2015 Ravens at 49ers – Maximizing Winning Opportunity Through Play Calling

Week 6 of the NFL saw the Baltimore Ravens, with a depleted secondary and a 1-4 record out of a bevy of close games, go into San Francisco and (though seemingly slightly outplayed for much of it), lose another close one to fall to a now logistically impractical 1-5.

But an interesting situation came up early in the fourth quarter: 13:47 remained when the ball was snapped, and the Ravens faced 3rd and 4 from the 49ers 27 yard line (though not a “gimme,” solidly within superman kicker Justin Tucker’s comfortable field goal range – see bottom).

Ravens quarteback Joe Flacco occassionally makes throws that may not have been well advised, but overall takes a “play to win” approach, doesn’t fear interceptions if the play has an overall positive value, and generally makes good to very good decisions at one of the most difficult positions in all of sports.

On this play however, and however subtle, the Ravens may have blown a small but important opportunity.

With almost a quarter left to play, it’s too early to heavily discount the value of 3 versus 7 points here. But down 19-13, fairly late, pulling within 3, and thus still trailing (and thus not in a position to be able to generate the key late game two score lead, whereas your opponent is), and also more likely ultimately putting your team in a position to only play for the “tie” with a field goal, isn’t of huge value.

So going for the touchdown is obviously not a bad move. But what maximizes the chances of getting that touchdown?

If the Ravens get the first down here, it means they’re on the 49ers 23 yard line or better, and can mix it up to continue to try and advance the chains, as well as go for the end zone as oppportunity permits.

On the other hand, going for the end zone on this 3rd down play instead – and leading to an inevitable field goal try if they fail – isn’t necessarily a bad play. But it’s limiting in that if they fail, it cuts off any successive chances of trying for the touchdown on this drive.

So does a failed shorter conversion attempt of course (unless that failure brings up a fourth and fairly short, in which case the Ravens should go for it); but the chances of doing so on a far shorter conversion attempt are much lower.

It’s easy to watch game film and second guess. And for that reason (and because it’s part of the fun of football), it tends to get overdone – even when one is trying to be careful not to. But at the same time we’re talking about the professional level, and one of the better, and instinctively savvier, quarterbacks in the game.

And here the best decision is of course to get a touchdown if you can. But, if at all possible, maximize keeping the drive alive if you can’t.

That aside, the best call here as with any situation, is to go with what whatever play call is best in this situation. In other words, as with most play calls, something that, taking into account the situation, personnel out there, alignment at the line, and outguessing a defense, etc., is fairly subjective.

But there’s also an important component here that’s not really “after the fact” second guessing, and objective.

That is, if taking a shot at the end zone under the impression that the play offers high odds is the call, that’s fine. But for winning football it needs to be considered that unless the end zone play is – or at least, more importantly, ultimately develops into – a solid, relatively high opportunity rather than just a near wing it and “take a shot” type of a play, making sure to try and get the first down is of greater value because of the multiple successive chances of scoring that it brings up.

The Ravens do go for the end zone. But in such a situation they need an out, in case the play develops more into the latter (a low odds play) rather than the former (a relatively high odds play that catches the defense off guard):

That is, if the play doesn’t unfold nicely, then the low odds of connecting on it, combined with the complete practical loss of their possession if they fail to connect – in so far as fourth down now ensues, and from the 27 on 4th and 4 – far out yet still within Tucker’s easy range, and without a super easy conversion opportunity – they will and should kick the field goal – make the play a bad decision.

The loss of opportunity may have been in the play call itself. But that’s hard to say: Maybe it would have worked out with an open receiver more often; maybe the play was designed to have easy second and third options, etc. (Or maybe it wasn’t, which would have made it a bad call from the get go, and not just how it was called and ultimately run.)

In other words, the loss of opportunity may not have been with the call to go deep down the right sideline to Kamar Aiken in coverage by Tramaine Brock. And again, even if it was – barring the issue of secondary options – it’s a subjective call because if it does leave Aiken wide open, with Flacco’s ability it’s a fairly easy touchdown.

