Wild End to Lions Seahawks Game Leads to Focus on Half the Equation

The Lions lost a close game Last Monday night in Seattle (where the Seahawks have still lost only twice in the now three plus seasons since Russell Wilson entered the league), after looking like they were going to pull it out at the end.

With less than two minutes to go, on 3rd and 1 from the Seattle 11, Lions quarterback Matt Stafford hit Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, who after the catch was en route for what looked like would be the go ahead touchdown.

As big as this was, and often unmentioned, the game still wouldn’t be over after the touchdown. Down by four, 17-13, the Seahawks would not have enough time to mount a perfect two minute type drill. But with 1:45 left and two timeouts to save them an extra 30 seconds or so or use the middle of the field more, they still had a pretty good shot. And under Russell Wilson, particularly at home, they’ve been pretty good at pulling out games at the end.

But just before the ball broke the plane of the goal line, the Seahawks Kam Chancellor knocked it loose, causing a fumble that rolled through to the back of the end zone.

The ball was about to go out of bounds, and no one was even near it: except for Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, who, not wanting to risk even the theoretical possibility of anything bizarre happening (such as trying to recover it and muffing it himself while somehow keeping it in the end zone), helped it along by a very purposeful slight right jab (video).

Which is illegal – although Wright clearly didn’t know, and even head coach Pete Carroll said he hadn’t been aware of the rule. And it should have been first down Lions ball inside the 1 yard line.

At which point, trailing 13-10, the Lions likely – but, against that Seattle defense that but for this last drive had essentially badly bottled them up all night – very much not assuredly, would have scored a TD (and taken critical time off the clock), or probably kicked a field goal. Nice Pro Football Talk column here, but that field goal doesn’t necessarily mean the game goes into overtime:

The Seahawks had two timeouts left, and would have used them immediately on any two staying in bounds running plays. A Detroit penalty that stopped the clock and that Seattle declined, would probably have also sufficed to save them a timeout. (Though Seattle likely would have taken it since any penalty was likely to push Detroit away from the goal line, but only depending on what down it was; for instance, likely figuring that after a failed third try in a row the Lions wouldn’t dare risk losing it all on yet a fourth short yardage attempt for the win, why give them a free third down play with still a “gimme” field goal as backup.) And any attempted pass play that led to an incomplete, or outside run or pass that went out of bounds, would have completely frozen the game clock and operated as effectively as another timeout.

Thus it’s likely that if Detroit tried a field goal on fourth down, Seattle would have had at least somewhere near a minute, and maybe about 1:20 or so left. Which in turn – although 1:20 is better – are both enough for a quick drive to get into field goal range and win the game even before it gets to overtime.

But, perhaps in an irony in a league that, particularly this year, seems to call – or maybe it just sees – way too many penalties), the penalty never got called. And the Seahawks were awarded the ball out at the 20 yard line for a touchback.

The Lions would still have an outside shot to tie, since they could stop the clock on two plays with their last two timeouts; and after a Seahawks punt if they could stop them, would have about 45 seconds, or around 1:20 if the Seahawks threw incomplete. (On average they wouldn’t be in quite as good a situation as the Seahawks would have been had the Lions been re-rewarded the ball inside the 1 and then kicked a 4th down field goal: Very short field goals take a few seconds – punts take longer – and the Seahawks were in a situation where running clock was probably paramount, while inside the 1 the Lions focus was on trying to score a touchdown and win. Though on the other hand, they may have come up with slightly better field position after the punt versus a post field goal kickoff.)

But on a 3rd and 2 the Seahawks connected on an unnecessarily long pass (though that was the play that was apparently the most open), and essentially ended the game.

Then ensued a near firestorm controversy about how the team was robbed, with the Lions giving hints of perhaps feeling a little bit sorry for themselves for having gotten somewhat “screwed” by the refs’ call, or, in this case, non call.

But the mild batting of the ball by K.J. Wright was a technical rule fluke that otherwise had no real bearing on the play; one that simply would have given the Lions an unexpected gift.

Sure, the refs made a mistake. But that mistake didn’t screw the Lions over. It kept the Lions from getting miraculously lucky on some fluke rule that the opposing player, among many, didn’t know about.

They still “should” have been given that opportunity to win it inside the one yard line, under the rules. But they also legitimately lost the game. Holding onto the football is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, and the Lions did not, at the most critical time, while on the other hand they had nothing to do with the fluke rule or K.J reaching the ball and electing to unknowingly (rulewise) bat it out rather than just run through it.

In essence the Lions got rescued by a fluke and otherwise completely irrelevant rule and circumstance. But then they got immediately unrescued by a mistake in judgment by the referees in either not being clear on the rule themselves, or not seeing that, in so far as there can be an “intentional batting” of the ball, Wright’s action’s were intentional.

Rescued by circumstances outside of one’s control and performance, then unrescued, is not getting screwed.

