In a 2015 NFL season week 1 Sunday Night Football matchup last night, the New York Giants, playing at Dallas, made one of the worst strategic decisions imaginable; even in a league filled with questionable strategic decisions that often go under the radar.
When one team has the ball on their own side of the field after a kickoff or long punt, and has to score a touchdown to either win or tie the game, the amount of time left becomes the critical factor. Sometimes, barring silly and easily avoidable error, it becomes almost the only thing that matters.
Because of basic probabilities (adding some room for random incompletions changes the odds dramatically due to basic statistics, while each incompletion itself only takes an extra 5 or 6 seconds – hence the remarkable difference in end game odds and results when a team has say 1:35 left for a 75 yard TD drive versus 1:55), sideline rules, and the physics and kinesthetics of simply moving down a football field and lining up, in such situations the last 1:45 to 2:00 or so of the game are critical. And these situations come up time and time again; so it’s not like teams don’t constantly see them.
Essentially, once you start moving to about a minute and a half and no timeouts, an opponent’s chances in the game in these routine instances start to greatly diminish, due to these same dynamics.
You still want to avoid the situation if you can; particulary against certain NFL quarterbacks and NFL quarterback offensive line combinations: For instance, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Ben Rothlisberger or Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys – particularly with that Cowboys offensive line. (You also don’t want to be in it against Eli Manning, who faced Romo in this game.)
But once you shut it down to near a minute, barring a fluke, the game is over.
In other words, if you go through all of the NFL games played in the last fifteen years, and find those where an opponent was facing somewhere around a 70 or 80 yard drive or so and had around just under a minute to play and no timeouts, or a little more than a minute and perhaps a timeout, you would be hard pressed to find many where that team won the game. (This is similar even before kickoff, although in rare situations a big kickoff has occurred, and then with the shorter drive, but still facing a time crunch, the trailing team has pulled it out. But that’s happened very rarely the last few years with kickers kicking longer than ever, and the 2011 rule change moving the kickoff forward to the 35 yard line.)
To increase what is already a fairly large sample size, if you include games where the trailing team has anywhere from a few to ten seconds less, or even a few to ten or fifteen seconds more, the results barely change. That team, barring a complete breakdown by an opponent (simply letting the trailing drive down the field as if they can’t win when at the rate you are letting them – yardage per second burned), won’t win but for some sort of wild near Hail Mary type flukes.
Yet add enough time for a few more incompletions sprinkled in, and start moving past a minute and a half and closing in on two minutes for that final post kickoff or decent punt “two minute drill” touchdown drive, and the situation starts to dramatically change.
And this basic calculus is at the heart of the rather interesting yet straightforward situation the Giants found themselves in near the end of the game, and as happens to one degree or another, or is otherwise relevant, in so many NFL games it’s become a fairly basic part of NFL play.
Last night, after a wild last two or so minutes of play, the New York Giants were in very good position already. They faced third and goal from the 1 yard line. They led the game 23-20. There was 1:43 left on the clock.
And most critical of all, Dallas had no timeouts.
The Giants were in what is proverbially known as a strong “win win” situation.
On the one (weaker) hand, they don’t really want to score. (If they were thinking and weren’t acting like the NFL was paying them to manipulate the end of the game and try to increase the odds that a Sunday Night game between two marquee teams comes right down to the wire. A conspiracy that, though both disgusting yet contemplatable, makes little sense anyway as a matter of practical logistics and league transparency.)
The point agaisnt scoring here is that, by scoring, their opponent gets almost double the remaining time.
But, and it’s a huge but, by scoring a TD they make it a two score game. This very likely decreases their opponent’s odds in the game even more than if they failed to score via the the only rational decision available to them: That is, by running the ball and thus if they fail to score on the run at least take the clock down to 58 seconds, call a timeout, and kick the very short field goal to knock it down to about 54 or 55 seconds.
Under either scenario, but for a once every several years fluke, they don’t lose. But under the scenario where their opponent is down by 10 with only about 1:39 left, they probably lose even less.
So it’s a win win. The only thing they can’t do is pretty obvious. It’s also a mistake that’s basic and imperative to increasing one’s odds in a game that a franchise is spending hundreds of millions of dolllars on a year to win. And it was fairly straightforward in that it didn’t involve any “lopsided” weighing of odds, however poor one choice versus another might be in those even more common “weighing of odds” types of situations.
That is, running the ball doesn’t even mean the Giants won’t score a touchdown. And even if by some sort of silly “Sunday Night Football two minutes or less ball on the 1 yard line” rule it did mean they weren’t allowed to score a td TD running the ball, there still is essentially no decision here.
Sure, given a choice, you’d like the touchdown because the two scores, even with the additional clock, makes it even harder. But either way the game is essentially over barring one of those fluke of flukes that are remarkably rare.
On the other hand, if you somehow stop the clock and yet fail to score, the game is still very likely to be won by the Giants; but it’s no longer “essentially all but over.”