The loss of opportunity was to both go with that play call and stick with it after nothing but tight coverage and a sort of “low odds” wing it situation developed, and thereby give up the far higher odds play of getting an entire new set of downs, and thus several more (and somewhat closer) chances at the end zone to work with.

The play as thrown had a very low probability of completion.

First of all it’s a difficult deep pass. Clearly that can be worth the payout (likely touchdown) on its own if it looks like it has a good chance of working. But again the uniqueness of the otherwise very makeable third down situation and the greater value that situation brings up needs to be considered as well.

Given that situation, the fact that Aiken was well covered and with little manueverability near the sidelines to boot when the long pass was thrown, greatly lowers the odds.  And while it still “could” have worked, the chances were now much lower of it working; and thus, correspondingly, the chances were very high that the Ravens would be stopped in their quest to, far more importantly, add 7 rather than 3 points here.

Thus the decision to attempt the play, despite the tight coverage under the specific strategic situation the team was in – and thus the low probability use of only one shot at the end zone rather than a far higher probability shot at getting closer and gaining an entire new set of four downs (or at least a better probability shot at the end zone), was a mistake.

And by better awareness and decision making before the fact, it was probably an avoidable one; one that, at least with some trust, is also recognizable and correctable from a website blog piece alone, without additional practice time on the field and or physical skills – making it in one sense among the most critical kind of mistakes in football, as it offers up the opportunity for a team to improve its winning chances by better decision making alone. (And there are reams of these, many very significant, in NFL football today.)

Put more simply, in that situation, if there are subjective reasons or assessments for the end zone shot, call the play. But make sure it has secondary and tertiary outs. And given the situation, if the big play isn’t there, while its not always possible to easily make good adjustments on the fly, don’t get greedy and go for it regardless rather than for a secondary decision that instead maximizes the chances of keeping the drive alive with an easier option.

As it turned out, Justin Tucker, who rarely misses, hit the right upright on the ensuing field goal try, and the score remained 19-13 – although the San Francisco field may have been part of the reason. Watch Tucker sink and almost split on the kick, showing solid athleticism to even half stay with his follow through:

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Miami Dolphins Make a Typical, but Truly Awful Strategic Decision in last Minute of the Half Against the Buffalo Bills

This blog is about to share something with you, that, if you happen to come across this post in your online football travels, from a football strategy perspective will absolutely blow you away. Continue reading

A Quick look at the Percy Harvin Trade, a Few Coaching hire Decisions, and Some Analysis on the New York Jets Excess Salary Cap Space and Rollover

Several days ago, this blog published a piece entitled “Why the Percy Harvin Trade May have been Good for the Jets and Seahawks,” that also contended that the trade may have been extremely good for the Jets. Continue reading

Titans Coach Ken Whisenhunt Makes the Correct Strategy Call on a key Late Game 4th Down, Titans Still Lose and Give up the Largest Road Comeback Win in NFL History

In a wild football game in week 5 between the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans, the Browns came back from what had at one point been a 25 point deficit.

With 3:09 remaining in the contest, and one Cleveland timeout, the Titans clung to a 6 point lead (28-22) and faced a 4th down and about a foot and a half at their own 42 yard line.

Prior performance is no indication of future result – particularly at the very ends of games, where both teams are often desperate, and one or the other (sometimes both) have little to nothing to lose. But in the second half of this game, the Browns had moved the ball consistently on the Titans, while the Titans had barely moved the ball at all, let alone scored.

Yet there is a correct and incorrect strategic call in this situation, and it wouldn’t matter who was playing who, or how the game had gone, since the call is lopsided, and in this situation, generic.

If the Titans get the 1st down on a 4th down attempt, the Browns will use their last timeout. (Or wait to use it, which will have no affect on the ultimate time they have left, unless they wait until after the two minute warning, in which case they will lose 5 or 6 seconds as a result.)

