Huge Playing Not to Lose Strategy Miscue Applauded by Nantz and Simms in Dallas New England Game

Week 5 of the 2015 NFL Season, New England Patriots at Dallas Cowboys, late third quarter:
Jim Nantz: “You gotta come out of this w/in 2 scores.”
Phil Phil Simms: “Absolutely.”

No guys, you don’t gotta do nothin’ but win the game. And kicking the field goal here versus trying to score more than double the points, does more to help the Patriots win than the Cowboys.

Pretty simple situation: 4th down, ball at the 5 yard line (or a bit outside if the refs spotted it correctly), 2 yards to go for the first Third quarter, 1:30 left. Patriots lead 20-3.

Until this one, Dallas has had one drive that’s gotten a first down all night. 7 of their first 8 averaged around 3 yards per drive. 2.42 if the end of half kneeldown is included.

That doesn’t really matter much, but it’s interesting, and does suggest Dallas is having a (very) hard time moving the ball against New England.

So here they are, with a chance to make it a reasonable game, 20-10.

With 16:30 left to play, it’s bleak regardless. But a field goal here, relative to a touchdown, does very little to increase their chances all that much, and,despite the seeming popularity (and conventionality) of the move, it’s strategically boneheaded. Or, in technical terms, “highly ill-advised.”

First off, the EV, or expected value is poor. (EV of trying the conversion equal odds of making the 1st time times chance of then making the TD if they don’t make it on that fourth down play, plus the chances of getting stopped times the (small but real) value of leaving the Patriots around the 5 yard line, is still higher than the 3 points of the field goal; and down by a lot of points, Dallas needs to maximize the points they make, not go “conservative” as if they need to decrease volatility.)

But more importantly is the real value it conveys. Two touchdowns – and that’s without a single additional New England score the rest of the way (meaning the Cowboys stop them each time), does not mean Dallas wins. It means they win half of the time.

If more realistically, New England sneaks in a field goal, they still need three scores to win, and only then if all three are touchdowns. And two touchdowns and a field goal just to tie.

Being “within two scores” is better than not. But the context of those two scores – what the scores are exactly, whether they put the team into a tie or win, how much time is left, and most importantly the specific opportunity the team is giving up to achieve them, are far more important.

Here it’s lopsided. Sure a team can crush it to the end but yet get “stopped” on one simple 2 yard play (the big “worry” that Dallas apparently has, and so fearfully doesn’t want to “give up” the 3 points), but that’s even more unlikely than them even just kicking the field goal instead and then suddenly crushing it to the end sufficiently to at least tye of win the game. (In other words, the only rationale for not trying the conversion – and it’s a bit speculative at that – is “we can’t move the ball on this team.” Yet the decision to not try requires that for all but the duration of the game the Cowboys not only move the ball on the Patriots, but dominate their defense.) It just feels good.

Group hug sessions and high fives are about feeling good. Winning strategy is about winning the game. And if a team needs to trick itself and strategically help its opponent in order to “feel good” and thus play better, it has bigger game winning problems.

Even getting stopped all day Dallas has a strong chance of making the 4th & 2, on this individual play.

And if one wants to factor in that they can’t seem to move the ball on New England, again – it can’t be emphasized enough but yet is repeatedly overlooked – that has to be equally factored into the fact that then willfully putting themselves down by a full fourteen points when they are so close to making it only ten becomes an even longer shot than it is already:

That is, the team can’t move the ball against New England so much they can’t get two yards, but is going to create two touchdown drives plus either stop New England or match yet a third score, and then also drive and win in overtime?

They may. But it banks on being able to move the ball, substantially, while the decision to give up a huge opportunity at a measly two or so yards banks on the inability to even budge the ball.

The fact Dallas is struggling thus on balance doesn’t weigh in much here, because it cuts both ways – they know they’ll have a hard time on subsequent drives, so reducing the number of them, the difficulty, or increasing the chances that the drives produce a win and not a “shot at” a win, is just as critical as the idea that their odds of making the fourth and two on this one particular play might also be lower than normal.

And to the extent the fact Dallas is struggling does weigh in, it means their chances are lower than the general game situation (score, time left) suggests.