Sure, it was unlucky. But it was only unlucky because it was first lucky for them for Wright to even get to the ball before it went out of the end zone anyway, and do what many players in that situation, playing “heads up” but unaware of the rule, might have done; and thus make sure that a ball going out of the end zone – that but for Wright touching it was going to anyway -did so.

So they got lucky and unlucky. Yet almost all that’s seemingly been focused on is the unlucky and fairly random part, and not how it that part was only created by an equal amount of completely unexpected luck to begin with a moment earlier. And how driving for the go ahead touchdown, they fumbled the ball, and lost the game, not the referees.

The rulebook, through obscure application, almost rescued them. And the refs, through then botching that application, failed to do so, in a blown call. But the game was blown by the Lions, not the refs.

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Taking On the Harvard Sports Collective’s Zany NFL Playoff Projections

A few weeks back, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

The HSAC study relies upon subjective data (PFF “core” player evaluation, ELO team rankings), and makes several compounding assumptions.

Regardless of the reasons, the study reached several flawed conclusions that nevertheless have the credibility of “rigorously tested” data and analysis behind it, and garnered a lot of attention.

So just below we’ll compare the study’s assessment of each NFL team’s playoff chances with our own. (And as promised here.)

This piece will assess the HSAC study’s top ten teams. The next two will assess teams 11-20 and 21-32. [Update: Coverage of teams 11-20 is now available here, and of teams 21-32, where the wackiest Harvard study numbers reside, is available here.]

We’ll also compare both sets of numbers with exactly where each team winds up at the end of the regular season. And, to be repeated (regardless of outcome) at season end: Despite general variance and unpredictability, it will be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here.

The opening percentage number provided in bold represents each team’s chance of making the playoffs according to the HSAC study.  The ending percentage number, also in bold, is this site’s assessment of that team’s chances.

1. Seattle Seahawks, 95%.  This number is starting to close in on being statistically ridiculous. [Update: weeks after the study came out, a couple of the numbers were altered. This included the Seahawks projected chances, which, now at 99%, has reached statistical ridiculous. More on this number, an analysis of the study itself, and a few of its other more egregious examples, can now be found here. ]

While the loss of seeming top notch Seattle defensive coordinator (DC) Dan Quinn (HC, Falcons), may not hurt any more than the 2013 loss of seeming top notch DC Gus Bradley (HC, Jaguars), NFL football is not that predictable:

Earlier last year, as defending Super Bowl champions no less, the Seahawks were far back and a long shot to even win the division. They are likely to make the playoffs again this year. But giving them a 19 in 20 chance is unrealistic. Even with a 10-6 record they could miss the playoffs – particularly in the NFC West. And given that division‘s likely toughness, and possibility of some close losses or key injuries, more than 6 losses is also realistic.

My number is a guestimate, and might be slightly low; but in terms of football reality, variance, and unpredictability, 95% is almost a joke: 75% 

Note: While a drop from 95 to 75 might not seem like much, it is a huge drop in terms of probabilities, which is what the Harvard study was all about: 95% means that 19 out of 20 times on average the result will occur. So randomly we would have to replay “planet earth, NFL season 2015,” 20 times just to have the Seahawks on average miss the playoffs one time.  In contrast, 75% means a 3 in 4 probability, which means that on average 3 times out of 4 the event will occur.

Note also that looking at what happens with Seattle won’t tell much in terms of comparing the Harvard Study with the assessments made here. But examining exactly how the Seahawks and every other NFL team wind up faring – both in exact wins and proximity to the playoffs in relation to the original assessments – will tell an awful lot.

Update: The study, presumably (so it now reads) to “normalize” it’s numbers (it so reads) such that an average of six teams from each conference would make the playoffs each year, it changed a few of them, but not most. And as noted above, the Seahawks were one of those changed, and this almost silly 95% figure has turned into a fairly statistically ridiculous 99%. Again, a more detailed assessment of the study itself can now be found here.

2. Green Bay Packers, 93%. Ditto, and for much of the same reasons as No.1 above: That is, this number is extreme, and not reflective of realistic NFL variability and some degree of unpredictability.

Divisionally, the Bears, with a new HC (head coach) in the usually successful Jim Fox, along with other changes and an always potentially dynamic but also sudden error streak prone Jay Cutler, are a bit of a wild card.

On the other hand, in the playoffs last year the Lions almost the Cowboys – and but for a penalty flag that should have been called may have easily beaten them; who in turn but for an almost catch that wasn’t likely would have beaten the Packers (who then but for a meltdown at the end of the NFC Championship game in turn should have beaten the Seahawks for the right to to play in the Super Bowl).

The Vikings could also always surprise this year – and probably will to some extent.

With the Lions likely in it, and the Bears or Vikings possible contenders, the Packer’s seeming lock on the division is uncertain; it’s also unlikely more than one wild card spot will come out of the NFC North, and the Packers could be battling for that spot.