The Titans can then run two plays before the two minute warning causes an unavoidable clock stoppage; run 3rd down at the two minute warning; and barring an unexpected 1st down in the process, punt the ball to the Browns from out past their own 40 yard line, arching the kick high and giving their coverage unit plenty of time, knocking at least another 5 or 6 seconds off of the clock (or more if the kick rolls) and making the kick nearly impossible to return. Barring a major miscue, this would give the Browns the ball at their own 20 yard line or worse, with about 1:10 remaining, 80 or more yards to travel, and no timeouts.

Occasionally a fluke will occur here, but it’s extremely rare for the trailing team to make up a touchdown deficit in such circumstances. (There are basic structure reasons for this, which we’ll go over in another post shortly and link back to as soon as it’s completed.)

If the Titans punt with 3:09 left instead, time will not be a factor for the Browns. With desperation, and four plays per each set of downs (since they will have nothing to lose by going for it regardless of the situation) on their side, their chances of winning the game will be their chances of driving for the TD,  multiplied (that is to say, reduced), by their chances of then stopping the Titans from making a field goal at the end.  (Between the chance of them leaving Tennessee some time, which in this situation is fairly to very low, and then then giving up the field goal drive, this serves as a very low reduction to their overall winning chances from simply driving and scoring a TD alone, but it is very mildly relevant.)

If the Titans go for it, the dynamics change considerably, and the situation is very deceiving. Here, intuition, which often causes us to incorrectly over focus on one or two factors rather than the entire strategic picture, usually leads to the wrong call  in the NFL in this and similar situations.

In this situation however Titan head coach Ken Whisenhunt made the correct call. It was made difficult by how dominant the Browns were in the second half of the game; but that dominance was not going to be irrelevant for the Browns last drive with plenty of time left for the win, if the Titans voluntarily gave up possession of the ball without a fight.

Whisenhunt correctly decided to go for it.

Now for the Browns to win, they had to a) stop the Titans on 4th down (if they failed, the game – but for a near fluke – would effectively be over), and they had to then still score a TD. And if they do manage to both stop the Titans on 4th down and then put put together a 43 yard TD drive, they would have to also stop the Titans unless the Browns scored and managed to burn most of the remaining 3 minutes of the game:

Field goal drives are very different than TD drives, as teams usually only need to get to the 30 yard line, or sometimes even only the 35, depending on their kicker, for a solid to strong shot at winning the game. And this last consideration would be far more relevant now with a a little over 3 minutes to go and a much shorter field, than it would be if the Browns had to drive 80 plus yards (where as a practical matter if would only rarely come into play,as the Browns, if by some fluke they advanced quickly, could easily start to slow it down in terms of speed in between plays, as they approached the end zone.)

Here is the key part that is almost always invariably over looked: To win when the leading team with the ball elects to try and keep the ball, the trailing team’s chances of winning are their chances of accomplishing each task, multiplied together. Since each task is a probability (or fraction) and fractions multiplied together produce far lower fractions, without actually doing the math, or having an extremely good feel for it, the odds are almost invariably overestimated for the trailing team – as teams, for a multitude of reasons, often elect to “give them a longer field,” rather than instead fighting to not even give them the ball in the first place.

Without getting too deeply into the math here, teams are near 80% on short 4th downs. Even if we knock this down to about 2/3 given the Titans’ ineffectiveness, and subsequently give the Browns a likely inflated 60% chance of scoring the TD if they do get the ball, the Browns chances of winning are still only about 18%, or a little less than one in five (and in reality less still, as with such a short drive and less opportunity to control the clock and make sure the Titans don’t have any time eft, Tennessee, particularly with two timeouts remaining, will sometimes come back and win with a long field goal at the end. And this is in fact exactly what happened, except Tennessee got stopped around midfield as time expired.)  There is no way, trailing by less than a touchdown, that the Browns chances of winning this game if the Titans voluntarily give them the ball with 3 minutes left, are anywhere even near as low as 18 or 20%. and it’s nowhere close.

