Steelers Give up Huge Advantage To Chargers by Following Convention

Mike Tomlin commented during halftime of the Pittsburgh Steelers San Diego Chargers Monday night football game that the Steelers problem was they weren’t converting when they got into “fringe field goal” areas, and had “too many red zone like punts.”

Yet despite Tomlin’s proclamation during halftime, what did the Steelers do to end their first possession of the second half?

Still trailing 7-3, they punted. From fringe field goal range.

The Steelers faced 4th and 4 from the Chargers 42 yard line. While most teams would have very often done the same thing, this is a great place to punt from – if you are trying to help your opponents’ chances of winning, and decrease your own.

Punting gives away possession to the other team. That’s usually somewhat bad. Save for very rare exceptions, you need possession to score. (And the only time you do score in those rare “exceptions” is because your defense took possession during the play.)

But it makes sense to punt if risk of being stopped is great – such as giving up great field position to an opponent or having an extremely high chance of being stopped, and the benefit is not quite as great: For instance, your team is in poor field position anyway. (The same thing that simultaneously increases harm of getting stopped, and why the spot on the field is extremely key for making correct fourth down decisions.)

So it’s not like it’s “per se” bad to punt the ball. It’s per se bad when you give up – in terms of value times the chance of it – more than you gain; that is, the extra field position benefit times the chances that you would have been stopped, had you gone for it.

(The benefit of punting is not the improvement over getting stopped, it is the improvement over getting stopped times the chances of even being stopped in the first place, because had you otherwise gone for it and made it, you wouldn’t have been stopped and would still have the ball. The harm is the value of still having that ball that has now been lost, and at that spot on the field, times the chances that you would have.)

Here the situation is extreme: There’s a reasonable probability of making the fourth down with four yards to go. And if the Steelers convert, they get an extra possession they were not otherwise going to get. And, they get great field position.

That is, if they convert they’ll be on the Chargers 38 yard or better. Here, they’re only 38 yards away from a touchdown, 18 yards from the “red zone,” and well less than a first down away from even a reasonable field goal try.

It’s an enormous difference in football between having a first down at your opponent’s 38 yard line or better, and your opponent having the ball, and a first down.

And that difference, is the potential benefit here, versus punting. And the chances of realizing that benefit – i.e, making four yards – aren’t so slim or even anywhere close to it that such huge benefit can be tossed asunder.

Particularly when the harm from being stopped – the second part of this two part decision framework – is factored in.

So what is that harm? This is the part that teams are repeatedly greatly overestimating.

In other words, what happens when they are stopped? Is it that awful?  Certainly going for it and making the first down is pretty awful for their opponent. After all, they were about to have the ball punted to them, and suddenly, their opponent has the ball instead, with a first down, and knocking on scoring territory, to boot.

But, in contrast, is it really that awful – as it must be to strategically justify what teams keep repeatedly doing – when the offense goes for the conversion and fails too make it? It may not feel good, but the goal is to win, not feel good or make weak decisions that actually decreased your chances to win, but are harder to knee jerk second guess later because “everybody does it,” and “at least it avoided the worse possible outcome” (and never mind that that worse possible outcome isn’t really so bad.)

What happens when they get stopped is their opponent gets the ball. And in much better position than had they punted. That’s not the harm of going for it – which is very different – but the harm of going for it and specifically getting stopped. That harm in turn has to be compared to the benefit of going for it, and making it, versus the punt as well.

But their opponent gets the ball in far worse field position – that is, a couple of first downs from field goal range, instead of less than a first down away – than the Steelers were going to get it in if they make it. But they were going to get the ball anyway. They don’t get an extra possession.

The Steelers not only get the ball and a first down in better field position than their opponents would get it when they get stopped (and in this case, significantly better); they get a brand new possession they weren’t even otherwise going to get. And, along with field position this is even more important, because you need possession of the ball to even score. Giving up possessions to the other team is a big deal.

Combining that with the fact that had your team – in this case the Steelers – kept possession, you could have had extremely good field position to boot, and that to try and get it only ran the risk of giving up worse field position versus a punt to your opponent if you get stopped but not as good as you would have gotten and not a new possession for them but one you were otherwise going to give them anyway, it’s an even bigger deal.

So, to recap, punting here; strategically, a great decision. If the goal is to help the other team win the game but at least “feel good” because (in this case monstrously incorrect and barely examined) convention is followed.

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