Or the whole division could be behind the two other NFC WC teams and will only send their division winner to the playoffs. And that’s without the division lagging nearly as much as in 2013, when the Packers won a tight race at 8-7-1, in a year where Aaron Rodgers missed just under half of the regular season.

Given this, and simple general NFL variance and injuries, 93%, is far too high. 80%, or 4 out of 5 is still high, yet remarkably more realistic than an almost a 14 out of 15 chance (93%), which is almost silly.

93% might not be quite as silly as the Seahawks 95% however:  Remember in the NFC championship game Green Bay went toe to toe with Seattle (In Seatle, too); and helped by a couple Russell Wilson picks as well as fortuitous bounces that happened to land in Green Bay defender’s hands, seemed to outplay Seattle for much of the game. While this season could emerge differently, the NFC South also still looks like a tougher division.

But, interestingly, the NFC North and West play each other this year. And, on the flip side (edge Seattle), the North also plays the potentially very tough AFC West, while the West plays what is as of right now still one of the two weakest divisions in football – the AFC South.

These two tough divisions faced by the NFC North also drop the probabilities of making the playoffs lower. This was the original number in the original draft however, so we’ll keep it: 80%

Note: Much of this assessment, as with most, was written shortly after the Harvard Study came out. And I’ve tried not to change them much based upon how starters have looked in pre season games, etc. (and most of that is subjective, and of minimal value at this point). The Packer’s chances though are probably also a little lower now with the loss of No. 1 WR Jordy Nelson for the season, but we’ll stay at 80%: It’s a number I originally noted was already borderline high anyway, but not unrealistic given Aaron Rodgers and the team’s perennial performance under head coach Mike McCarthy, and their position right now as the favorite based on last season’s late dominating performances. Though, frankly, taking into account the NFC North’s very tough scheduling and perhaps (now) their loss of their most reliable receiver, 80% is too high as well.

3. Miami Dolphins, 77%.  While the Dolphins blew a hot weather home game against those same Packers earlier in the year that they should have won, the Dolphins had a stretch last season where it looked like they had turned the corner and could hang with anybody.

Then they faded, as has happened before.

In 2012 QB Ryan Tannehill was also overshadowed by the remarkable QB draft class of 2012 and Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and at least at that time, Robert Griffin. But Tannenhill has great potential, and once again the Dolphins could take it to the next level.

Either way the NFC East isn’t going to be an easy task to take again for the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, as the Bills will likely make the playoffs for the first time this entire millenium (quarterback problems and Rex Ryan’s seemingly somewhat random pre season handling of it notwithstanding); the Jets should improve; and the Dolphins aren’t a bad dark horse pick to surprise.

But giving this team the highest chance in the AFC to even make the playoffs, based upon a methodology that’s a nice idea as one part of an equation or approach rather than the equation as utilized in the study, is, again, ridiculous. I liked the Dolphins as a dark horse, but even my guestimate may actually be too high: 45%

4. Kansas City Chiefs, 61%. Many balked at the Chiefs being so high, and in particular being higher than the Broncos. But this is the first of the Harvard SAC probability numbers that’s not borderline ridiculous: Remember, the study is not predicting that the above teams will make the playoffs, but their percentage chances of doing so, which is where the numbers get off kilter.

Check out HC Andy Reid’s long term record: Management may have had a lot to do with it, but Reid brought his Eaglest to the playoffs most of the years he was there; and all the way to the NFC title game four times. It’s quite a record. He came into Kansas City and immediately brought them to the playoffs; then his second year (2014) they faltered, but were still a tough matchup.

The Chiefs are also getting some players back; The Broncos’ Peyton Manning was slowed late last year either by leg injury or father time; the Broncos have a new unknown in head coach Gary Kubiak (who certainly wasn’t great as long time HC of the Texans); and the Broncos weren’t dominant late last year.

It’s a tossup as of right now when these two teams play, and the Chiefs should (but may not) edge out the Chargers for second best in the division, possibly even best: 52%

5. New England Patriots, 60%.  Now we come to the first difficult one. The Patriots record in the “B & B” years is exceptional. But they have missed the playoffs before, if rarely. And during the first half of last year’s Super Bowl, Tom Brady was uncharacteristically shaky. (Though he dug deep and was focused as a laser beam in the second.)

Brady looks young, in shape, and has been still playing at a high level. But he also just turned 38. The Patriots always seem to do well after jettisoning players, but this year they’ve lost some key members of the secondary, and a few others, and it could be a change in combination with Brady’s age and some signs of a return to QB’ing mortality. (Though some of that success was also likely Belichick, and his return to mortality is probably not anywhere near age dependent at this point.)

