and now leading 3-0, with 5:10 left to go in the 1st quarter, the Packers again kicked the field goal. This, if not quite as horrific as the earlier decision when they had closer to inches to go than a yard, was also a horrible decision, for similar reasons. (although in some ways possibly even worse because they had just kicked a field goal from the 1 yard line, for cripes sake: In some ways getting stopped on 4th down would have been better than the awfulness of getting to an opponent’s 1 yard line twice in a row and willingly coming away with only 3 points each time.)

The Seahawks, down 19-7 late, then 19-14 after scoring a touchdown after the Packers’ Morgan Burnett was on the receiving end of Russell Wilson’s 4th interception of the day (this one, like the one earlier by Clinton – Dix, also off of a tipped ball), successfully recovered an onside kick that bounced off the hands of the Packer’s Brandon Bostick which, with only 1 Seattle timeout remaining, would – barring an ensuing fluke – all but have won the game for the Packers.

The Seahawks then scored, fairly quickly (again) with the reasonably shortened field after the successful onside kick, and made the two point conversion to pull ahead by 3: Good move, since the Packers then drove to a tying field goal – which would have otherwise won them the game – and the Seahawks then won it in overtime on a TD pass on the opening drive of overtime.

While the Packers were already in very good shape, and would have almost assuredly won the game but for the missed onside kick recovery, the pick by Burnett was still probably one of the more egregious on field during the course of play strategic mistakes made in a long time.

It’s true that after a turnover, defensive teams then themselves lose the ball (turning it back over again) far higher than the general average for turnovers on any offensive running or run after the catch play. (Which as an aside to teams should be a wakeup call to preach and practice ball security for defensive players as well, since these turnovers take away opportunities just as valuable as any other turnover – and often more so, because they happen before the temporarily recovering team has even run a 1st down play.)  But the chances are still low; and the way to guard against this is to protect the ball. But Burnett elected to simply slide as if the game was essentially over.

It wasn’t, there was still 5:13 left to play, and the Packers led by less than two touchdowns.

They shouldn’t (and the Packers shouldn’t have here), but teams do lose games in those situations, and it’s not all that rare. Burnett picked the ball off on the run at about his own 39 and then slid down to the ground just past the 43 yard line, with no Seahawks player anywhere close. (Burnett, for his part, says he received a signal to just get down after the pick.)

Getting as many yards as possible, while protecting the ball, and giving the Packers a good chance to add a field goal to go up to a much more solid 15 point lead was a key opportunity. Purposefully neglecting it through mis-assessment of the situation and likely over presumption that the game was essentially won, was another Packer mistake.

The Packers then ran the ball 3 times in a row, losing 4, then 2, and then gaining 2 yards, and then punted. The Seahawks then scored quickly, made the onside kick, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Green Bay did not “lose” the game because of the exceedingly poor early 4th down decisions. There is no way to know how the game would have turned out, and the fact that they did lose is not an indictment on the earlier decisions (which had they won would have been all but forgotten, but would still have been remarkably poor decisions, if “understandable.”)

What is an indictment are the decisions in the face of the circumstances that existed at the time they were made. They didn’t lose the game because of them; but they increased their chances of losing the game. And in fact wound up, in this case, losing the game. And thus here not going to the Super Bowl.

There’s a reasonable chance that in this case – even though it was early in the game and it’s normally late game structural decision making that has the most profound impact upon game outcomes – that decent basic structural decision making would have kept the Packers from missing out on McCarthy’s second Super Bowl trip (out of 7 trips to the playoffs, equaled only by the New England Patriots since the 2007 season), in his 9 seasons as Packers head coach. But several other things, as is usually the case, did as well.

Not, however, ultimately, bad luck, as it was by virtue of a somewhat lucky tipped ball on a 1st down play from the Seahawks 46 yard line, that fell into the arms of Burnett with just over 5 minutes remaining and a 12 point lead, that put the Packers into a very commanding drivers seat to win a game they should have won anyway.

Soft play on defense after their quick three runs and out, as it so often does in these situations, likely contributed as well. As of course ultimately, did the always challenging but ever so important act in the game of football – hanging onto the ball when it it is loose and comes in contact with one’s hands – as it did against a Packer’s player, up front “just to block” or not, on the Seattle onside kick attempt.

Developing better softer hands until securely grasping a loose football becomes a more natural and unyielding act can be practiced more thoroughly and in different ways outside of game time; but when flubbed during the course of play, is traditionally unintentional. And Brandon Bostick, a “blocker” on the recovery, simply made a mistake he did not intend, and feels bad enough about.

Bad strategic decisions on the other hand, though not intended as “bad” decisions, obviously, are intentional.

And that is why NFL teams, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the pursuit of winning over the course of a season, should not be making them: if through no other means than hiring an assistant who thoroughly understands the strategic nature of the game, to help with this process – something all teams (yes, even the Patriots, if a little bit less than most), could use.