That is, they are still in a good situation regardless, because teams almost never win with around 1:30 to go and no timeouts and facing the need for a TD following a kickoff; but it can happen on rare occasions by some bizarre long Hail Mary connections or multiple perfect low probability plays, a complete strategic breakdown and failure to understand the clock and field math of the situation, a little bit of both, or a little bit of either in combination with a now rare longer kickoff return in such situations. (In such situations the covering team merely has to prevent a big return, not maximize every yard prevented, so the chances go down even more; but it does happen from rare time to time.)
And if you are facing Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, or Tony Romo in combination with that offensive line, your opponent also probably has a better chance than normal, albeit still very low.
So, to recap. Basic math of the game. Under our made rule: “If you run the ball you can not be awarded the touchdown, you have to pass or you can only kick a field goal,” there is still only one decision to be made:
That is, you run the ball and run the time it takes to actually run the play (4 to 5 seconds here) off the game clock, then the 40 seconds of the play clock, and nearly cut the already extremely limiting remaining game by nearly half: And thus, essentially turn the game from one that unless you screw up you should win, but that your opponent still has an outside shot at, into one that barring a very rare fluke is all but mathematically over.
But of course the rules don’t state “You aren’t allowed to score a touchdown by running the ball here.” So, extra bonus. When you run the ball – essentially because it is the clock that is now your opponent’s enemy, not you – and you control it – you can still make the 1 yard touchdown and make their all but game over chances even slightly lower still. (But again, if you can, good, you should still do it: Never give up a chance to increase your odds, no matter how good already, even futher. But the actual benefit is small because you would at this point be increasing them from a point where you’re already one bizarre fluke or complete and total meltdown removed from a lock to win already.)
So, again, the Giants are in a win win situation. Run the ball to chew up about 43.7% of your opponents already reduced time, and fundamentally change the dynamics of the game and all but end it. Or score a touchdown.
But the Giants elected to pass. And QB Eli Manning essentially ultimately threw the ball away on the pass play. Thus, of course, stopping the clock.
The decision to pass would be a terrible one regardless. But there is at least an argument for it under the following conditions, and reasoning. No one expects a pass. Manning is a good decision maker and has good control. Perhaps there is a chance that the call so takes the Cowboys by surprise that someone is basically wide open in the end zone and all Manning has to do is lob the ball to him. So call the pass, roll out, and as the cardinal rule, only throw it if the receiver is wide open
Again, it’s still a bad call because too much can still go wrong, and there is just not that much (though again there is some) to gain by making it a two score game versus simply making sure the clock goes down to a point where your opponent, barring a fluke, simply doesn’t have any realistic shot at winning. (Such as the 55 or so seconds and no timeouts it would have been brought down to by running down the clock.)
But if such a bad call is going to be made because being up by 10 with 1:39 left would be even better than being up by 6 with :55 left, then the entire key is of course to make sure that the pass is only thrown in the event that it does wind up working out this way and fooling everyone. Manning rolls to his right, the receiver is wide open because Dallas never would have expected such a ridculously foolish decision, and Manning takes the high probability chance that his receiver doesn’t wig out and drop a pass that someone’s grandmother could catch half blind folded, and throws.
And that, of course, and far more importantly, if not available – that is, the receiver is anywhere near covered – Manning is to simply tuck the ball with two hands and run anywhere so long as he stays away from his own sidelines; and either be tackled or scoot in to the end zone anyway.
It’s inconceivable a team would elect to pass – a horrendous enough decision as it is because too much could go wrong -and then not actually ensure that the quarterrback is to under no condition run out of bounds, throw to a covered receiver, or perhaps worst of all (as it is the most easily avoidable of all), throw the ball away. Which of course, after electing to pass in the first place, is exactly what the Giants did anyway.
This is not a breakdown. This is suggestive of the fact that end game situations are often not sufficiently understood by NFL teams who otherwise pay out hundreds of millions to coaching staffs, players, trainers and personnel in the pursuit winning.
This decision is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a fairly obvious one. Long time sports reporter and savvy commentator Judy Battista termed the call “dreadful“; and both head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning, acknowledged the blame for it.
But how could it have even been made in the first place. When the end game situation is fundamentally understood, such a mistake like that simply wouldn’t be made.
It would be, in the actual dictionary sense of the word, and not the more fanciful “Princess Bride” sense I am using it above, simply, be inconceivable.
The ultimate outcome of the game has nothing to do with the points made in this article, same as any other strategic piece in here. However, it’s interesting to note that because of the very strong situation they were already in, the Giants still almost all but had the game locked up. They kicked off with 1:34 to go. UP by 6. (“No harm no foul.” Except for good strategic decision making the no harm no foul rule doesn’t apply, since outcome has nothing to do with the decision at the time.) Except this time there was harm: they lost.