As of right now, the Patriots will also be without Brady for the first quarter of the regular season. (Though based on an unspecified leap from concluding Brady had general awareness to specific involvement in the deflategate scandal, or that Goodell punished Brady because of an “optimistic” CBA reading of the CBA and thus granted himself the right to the entirety of a player’s private cell phone records for an on field equipment transgression issue, Judge Berman could vacate Goodell’s ordered suspension – following the same pattern as last year. Add on: 2014 No 62 pick overall Jimmy Garoppolo has shown some serious pro NFL quarterback potential, though we’re not going to change the number below.)

This year the AFC East could be tough and more upredictable than in years past, as both the Dolphins and Bills could battle the Patriots this year.  And, if he continues Rex Ryan’s “rise up and play like it’s a different game when facing the Patriots” tradition, Todd Bowles’ Jets somehow could also – at least when the two teams play.

But it’s the “Patriots.”  And that mean’s B & B’s record: That record, spanning almost the entirety of the Patriots’ Brady Belichick years as well as this new millenium, is far beyond random, and can’t be ignored. (Defending Super Bowl champs, while even playing with a little bit of a target on their back since every team wants to upset the champs, also normally do make the playoffs the following year.)

And while the Bills were solid last year and a darn good team by season end, if 2013 No. 16 overall “reach” Bills pick EJ Manuel doesn’t progress, and former Ravens 2011 6th round pick Tyrod Tayler doesn’t surprise, then “plays well when the situation is easy” perennial if solid backup Matt Cassel is probably a drop off from the shrewd game (and salary) manager Kyle Orton, who retired again.

Also, the idea that the Bills will continue or even improve upon their end of last season strength is still theory at this point; as is the Dolphins step up to that elite “you don’t want to play that team” circle – probably even more so.

With the Jets and the sometimes streaky Ryan Fitpatrick likely to be another bit of an unknown (and the up and down Geno Smith now healing a broken jaw courtesy of a silly “one guy break’s jaw of the team’s QB in the locker room” scene more fitting for the HBO football series Ballers, whose cast even would have been more appalled than Rex Ryan – who immediately signed the culprit – seemed to be) – the Patriots have to still be the slight favorite to take this division; over the Bills. With the Dolphins possibly not far behind. And who knows on the Jets.

It’ll show even more about the team, and Brady and Belichick, if as defending (if barely) SB champs, they can somehow keep it together and contend again. No controversy here, though it’s in part on the fumes of B & B’s history, we’ll almost equal the number: 64%

6. Denver Broncos, 57%  The Broncos were assessed above.

The fact that LT Ryan Clady will miss the season also doesn’t help, but Clady missed most of 2013 as well. Manning is like an on field coach, whose reads, adjustments and micro quick decision making at the line and after the snap are sometimes almost machine like perfect.

But there are too many unknowns here to pen the Broncos as a strong favorite. And their recent domination might be over. Yet on the other hand, since his rookie year in ’98 it’s hard to find a season that as the starting QB Peyton Manning has missed the playoffs. That makes this the second toughest call, after the Patriots – including the fact that it’s further complicated by Manning’s advancing football age; which will be 39 and a half, a week and a half into the regular season.

This is probably low given Manning’s record (and what a disappointment it would be for him); but without him there’s little that on balance suggests this is a playoff team. 55%

7. Detroit Lions, 57%. This one is also reasonable. It’s odd to think the Lions (who got plastered by the Patriots last November) have about the same chance of making the playoffs as the Patriots.

And this is also a tough call, as the Vikings could surprise; the Lions defense could be better, yet did lose key pieces; and QB Matt Stafford, who actually does play a lot more clutch than many QBs yet somehow also manages to both play clutch and lose a lot of close games (and almost always to good teams) – hard to do – remains an enigma. 60%

If there’s error here I’d have to say it’s to the upside. Green Bay was weaker early in the season, and the Lions outplayed them, but couldn’t hang with them (performance or score wise) when it mattered at the end of the season. Yet they could close that gap this year. And even though the HSAC Packers number was an absurd 93%, I still had it at a possibly too high 80%.

8. Indianapolis Colts, 57%. It’s not a ridiculous number, but once again, un huh.  Andrew Luck; Colts improving; and it was a cakewalk of a division last year for Indy, who is 12-0 against the AFC South the last two years.

Even though the division will likely be tighter this year, odds are that aside from its “top” team, this division is still likely to be the weakest in the AFC. And, once again, Andrew Luck, whose got heart and clutch skills no statistical core player study is going to capture. 70%

9. Atlanta Falcons, 55%.  This is too high. The Falcons have a possible good head coach coming over in former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn; underrated Matt Ryan does remain “Matty Ice”; Mike Smith, who had done a very good job as Falcons HC, might have been burned out a little his last year; and the NFC South was very weak last season and likely won’t jump to being a monster this year.