This in turn means they need to take chances and increase volatility and variability; not decrease it. And there’s not much better opportunity to do so than when a team is only 5 yards from a touchdown, and only needs 2 to get an entire new set of downs. While on the other hand, taking the milquetoast field goal instead greatly decreases variability – and thus helps New England, the team both leading by a lot, and here the likely better team as well.

If Dallas does correctly go for the conversion and gets stopped, they at least have New England back at their own 5, and increase their own odds of subsequently having a shorter drive to field goal (and touchdown) range.

If they make the conversion, which is still statistically more likely than not, they stand a reasonable chance of scoring the touchdown on the play itself.

And if they make the conversion but don’t score on the play, they again have four chances to advance the ball a maximum of three yards, or as little as an inch, depending on where their successful fourth down conversion winds up.

As impotantly, making that touchdown would make it a 20-10 game. This is very different from a 20-6 game at this point, with barely over a quarter to play, and in what has been a defensive game. (The Patriots have moved the ball some, but this is in part because they keep stopping the Cowboys so quickly and have had a lot of chances, and good field position. And it’s in part because of somewhat sloppy tackling technique by the Cowboys versus better tackling and angles by the Patriots, but that’s another story.)

If, along with the constant stoppages of the Patriots, Dallas gets those same two touchdowns they seem to be banking on (and, at a minimum need, or the field goal is worthless), they win the game outright, instead of still lose it half of the time.

And, more likely, if the Patriots hit at least another field goal with their exceptional field goal kicker (who has already connected from 57), then those same two touchdowns still win the game, since the Patriots would be up by 13 points.

If that same Patriots field goal, and then somehow, two Dallas touchdowns happens after their measly 23 yard field goal instead, they again lose the game outright. And again, in that case, they would need to score three touchdowns just to win (making the odds from low to almost ridiculous by that point given the time left), or two touchdowns plus a field goal just to make it a tie game.

And last, by pulling within ten, not only are the Cowboys at least somewhat protected against a New England field goal (once again, if that happens, those same two touchdowns they would at a minimum need to even have a shot if they only kick the field goal – and which then would be worthless without more scores in the event of a New England field goal – would in this case still win them the game outright); they have a strong backup plan:

That is, if they stop the Patriots on all ensuing drives that taking the measly field goal here all but essentially also requires, and can’t get the two touchdowns, they can at least hit a field goal on one of their two scoring drives – which gives a lot more flexibility if they need it – and at least still have a shot at winning by putting the game into overtime. (Or winning on another field goal, which option being down by 14 also won’t give them).

In short, it’s a game structure and probabilities issue, combined with the huge field value situation of having a fourth and short near the goal line.

Here that field goal does fairly little, but seems to mean a lot because it’s “two scores”; while a touchdown, while still not giving them a great chance, presents a significant change to the game and their at the 4th & 2 pre decision moment, very low chances.

If the Cowboys weren’t in such a good field and down situation – already at the 5 yard line, with only about 2 to go for the first down – it might be a closer call. Obviously 20-6 is still better than 20-3: It at least does give you that option of maybe somehow scoring two unanswered touchdowns and winning in overtime, which alone won’t do it “if” you got stopped.

But 4th & 2 from the 5 when trailing by a lopsided score nearing late in the game is a gift wrapped opportunity. The value of making it simply has to be cohesively assessed (and multiplied by, or assessed vis a vis the chances of doing so), versus the value of kicking that field goal in lieu.

The former – the value of making it – is significant, and the chances fairly high, and the latter – moving to 20-6 – far more trivial. The decision to take it is playing not to lose in one of the worst ways possible, in order to avoid the possibility of somehow getting to the end of the game and being down by 1, 2, or 3 and incorrectly but commonly thinking, “Oh, if we had we only kicked the field goal.”

But the reality is the real value of the opportunity given up, will be relevant far more often but not seen. That is because that opportunity was not a hard number but a value expectation that’s just as real – or significant – but not as concrete or easy to blame after the fact because it connotates a range, and not something “definitive” that could have happened (take the “3” points) for instance, rather than a chance or even high chance, but not certainty, at a much larger value.

If teams can’t or won’t think in these terms, they will continue to make the wrong decisions in these situations, and, along with the great majority, think, as with Simms and Nantz, that they’re the right ones.

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