The 3-6-1 Carolina Panthers and 3-6 Atlanta Falcons were playing for a lot this afternoon in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It was not only a division game. But with the New Orleans Saints – strangely a 7 to 8 point favorite over a team with a better record from a better division – losing 27-10 to the Bengals this afternoon (in a game this blog declared as “the week’s upset, if there is one”), the Panthers and Falcons were playing for first place in the division. And despite what would still be a losing record: The Panthers for first place outright at 4-6-1, and the Falcons for a tie with the Saints at 4-7. (Although for now, by beating the Saints earlier in the first of their two scheduled meetings, the Falcons hold the tie breaker; so they would also technically be in first place for the moment if they won.)
But the Panthers once again played not to lose instead of to win. They didn’t think it out to the end of the game. Or if they did, they mis-assessed it. As a result, they played as if when they kick a field goal and take a 1 point lead and have to give up possession of the ball with over a minute still remaining, the game is all but over.
But far from being over, they would instead be facing one of the best regular season 4th quarter QBs in football, with the ball in his hands, his team only needing a field goal to win, and with sufficient time to get it done.
Yet just inside the 30 yard line, the Panthers ran three straight, fairly predictable, vanilla runs practically upon the middle. As if they were taking the clock down to only a few seconds left. And as if they were inside the 20 yard line or at least 25 (where the field goal success rate also starts to get fairly high), not closer to the 30. (Where the field goal success rate is good, but there are also a lot of misses.)
They very likely did so at least in part our of some sort of fear of a long shot turnover, some other mistake, or heaven forbid an incompletion – thereby stopping the clock, and leaving the Falcons even more time – when the time they were going to be leaving Atlanta was sufficient for the Falcons to pull out the win anyway. Thus making the key variable keeping possession of the ball, not just avoiding incompletions – or, far more ridiculously, avoiding the chance of interceptions or other turnovers, as if the chances of simply losing outright weren’t already many many times greater than a turnover.
By thus pulling a “turtle” – the football equivalent of pulling their head back inside their shell as if they just don’t want anything bad to happen, the team came close to ensuring two reasonable ways for it to lose: Miss the field goal and never retake the lead. Or make the field goal, and then watch as the other team drives and kicks a field goal to win.
Just as with nothing to lose, 4 plays per set of downs, and desperation on the line at the end of the game and a small score deficit, any NFL quarterback can reasonably do. And just as the Atlanta Falcons Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan has done so many times in his career.
One of the most amazing of these was against these same Panthers two seasons ago, when after a Cam Newton fumble and recovery that botched getting the 1st down, the Panthers very foolishly elected not to go for the conversion – and essentially the outright win – on a 4th and one half yard at the Falcons 45 yard line with 69 seconds remaining in the game and a 1 point lead.
The Panthers, with Newton, who is large, powerful, and very athletic (and behind what was a fairly solid offensive line at the time), were – conservatively – probably around 80% on the quarterback sneak to make the 1st down, and win the game outright.
But even if they were stopped, they still had a few chances to stop the Falcons and win anyway. And even if they only had a very low 1 in 3 chance of stopping Atlanta from the Falcons own 45 from driving and making a game winning field goal – this gave the Panthers about an 86 t0 88% chance (very roughly) of winning the game had they tried to go for it.
Realistically, if the Falcons need to drive at least 25 yards just for about a 75% chance of making the field goal – meaning that if they drove to the 30 yard line 75% of the time, they would still only win the game a little over 55% of the time (meaning the Falcons would not win only 33% of those rare times they got stopped, but 44%, and just under a 90% chance of winning the game overall if their chances of making the 1st down conversion were 80%) – the Panthers should have a better than 1 in 3 chance of stopping them with the game on the line.
There was no way that punting the ball to Matty Ice and the Falcons gave them anything close to the same 85-90% or greater chance of winning the game that going for the conversion did.