(Plus, though we won’t let it change the number given below, the Panthers, who won this lagging division last season, just lost two starters for the year – including number one wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin now going into his second year, and the key part of an otherwise very non deep receiving corps.)

But the division is still at best a tossup right now between the Saints, Panthers and Falcons, and the Bucs could even be a bit of a sleeper this year.  (Unfair add on: Watching pre season week 3 very carefully – wherein number one overall draft pick Jameis Winston regressed – number two draft pick Marcus Mariota has the clear edge over Jameis Winston; and the Bucs, and Winston, have some serious work to do in order to make that happen.) Plus, unless things change drastically in the NFC this season, a wild card is very unlikely to emerge from the South.

If you ignore the Bucs altogether, as well as the chance of any wild card team emerging from the division (which may not be identical odds, but they at least partially cancel each other out), that leaves three teams with a roughly equal shot at making the playoffs (at least before the Panthers injuries), making anything too substantially above 33% silly.

And, frankly, while the NFC South could improve and produce wild card winners, the Bucs could easily go from worst to first in a division that since it’s inception in 2002 has only seen a repeat division winner one time (last year, the Panthers) and all four of its teams win the division an unprecedented 3 times or more. (All four have all also reached an NFC Championship game as NFC South reps; and three, a Super Bowl.) (Update: After that week 3 preseason observation, that does look less likely however.)

On the plus side, the NFC South does play the NFC East this year. The East, perhaps somewhat more unpredictable than the others at this point, is likely not an easy division but is one that, depending on how things turn out, could still be weaker than the North. And it is one that at least at this point is weaker than the still rugged NFC South. And more importantly, the NFC North also plays the AFC South – also at this point, still solidly the worst division in the AFC. That potentially ups the divisional wild card chances a bit, but probably not enough: 42%

10. New York Jets, 51%. We’re in the middle of the HSAC probability predictions, and the middle tends to mute the extremes a little, so few of these are as bad as some on the higher and lower ends. But this one is also very high.

The Jets have been all over the place. Sure, now that Geno Smith will be gone for about half a season (this happened after the HSAC study), this gives more knowledge. But Smith was up and down, and Ryan Fitzpatrick can play pretty well at times. And if Fitzpatrick stays hot the Jets should keep rolling with him: While if he falls south for two games in a row or badly so for one, given his prior history the Jets should immediately plug in Geno after week 8, who will also have less pressure this way. So the loss of Smith may not be a big deal.

Some years back new Jets HC Todd Bowles seemed to do a good job as interim HC for the Dolphins in his only, if extremely brief, head coaching experience.. But he didn’t see much improvement early when he took over as the Eagles defensive coordinator from a much maligned Juan Castillo:

Castillo perhaps should have been fired after the 2011 season. But the Eagles defense improved under him early in 2012, yet he was then fired and replaced by Bowles after week 6 of the 2012 campaign anyway. Bowles, in turn, then went to the Cardinals for 2013 and 2014, where his defenses did a great job keeping points off the board.

General guestimations are that Bowles will be a good head coach, and those guestimations are shared here.

But the Jets are still a fairly big unknown; Rex Ryan may have gotten his team to overperform a few times last season (although it’s hard to assess; this season and next will tell more about both coaches); the Dolphins and Bills should both be better or just solid; and at this early point several possible AFC wild card contenders ahead of the Jets still stick out. So putting their chances of being one of the 12 out of 32 teams who dances onward past week 17 at 50-50 is very iffy.

Emphasizing that potentially very strong Jets defense (who appeared to have added another stellar piece in number 6 overall pick Leonard Williams this past spring), positive speculation on Bowles, and not last year’s miserable performance or the Jets history of missing the playoffs for several years now: 38%. (Though if Bowles gets that entire defense – now with Darrelle Revis back at CB – playing monster, it will be higher.)
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We could give a lot of reasons why the HSAC study is off. [Update, again a more detailed assessment of the study is now found here.] But one key ingredient that even a better study can’t integrate – hard as it is to measure, subjective though it may seem to be, and not to sound like Gene Hackman in the great football flick “The Replacements” – is heart.

The Harvard study, by focusing on the “core” players of a team to assess value, misses that critical full team element, including the contribution of less marquee but still starting players, whose strengths or weaknesses can play a critical role in a team’s results; the effect some players can have on others; and it misses heart.
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[Update: Assessments of teams 11-20, and 21-32, can now be found here, and here.]

Pete Carroll’s Decision is Being Roundly Castigated On the Unusual Results, Not the Call Itself and Likely Outcomes

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s decision to go with an inside slant pass call on second down from the one yard line, one timeout left, and trailing 28-24 with 26 seconds remaining on the clock after the snap in Super Bowl XLIX, is being called one of the worst decisions ever. (The tweets by notable players compiled by ESPN get better and better, all with the same general conclusion. And a slew of articles in major sports publications immediately emerged, scathingly castigating the play, and calling Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s explanations “cockamamie,” and worse.)

