More Stupid, Ultra-Conservative Play Calling in the NFL

I was unimpressed by Jeff Fisher's play calling at the end of the Titans-Ravens game. With time winding down, he decided to kick a field goal to tie the game rather than go for the endzone.

In basketball, the traditional maxim in late-game situations is to go for the win on the road, and go for the tie at home, because home teams generally have an advantage in overtime situations (Soccer games have no overtime and the reverse applies - in tied games road teams buckle down and home teams press for the win). The NFL's sudden-death overtime rule is perverse - the team that has the ball first scores 50% of the time on the first drive, putting a huge emphasis on the coin toss (and luck). So, in the NFL, the strategy must be to try to win the game when you can.

Intuition and past experience tells me that teams usually convert 4th-and-inches situations. But for backup I turn to a 2005 paper on 4th-down situations by David Romer, an economist at UC Berkeley. Figure 5 on page 43 is the key graph - with yards to go on the Y axis and the yard line on the X axis, any situation below the solid line indicates that it's better to try and convert the 4th down than to kick a field goal or punt, and any situation above. Generally, it's better to go for it on any situation when you have less than 3 yards to go, and as you approach the opponents end zone kicking becomes a worse idea and going for it becomes better.

Romer recognized that punts and kickoffs (which follow field goals) have a significant negative value; they give the other team decent field position and a chance to drive down the field. Going for it on 4th down puts the defense under tremendous pressure; they have to stop the offense for another down.

The Game Situation

This was the game situation:

Home playoff game.
Down 3 points.
4th and Inches from the Ravens' 10 yard line.
4:26 to go.

Fisher could choose to kick a field goal (3 points) to tie the game, or try to convert the 4th down and go for the touchdown and 4-point lead, which would have forced the Ravens to go for the endzone. He kicked the field goal, and the Ravens moved the ball 51 yards and kicked a field goal to win.

If Fisher went for it on 4th down and converted (I would put this at probability 50-75%), the Titans probably would have gone on to score a touchdown, putting the Titans up 4 and forcing the Ravens to score a touchdown (advance to the goal line) in 4 minutes. The Titans have an excellent chance to win the game.

If Fisher went for iton 4th down and failed, the Ravens would have the ball on the 10 yard line with a 3 point lead and 4:20 to play. This is a bad situation for the Steelers, but not horrible: they still had 2 timeouts and the 2 minute warning to stop the clock. If they can stop the Ravens they'll get the ball back with a chance to win or tie. Note that after the Titans kick a field goal, the defense still has to stop the Ravens from scoring (gaining 3-4 first downs). If they go for it and fail, they have to stop the Ravens from getting 2 first downs; from the defense's perspective this is more or less the same situation.

By kicking the field goal, the Titans kicked off, giving the Ravens the ball on the 24 yard line, an improvement of 14 yards over surrendering the ball. The defense has to stop the Ravens from advancing the ball, which they failed to do, and the Ravens kicked a field goal to win.

Going for it puts the Titans in the best position to win the game - if they convert they're in an excellent position and if they don't convert, they still have to stop the Ravens as they would after a field goal, and might have another chance to tie or win. Bykicking a field goal, the traditional choice, Fisher won't draw criticism from the mainstream press, but it's not the decision that gives the Titans the best chance to win. If Fisher had gone for it and failed, he would have been slammed in the media. This is unfortunate, but presents an opportunity for a bold, unflappable coach to optimize play-calling strategy and gain a significant edge over his counterparts.

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One thought on “More Stupid, Ultra-Conservative Play Calling in the NFL

  1. Andy McKenzie

    Interesting analysis, I’ve been super annoyed by this sometimes too. But your last paragraph is the most important. This is a typical principal-agent problem. Jeff Fischer doesn’t want to win per se, he mainly cares about keeping his job.

    As an owner or fan, you want to aggressively signal that you don’t care how the team plays as long as they win–that way the coach will throw convention out the window and focus on doing whatever he can to win.


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