But the Panthers instead “turtled up,” played not to lose, and increased their chances of so losing by playing to avoid losing, rather than playing to win in a way that simply maximized their chances of doing so: By, literally, giving the ball to their opponents, with time left to beat them, for want of a simple half a yard, and very good field position already.
Luckily for the Panthers, their punt, uncharacteristically, was downed just inside the 1 yard line.
From the 20, or even the 15, this added another 20% of so to the total length of the drive needed, and also tied the Falcons hands a little, as it is dangerous for any team to operate out of the end zone, since one pop to the ground behind that line, and it’s game over. So of course if the Panthers knew in advance that they were (not that they “might”) down the ball on the 1 yard line, the punt was the better call.
And since it did go to the 1, it would probably work out anyway despite the extremely poor decision.
Except it didn’t.
On the first play from the 1, somewhat wildly, Ryan threw a 59 yard bomb to the Panthers 40 yard line to receiver Roddy White, who had also somehow gotten behind the Panthers secondary in the classic scenario – typically overplayed, not underplayed, in the NFL – of “whatever you do, keep the receiver in front of you, even if you have to play a little soft.”
A few other mistakes were made that we’ll skip for now, but the Panthers still easily could have won the game; only further illustrating how solid their chances still were had they gone for it on 4th down and been stopped at the Falcons own 45 yard line: 15 yards further way, and more than double the remaining distance to the Panthers 30, than the Falcons were now after just this one play. And which but for a another mistake, the Panthers would have won.
But the Panthers didn’t win it, and the Falcons wound up making a 40 yard field goal 10 seconds on the clock, for the 30-28 win. (In large measure because of a far more remarkable mistake than the 59 yard pass the Panthers gave up (and one which has gone completely under the radar), and one of mental awareness, not just a breakdown in execution. One that had the Panthers not made – given what the situation had unfolded to at that moment – would have all but won the game for them.)
Side note: While the Falcons were good that year and wound up going to the AFC championship game, and the Panthers were not that good but starting to become so, they got their revenge later in the season when the Falcons came into town, again as solid favorites, and, in a game that was far more lopsided than the final score indicated, were completely outplayed by the Panthers, who just absolutely took it to the Falcons that game, and wound up closing out the 2012 season with a lot of solid wins en route to a fairly successful 2013 campaign before, due to injury, off season moves, and whatever else, regressing back this year toward where they had been.
But here was the situation earlier this afternoon:
Going into the 4th quarter of the game, Atlanta led 16-3. The Panthers then scored two touchdowns – the second one on a 47 yard Cam Newton touchdown pass to rookie receiver Philly Brown with 6:29 left to go in the game – gave them the 17-16 lead.
Atlanta then took over with 6:20 to go, slowly marched 54 yards to the Panther 26 yard line, and hit a 44 yard field goal to take a 19-17 lead with 2:12 left on the clock.
After a very short kickoff and 19 yard return by Brandon Williams to the 36 yard line, the Panthers traveled 42 yards to the Atlanta 32.
There, they faced a 1st and 10, with 1:32 on the clock. Atlanta, critically, had all three of their timeouts left.
So unless the Panthers really thought 3 predictable vanilla runs up the middle of the field gave them the best chance of continuing to move the chains and thus run off the rest of the clock, or at least a large portion of it, while simultaneously making it an easy field goal, running 3 straight runs to burn clock was extremely foolish.
And it’s difficult, even far fetched, to make the case that 3 predictable, vanilla runs really gave them their best chance of moving the chains. But this is what they ran, in almost automatic seeming succession, anyway.
Unlike touchdown drives, NFL teams barely need a minute for at least a reasonable field goal drive at the end to win a game, as field goal drives are fundamentally different than touchdown drives due to the basic structure of the field, and rules and physical dynamics of the game.
But on 1st and 10 the Panthers called a run up the middle, and it went for a yard.
The Falcons called their first time out.
Then the Panthers did call a play out of the shot gun, but it either looked like a designed run, or quarterback Cam Newton elected to run far too early. Although he did gain almost four yards off right guard – all but up the middle again.