But because of the wildly poor outcome, and the “super” football changing history circumstances, a powerful hindsight bias is greatly affecting judgment of the decision after the play. And the irony here is that it was Bill Belichick – perhaps the best coach of the modern era – who made the really poor decision. (But more on that later.)

It’s possible that an inside slant wasn’t the best call by Seattle. And on this particular play, in hindsight, it worked out poorly. Very poorly: Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made a great read and jump on the ball, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a micro second late and high, and Wide Receiver Ricardo Lockette stayed soft going for the ball:

But in football, there is huge variation on outcomes for any one play. As a result, the outcome on one play often can’t accurately indicate whether it was a good call or not, even though it can greatly affect judgment of the play after the fact.  Yet it’s hard to remove that outcome from biasing that analysis; particularly so when that outcome is a fluke interception from the one yard line that changes the outcome of the Super Bowl, as well as NFL, Patriots, and Seattle Seahawks’ history.

2 to 3 out of 5 times that particular play call in that situation (or any similar situation) likely would have worked. The other 2 to 3 times the pass goes incomplete and the Seahawks burn 3-4 seconds off the clock. Then, with about 22 seconds left in the game and their one remaining timeout, Seattle can choose to comfortably try two runs, or still mix up the play calling with a roll option, etc. And in such a case the Patriots would know Seattle doesn’t “have to” call this or that specific type of play (such as a pass) because of time constraints and would still be guessing before the ball is snapped – at least somewhat.

In this instance is the decision just worked out very poorly – and the Patriots guessed right before the snap. But near 49 times out of 50 (maybe very slightly less if the Patriots had a hunch from studying film – but they still don’t know that is going to be the play call), the play goes incomplete or it’s a TD, while maybe once in a while the ball is caught just outside the goal line and the receiver is driven backward.

And it’s very rarely a pick; particularly with quarterback Russell Wilson throwing. He’s had 26 picks over 3 regular seasons and 1252 pass attempts. And a few of those picks were in longer third down yardage attempts (where a long interception is often the same as an incomplete and a punt, so you might as well throw if nothing is open), or long odds comeback attempts, where the odds of throwing a pick also go up.

While Wilson didn’t play that well in the NFC Conference Championship game, throwing 4 interceptions – 2 off of tips that were’t really his fault – his performance over his seven other playoff games (all also wins) have if anything, been even better.

Thus the decision to pass from the one yard line is certainly not the “awful” decision it’s being made out to be. Particularly with the additional benefit to Seattle of a clock stoppage if the pass goes incomplete given that they have two more plays – and even a third play if a penalty is called – thus affording them the flexibility to elect a running play (with Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch even!), on any or all of them without time running out before they can get the play off.

Also easily overlooked is the fact that while bad things can happen on a quick slant, the odds are very low. But the only bad thing that really mattered here was ultimately not scoring a touchdown, versus scoring a touchdown. Getting stopped on three successive plays from near the goal line, although not quite as dramatic, is equally as bad as that pick.

And the odds of getting stopped on three successive plays – while lower than scoring (and, because of Belichick’s bad decision moments earlier, thus almost assuredly winning the game as a result) – are still much, much higher than a rare fluke pick on that pass call.

What happened was the sheer unpredictable variance of football, as well a great – and somewhat fortuitous – defensive play by the Patriots who possibly had prepared very well for the circumstances. They had reportedly practiced the play during the week. And according to Butler, who made the great read and jump on the ball and got the interception, he even got burned on that very same play in practice, and that is partly why he remembered it.

Additionally, and perhaps foolishly, Seattle lined up three wide receivers at the line instead of two. Also according to Butler, this tipped him off that the play stood a good chance of being a pass – possibly even an inside route – and he jumped it perfectly on a well timed guess. (And maybe the Patriots had picked up that tendency to not camouflage certain types of plays that well, but they can’t know that that is the exact play that Seattle is going to run, that Seattle would possibly telegraph it here if they did  run, or even that there was a good chance that it would work out the way that it did, regardless.)

While a lot of people may not have liked the slant even before the play – yet plenty would have had it worked, but within a second of seeing that slant, we all saw a wild pick that totally flipped both the game and modern Super Bowl history around – that doesn’t make it a bad decision; and certainly not a horrible one. But the very unusual outcome is being commingled with the actual decision at the time the play was called, when, although easy to confuse, they are two different things.

Here, the fact that it was the Super Bowl, the one yard line, a super Super Bowl match-up with great story lines, and led to such a wild fluke pick, at the very moment after the Patriots last drive to take the lead when it looked like Seattle – and on a fantastic on his back thirty three yard catch by Jermaine Kearse down to the five yard line at the 1:14 mark moments earlier – had driven down to steal it the game back from them, to instead effectively end one of the most memorable Super Bowls in modern history, and do so on second down no less on a pick at the one yard line by one of the best decision making and “calm under game on the line pressure” quarterbacks in the game, is amplifying this tendency further.