How did they lose? As written above, and worth repeating::
Teams almost never win with around 1:30 to go and no timeouts and facing the need for a TD following a kickoff; but it can happen on rare occasions by some bizarre long Hail Mary connections or multiple perfect low probability plays, a complete strategic breakdown and failure to understand the clock and field math of the situation, a little bit of both, or a little bit of either in combination with a now rare longer kickoff return in such situations.
And it also notes you don’t want to be in such situations against certain quarterbacks in particular, with Tony Romo, in combination with his excellent pass blocking offensive line, near the top of that list.
Yet next, after their unfathomably bad third and goal from the 1 “decision,” the Giants, if in more complex fashion, continued to significantly contribute to the Cowboy’s win:
It’s worth going back a few minutes to put what they did in a fuller context: After taking a 10 point, 23-13 lead with 8:01 to go, the Giants had then played very soft, as if so long as they didn’t give up a “big play” they couldn’t lose the game.
But they had the math egregiously wrong, and by purposefully playing very soft, and allowing Dallas to march 76 yards down the field on a mere 6 plays and 2:53 on that drive, they actually greatly increased the odds of them losing a game that should have been almost all but over through smart, solid strategic, tough “keep them in bounds, tackle hard but wrap, drive backward and sideways not down (clock time and no forward progress), allow short gains over the middle, defense.”
They were however rescued by succesful play on offense, as well as a somewhat boneheaded unnecessary roughness call on DE Jeremy Mincey (throwing a hand out to knock off rookie OT first round draft pick Ereck Flowers’ helmet) on their ensuing drive that gave the Giants a 1st and10 at the Dallas 16 and control of the game, instead of what could have been a fairly interesting 3rd and 1 at the Dallas 31.
Then, ultimately, after a nice catch by Odell Beckham Jr on a 3rd and 14 from the Dallas 20 and fantastic play by Eli Manning – very tightly threading the ball ball between two defenders while Beckham Jr weaved his way through them, and purposefully low so only Beckham could catch it, they faced goal to go from the 4. And two plays later arrived at the “dreadful” third and goal from the 1, where they all but purposefully stopped the clock and nearly doubled the time Dallas would have left.
So what happened after that? Their kickoff was returned out to the 28, burning only 5 seconds. Then, instead of duplicating their last defensive performance, where they virtually all but allowed Dallas to march down the field on them unchallenged so long as they didn’t give up the “big play” and thereby rescue Dallas’ chances in the game from the likely garbage heap, they outdid it.
They played even softer. Not only did they leave even larger cushions, including sometimes on key sideline throws, and practically allowing Romo to make every completion all but unchallenged, but looked lackadaisical and slow, coming up to make tackles, taking poor angles, and often giving up large chunks of RAC, or run after catch yardage.
Thus ultimately, and also somewhat remarkably (but perhaps too predictably), leading to a Dallas 3rd down on the 11 yard line, with 13 seconds left. Where an almost zen like calm Romo fumbled a bad shotgun snap (he does that sometimes), then quickly and calmly picked it up and fiound TE Jason Witten for the 27-26 game winning touchdown at the goal line.
If one didn’t know better, the “uncertain” ultimate ending aside, one could almost say the game seemed purposefully orchestrated to manipulate fans.
And maybe on some subconscious type of mass groupthink level, where teams repeatedly make poor strategic decisions unrecognized as such (unlike this one by the Giants, which instead enters into the fray along with all the other decisions also called “dreadful” and worse, many of which were actually fine), this is almost what is happening:
Where in an NFL – where in the year of “911” the “Patriots,” of all teams, win the Super Bowl; where after the Raiders unceremoniously trade Jon Gruden then both make it to the Super Bowl the very next year and at that same Super Bowl are beaten by none other than Jon Gruden’s new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in their still only Super Bowl appearance ever; where a few Super Bowls back the Ravens finally make it again, to there meet a team who is also led by none other than their own head coach’s very own flesh and blood brother – sometimes the way things unfold is more “Hollywood” than Hollywood
But what I really think is that there are so many different things that head coaches and teams need to be exceptionally good at – and that they are good at – that many teams don’t really grasp end game situations or the math and field dynamics of soft end game situational “prevent” defenses, and so often botch it. Sometimes so badly it’s even noticed.
Okay, sure, I picked the Giants to beat the Cowboys straight up as one of my two straight up upset picks. (The other was the Rams, who got a little lucky, courtesy of a somewhat strange mistake by the Seahawks’ normally reliable kicker.)
And (at least until tonight’s games) it would have been nice to go 6-0 against the spread and also 2-0 in the two I also tagged as straight out wins (instead of a still lucky 6-0 and 1-1 on big upsets). But, really, who cares.
If the Giants, or any other team wants someone to quietly keep them from making unrecognized (and even recognized) boneheaded strategic decisions, and also help them make far far better ones overall, I’m available.
But then again, that might just ruin the script.