After the next Atlanta timeouts, this brought up 3rd and 5 with a full 1:31 left in the game, from the Falcons 27 yard line.
The game at this point didn’t hinge on the Panthers making a field goal. A first down essentially wins them the game. (Even had they gotten a first down on two plays and been facing a 1st down here, this still would have quashed any reasonable chances for the Falcons.) Whereas had they hit the field goal, the Falcons were more likely than not to win. Or at least one could make the reasonable argument.
But apparently the Panthers were not sufficiently thinking about the last 80 seconds of the game, and how reasonable their chances were of losing it after a kickoff (which was not going to put the Falcons back around the 12 or 14 yard line as a punt from near midfield would), even if they did make their field goal.
But instead, they, or their play caller(s), were seemingly obsessed with preventing much lower probability longer shots from hurting them – such as a turnover, possibly not even gaining a yard on an incomplete, or a clock stoppage and thereby saving the Falcons a timeout (which with well over a minute to go the Falcons could use, but didn’t really need.)
That is, unless after two runs essentially up the middle, the Panthers really believed that yet another vanilla run, right up the middle – which is exactly what they ran again – gave them the best shot of accomplishing what they needed to do at that point: Which is get that first down, and pick up another set of downs to be able to not only advance the ball a little further, but essentially take the clock down to under 30 seconds, and all but assure a win before kicking the field goal.
But then as this blog suggested in this recent piece over an awful end of first half strategic mistake by the Dolphins in their game versus the Bills three nights ago:
When it comes to the basic underlying structural strategy of the game of football, NFL teams often do not know what they are doing.
The 3rd down also vanilla run up the middle play actually lost these Cats from Carolina a yard: two yards worse than the run on 1st down had yielded. They then tried a field goal with a whopping 1:26 left in the game; and, facing the Falcons and Ryan in particular, were probably more likely to lose than not even if they did make the field goal. But from the 28 yard line, field goals are only made roughly a little more than 75% of the time, give or take. And this one missed.
And so they lost anyway.
They’ll probably over blame the loss on the field goal (as well as more reasonably the fact that, as it should be in any close game, the fact that it was even close to begin with), when it wasn’t the field goal.
Watching their play on that last set of downs, it was not only the play calling that was astounding, it was their seeming lack of urgency, as if there was no recognition that this was the game. Make the first down on these three plays, or at least two plays, and win it. Don’t, and it’s a coin flip at best, between the chance of a missed field goal, or plenty of time for the Falcons if they make it.
They almost played, instead, as if they were just running out some clock and centering the ball for an easy or at least reasonable chip shot field goal, with a few seconds left for the win.
Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but between the play calls themselves, and the way the Panthers actually played those plays, the Falcons were probably going to stop them 10 out of 10 times on that last set of downs. The Panthers needed to focus – pay attention to sensibly using clock, sure, in terms of staying in bounds, running clock time in between snaps, and the pparticularlylays to call. But the main focus again needed to be to keep the ball.
Except to the Panthers, clearly, it was not. And if in a press conference head coach Ron Rivera later says that 3 straight vanilla runs -two highly unsuccessful – right up the middle gave them best chance of keeping possession of that ball (don’t worry, he won’t), he’s kidding himself.
But then, in all fairness, though it’s implicitly put on head coach, and presumptively (and wrongly) assumed that just because they are head coaches (or coordinators) with a lot of football experience, that they’re good at it, these types of implicit and explicit strategic decisions and approaches that are such a fundamental part of most games, really are too much to ask of a head coach; who is otherwise already required to be a head coach managing the entire situation and his players, a teacher, a mentor, often a psychologist, a great leader, a motivator, a manager, and, among other things, a media liaison who has to be fairly careful what he says, because it impacts his team, while (unless his name is Bill Belichick) he also needs to be fairly responsive to the media upon which publicity for the league and a lot of the interest that is generated in it, lie.
(Belichick on the other hand, helps both his team and the league by being Darth Vader in press conferences. Please don’t change Bill. It’s hilarious, and provides great balance.)