Giving the ball to Lynch, strong of a runner as he has been in the postseason for Seattle, does not mean he gets a TD or even that the odds of a TD on a Lynch run are higher than they were (before the fact), on a slant pass.

And even if the odds were a little higher on the run but somewhat close, it supports the slant because of the clock stop advantage on an incomplete pass. Otherwise Seattle would likely have to throw at least once more anyway barring a running score on the very next play, which makes trying a pass first – rather than trying it on third down or fourth down (where it’s even more predictable because it would be forced by the clock) – a moot point anyway (but for the super fluke pick).

In addition, Lynch might have fumbled as well, even if the odds of that were arguably even lower than of Wilson throwing a pick. (Remember, there the Patriots do have a free shot at the ball even if guarded by Lynch who is pretty good at holding onto it.  And with three shots from the one yard line the Patriots know they may need to knock the ball out as backup to stopping Lynch in the first place. Fumbles do happen on the goal line.)

Though again, the key point is that the odds of each – interception or fumble – are so low that with the game up in the air they really can’t be factored in rather than simply opting for the set of plays that, as offensive coordinator and head coach, Bevell and Carroll believe gave them the best chance of making sure they got into that end zone by the end of fourth down. And making sure, if they got to that fourth down – or even possibly to a fifth play due to a penalty – that they also had the time left on the clock to run it.

The fact that a team has a really good running back certainly doesn’t mean they should never throw the ball. And it doesn’t mean they should never throw the ball near the goal line – teams with good running backs do all the time – with success. That’s part of why it’s football, passes and runs are mixed in together.

And while we can argue that a different type of pass play was a “better” call, that again is the art of the game and the art of play calling itself – the latter of which is fairly subjective no matter how impassioned feelings to the contrary run after the fact.

The fact is – and it’s been overlooked by lot of popular analyses (although here are two that are reasonably solid) – there is huge variability on individual plays in football. So outcome, again, doesn’t usually determine whether something is a great call or horrible bad. It’s just a small clue, while play calling remains largely subjective, and if anything more often around the fringes of “iffy” or “solid” – as much as after the fact, in terms of their knowledge “before the fact,” nearly everybody suddenly has a crystal ball as to what was more likely to have happened on that particular play,

Again, the real awful strategy decision at the end of the game was actually made by one of the best – if not the best – coach of the modern era: BIll Bellichick.

Belichick, in not saving his team clock time in the (likely) event of a Seattle score, might have been hoping for the Seahawks to line up for an inside slant, for Butler to read it well, for Wilson to botch it and for it to work out perfectly for the interception and also for Seattle to only do so because the Patriots don’t use their timeout and give themselves a legitimate change to still tie the game after and in the event of a likely Seattle touchdown.

But that is somewhat wishful thinking, and a long shot in comparison with the substantive value that the Patriots decision with a minute left deprived themselves of – even more of a long shot in comparison given the reasonable likelihood of a Seattle score with three plays to run from the Patriots one yard line.

It just didn’t work out that way this time. Another time, it might have. And still another time, it would have. It’s the way it goes. Just as with this now famous – or infamous – slant call by the Seahawks that changed Super Bowl history.

 

Bill Belichick Makes a Huge Strategic Mistake in Super Bowl XLIX, Patriots Still Win

It was expected to be a great match-up, and what a match-up Super Bowl XLIX ultimately was.

There are multiple fantastic stories out of the game, not the least of which, albeit ultimately overshadowed by the Patriots victory at the end, was the exceptional performance by undrafted Chris Matthews of the Seahawks; who not long ago was working at Foot Locker when the Seahawks called him up for a tryout. (This is the same Matthews who recovered the onside kick in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, who but for that onside recovery by him would have almost assuredly been playing in this Super Bowl instead of Seattle.)

But Patriots head coach Bill Belichick – who no doubt about it is an excellent head coach, and whose team often makes fewer really egregious strategy mistakes than most others – made a big mistake with 1:01 remaining in the game.

Trailing 28-24 with 1:01 to go, the Seahawks Marshawn Lynch, a super tough clutch runner who had a fabulous game and who was barreling over Patriots for very tough yardage for much of the second half, had just barreled 4 yards to the 1 yard line on 1st down.

If the Seahawks scored on the next play to go up 27-24, the Patriots – in desperation mode with nothing to lose and four plays to advance the ball per each set of downs – would have had plenty of time to mount a drive to get into field goal range and at least tie the game at the end.

If they got the clock stopped by calling timeout.

(Heck, at the end of the first half, the Patriots drove for a touchdown in a little under two minutes, and then, although it was a bit of a fluke, the Seahawks then drove for a touchdown with 31 seconds left in the half. But a little over 50 seconds, while not great, would give the Patriots more than enough time to mount a quick field goal drive attempt.)