And if the Titans offense hadn’t been playing so miserably, thus perhaps justifying a careful reduction downward in the normally lofty expectations of making a measly fourth and half of a yard, the situation would be almost mind bogglingly lopsided. (If a team is 80% to make the first down for instance, and their opponent 60% to score if they and win and hold onto the win if they here if they do get stopped – a fairly high estimate given that the team must score on a reduced field drive and not leave much time on the clock or if they do still stop their opponent in a desperation nothing to lose only needing a field goal to win situation – then going for the 1st down gives the opponent about a 12% chance of actually winning the game, or perhaps a microscopic amount higher for those extremely rare fluky times when they get stopped on the ensuing three and out and their opponent somehow marches the field all the way to the end zone – not all the way to field goal range – in just over a minute. In contrast, simply giving up the ball and punting instead is likely to yield a 36% or even greater chance, giving the opponent not just a “better” chance in the game, but a three times (or 200%) greater chance by merely voluntarily giving up the ball.

As it turned out, the Titans lost anyway.  They were stopped on a quarterback sneak attempt (a specific play call Whisenhunt later reasonably defended), as the offensive line got little push, and backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst didn’t appear to lower sufficiently and drive forward quickly enough – it’s speculation but even with the poor line jump off of the snap, and push (and the solid play by the Cleveland defense), Locker may  have made the first down. And as Whisenhunt correctly points out, most of the time quarterback sneaks work in such situations when only a foot or a foot and a half is needed.

Cleveland did then go on to score the TD, and even managed the clock reasonably well, starting to slow it down in between plays as they got close fairly quickly. But not enough, as on a 2nd and 4 from the 6 yard line, they scored, with a whopping 1:09 remaining. Unfortunately the Titans were down to one timeout, as they somewhat questionably challenged the spot on their 4th down conversion try and lost half of their two remaining timeouts in the process. Tennessee did wind up advancing to the Browns 47 yard line as time expired; one of their best drives, and possibly their best drive, of the entire second half – but not enough, to pull out the game.

This was a good decision by the Titans in a key strategic situation. As with most of the rest of the second half – it was just poor execution.

Strategy is key in football. But execution trumps strategy every time. This is why NFL head coaches can be head coaches – even great head coaches –  and still be miserable at basic underlying game management strategy. If they can teach, manage, lead, inspire and coach a team toward maximum passion, energy, and execution – and this is hard to do given the vast array of challenging and time consuming duties responsibilities a head coach already faces – they will win.

Since teams are often evenly or somewhat matched – or, as in this case, the game is otherwise close – strategy, however, matters. In the second half of this game, with some bad luck also falling their way (two Browns turnovers that would have greatly altered the game, for example, were nullified by Titan penalties) and missing their starting QB Jake Locker,  and in particular his excellent mobility and running ability, the teams were not evenly matched.  And the Titans, after a half of total failure, still didn’t execute when they needed a mere half a yard; and Whisenhunt’s good call went for naught.

But a good objective strategic decision in football – as opposed to a specific play call – is not measured by the outcome of the game, or even of the ensuing play, but by the conditions as they existed at the time the call was made. Likewise, the right strategic situation call does not change in hindsight based upon “how it wound up” working out that particular time, since it is based upon what objectively gave the team making the call the best chance to win. (Not what ultimately winds up happening, which is going to vary, but often gets commingled with needless second guessing of otherwise good strategic decisions, and incorrect validation of poor ones.)

By trying to keep the ball in a ridiculously short 4th and short, with a high probability of doing so and all but winning the game outright, and a backup plan of still stopping the Browns if the Titans failed (and even then a secondary, if longer shot backup, of adding a field goal at the very end if the Brown scored somewhat quickly) the Titans gave themselves a much better shot at winning the game than had they just voluntarily handed the ball over to their opponent, with more than enough time for their opponent to beat them.

But they still gotta block.