The whistle blew at 1:01 after the Lynch run to the 1, and the Patriots needed to immediately call a timeout.  A play from the 1 would likely take between 4 and 6 seconds, and if the Seahawks scored it would stop the clock again. They would kick off, and if the Patriots just downed the ball in the end zone, they would have around 55 to 56 seconds left.

Even if the Seahawks were stopped on their 2nd down play and scored on their 3rd, if the Patriots used another timeout (or the 2nd down play was an incomplete, stopping the clock), the Patriots would still have around 50 seconds left.

Don’t call that timeout and let the Seahawks run the clock down, and they won’t have time.

And the Seahawks did run it down, milking it all the way to 26 seconds before snapping the ball (maybe even too long); meaning if they scored The Patriots would have about 21 seconds left.

Because of the change in odds when there is no flexibility to ever throw in the middle of the field (and the defense can ignore it), or – barring one extremely long pass out of bounds – even so much as one incomplete, while teams get that last field goal with 50 seconds left all the time, it’s only under super fluky circumstances that they do it in 20 seconds; and even 30 seconds (which would have been the case had the Seahawks taken the clock down to a more comfortable 35 seconds and still scored on the very next play rather than on 3rd or 4th down instead), makes it a big long shot. (A team can also have a fluke kick return, but taking the ball out of the end zone is usually a mistake now with the deeper kickoffs, because the chances of big yardage is low, and just getting the ball out out to the 20 – which they’re automatically given just by downing it in the end zone, eats up another 5-7 seconds – which with even 30 seconds left is one fifth of the remaining game time.)

Presumably Belichick, among other things (including not thinking it through clearly), was aware that the Seahawks had used two of their timeouts, and possibly didn’t want to “give them” time.

But if so, this was fanciful: The Seahawks had one of the best – if not at this point the best – game managers at QB in the game. They had 61 seconds, and only four plays tops – barring some fluke penalty – left to run, with a net yard total ending it.

Lynch led the league in TDs this season. Wilson is incredibly versatile from the pocket, and if time became an issue, they could easily just run out of the shotgun and have Wilson scramble in or throw to the end zone for a TD or clock stopping incompletion.

By not calling that time out – in the fairly likely (though not assured) event of a Seahawks TD on 2nd or 3rd down – the Patriots completely threw away a good – and in fact but for a lucky stop of Seattle, critical – chance to tie the game at the end.

As it worked out, the Patriots won anyway. On 2nd down Wilson threw his first interception of the game, to Patriots DB Malcolm Butler, and history was made. The Patriots had their 4th Super Bowl victory of the dynamic Brady Belichick era, and by defeating last year’s Super Bowl champions they remained the only team this millennium still to repeat.

But the decision is not based upon outcome. The decision is based on the circumstances that existed at the time the call was made.

And at the time the call was made it may have given the Patriots a very small edge in terms of the Seahawks’ ultimate own clock availability (and obviously the Seahawks didn’t think so because if they did they certainly wouldn’t have purposefully milked it for another 10-15 seconds on top of the 20 -25 or so critical seconds that by not calling the timeout the Patriots stole away from themselves). But it it took away an enormously valuable opportunity for them, and was an extremely poor decision in terms of maximizing their chances of ultimately winning the game.

Teams – even the Patriots, who between Belichick and Brady generally handle the clock about as well as any team in the league – continue to underestimate the relevance of the clock at the ends of football games, and the remarkable difference being able to control that clock and provide enough time for a reasonable drive at the the end (or prevent an opponent from doing so), versus not being able to.

At the time, it is likely that Belichick wanted the Seahawks to be cognizant of the clock: To not have the full timeout period to cogitate, ruminate – perhaps privately remonstrate – over what play to run, hopefully make a mistake and lose some clock time, and perhaps be stopped once or twice and be a little constrained from so freely running Lynch out of the backfield.

All valid concerns. But they pale in comparison to the differential between the game being all but over if the Seahawks score, and it being still very much up in the air, and with the Patriots down by 3 and the ball in their hands last with some time to drive and get that 3.

The Patriots couldn’t have assured the latter in the case of a likely score (and when an opponent finds itself at your 1 line on 2d down, let alone with a QB like Wilson, they are likely to score). But they could have greatly increased their chances of seeing to it that if they failed to stop Seattle (as was likely), that they themselves were still very much in the ballgame, rather than instead, having all but a fluke shot or – depending on how many plays it took Seattle – essentially none at all.

Through ill advised sideline decision making – however hard to do while under the gun of general coaching duties (why teams could use a sideline adviser who understands the structural strategic components of the game and knows how to correctly assess situations quickly and broadly) – the Patriots took that huge opportunity away from themselves.

 

 

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

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.

___________

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.