Saban’s Bad Call

Nick Saban is a great college football coach. That’s obvious. That, for me, is what made Saturday’s remarkable ending of the Alabama-Auburn game so stunning. I think Saban lost his mind in the final minutes of the game. While some crazed Alabama fans pathetically turned on field goal kicker Cade Foster who missed three field goals (and, let it be said, many, many other Alabama fans stood up for him) the obvious culprit for the game was Saban. He made two critical decisions that were more than questionable at the time and both turned out disastrously.

The first decision was a tough one: With 5:40 or so to go and Alabama leading by a touchdown, the Crimson Tide faced fourth and 1 from the Auburn 13. A field goal puts them up two scores. A first down allows them to run more clock and maybe score a touchdown. Saban decided to go for it. There was some reasoning to his call, but it seemed like the wrong one to me at the time.

Saban went for it mostly (I suspect) because his field goal kicker — the aforementioned Foster — had just missed a 33-yard field goal. Well, technically, he made a 28-yarder but Alabama had jumped early and he missed the 33-yarder that followed; Alabama, unexpectedly, committed a couple of costly penalties. Foster also had missed a 44-yard kick early in the game. Saban either did not want to put his senior kicker in the line of fire again or he had lost faith in him making a 30-yard field goal (though Foster had a good season going before Auburn).

I’m usually all for teams going for it one fourth and one when the game is there to be won. But this was a little bit different. Alabama did not seem in good position to make it. The Crimson Tide just faced a third-and-one, gave the ball to their star running back T.J. Yeldon, and he came up short. This game was at Auburn, the crowd was insane, the Auburn defense was beyond hyped, and this was the Tigers’ last chance to steal this game. There’s a line coaches sometimes use that goes, “If you can’t pick up one yard when you need to, you don’t deserve to win the game.” Maybe that’s true. But making fourth-and-one at Auburn, in the Iron Bowl, with that many emotions and passions and spirit swirling around, well, that’s a tougher yard.

For me a 30-yard field goal to go up two scores … that seems the much better call.

Anyway, Alabama went for it, gave the ball to Yeldon, he did not get the first down, and so on.

Alabama got the ball back after a great punt return, faced a third-and-2 from the Auburn 17 and got called for holding. Weird — those are the sorts of penalties that Saban coached teams don’t commit. The penalty moved the ball back to the 27, and this time Saban had Foster try a 44-yard field goal. It was blocked.

Auburn eventually scored the game-tying touchdown, and Alabama got the ball back on its own 29 with a half minute left. It was clear that Saban decided to play it safe and settle for overtime when, with seven seconds left, Yeldon got the ball on a draw play and sprinted 24-yards through a scattered Auburn defense protecting against the long pass. That moved the ball to the Auburn 38. At first it appeared that time ran out but after spending what seemed like 35 years looking at replays, the officials determined there was still one second left.

Auburn fans howled. But they were about to be given a great gift by Saban.

He decided to send a freshman named Adam Griffith out there to try a 57-yard field goal.

Reason: Um, I guess they had the wind behind them, or something.

As they lined up for the kick, I was in a restaurant with my family, and the game was on television nearby, and the first thing I said to them was, “Auburn can return this.” I suspect that’s the first thing most football fans across America thought. What were the chances that this kicker was going to get a 57-yarder all the way to the goal post, much less make it?

The sound was off in the restaurant so I was unaware that Saban was actually sending out a freshman who had made one field goal all year (a 20-yard kick). If I had known this, I would have REALLY thought he lost his mind. Later Saban would say that the kid makes 60-yarders at practice, which is just a bizarre thing to say. I’m sure he makes 60-yarders at practice — so what? If there’s one thing you can say with certainty about Nick Saban it is that he’s a serious man who does not spend any of his time thinking about frivolous things. I’m sure punt returners catch balls behind their backs in practice and receivers make one-handed catches in practice and running backs make perfect throws on trick plays in practice. Again: So what? Surely, he could not have thought a freshman making 60-yard kicks in practice had anything to do with a 57-yard kick at Auburn with one second left and a chance to win the Iron Bowl.

Seriously, what is more likely: That the backup kicker would make a 57-yard kick with one second left at Auburn or that it would be blocked and/or returned for a touchdown? A Hail Mary pass is a long shot but at least it is relatively risk free — if the pass is intercepted you have receivers in the area to make the tackle. This crazy kick had countless risks. If this kick is blocked, you open yourself up to all sorts of crazy bounce possibilities. If this kick falls short, you are giving a returner all sorts of open space against a special teams unit not designed to cover.

Nick Saban didn’t think about these things? NiICK SABAN? This is a man who covers every base, who considers every possibility, who stays awake at night worrying about stuff that nobody else would even think about.

You know what happened next. The kick was high and straight and pretty well hit and, predictably, it fell short. Alabama’s players, most of them, stood around watching the kick, mesmerized by it. When Chris Davis caught the ball and began to run, he had to be utterly stunned by how much room he had. Davis is a punt returner who is used to making something out of nothing. Now, he ran 100-plus yards, and to be honest the only real threat was the sidelines. He had to tiptoe those. No Alabama player came close to tackling him. He scored the touchdown that won the game, the crowd began to pour onto the field, the restaurant where we were eating burst into stunned cheers.

And Saban took off his headset, tossed it to the ground and got off the field. He would talk about how he’s never lost a game like that. Of course he hasn’t. It was a wild ending. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The ending WAS wild but there was also certain logic to it. Saban had tried something a little bit crazy and illogical. And crazy, illogical things often backfire. In the end, Saban just made a dreadful decision. Even the great ones do that sometimes.

60 thoughts on “Saban’s Bad Call

  1. Brandon

    Totally agree Joe. It seemed as though Saban and the whole Alabama team on the field weren’t aware of that possibility. Meanwhile, you, me and all of America were thinking the exact same thing? How does that happen…? Just stunning.

    Reply
    1. Matt Williams (@Matt1J)

      No, they were aware. They were trying to tackle Davis. They just didn’t have the personel on the field to do anything about it. That’s the problem with long FG’s. The kicking team needs big strong offensive linemen to block because the trajectory is lower (fat guys). But the downside is there’s no one fast enough to tackle the returner if the ball doesn’t go far enough. It’s not like Auburn ran back to block. They were watching the kick just like Alabama was. Only guy that wasn’t watching the kick was the guy that ran it back.

      Reply
  2. Bill White

    Saban’s decision was disastrous for him personally. Now I doubt that Texas will offer a “loser” like him their head coaching job!

    Reply
  3. Bill Caffrey

    Obviously, the kick is riskier than the hail mary. But the kick also has a higher chance of succeeding than a hail mary. NFL kickers don’t routinely hit 57-yarders, but they do routinely get enough distance to hit them. So I figured this freshman kicker was a future NFL kicker with a monster leg. A Morten Anderson-or-Sebastian Janikowski-in-their-prime type of leg. And that Saban was confident the kid would kick it through the end zone.

    I wonder if the kicker sacrificed some distance for accuracy? Like maybe Saban told the kid “don’t worry if you miss, just make sure you crush it” That would explaint Saban being angry at the kicker. It wouldn’t make it right, but it would explain it.

    Reply
  4. Bob Lince

    The only problem I see with this article is: if the kid had made the 57-yarder, would the same article (concerning the irrationality of the play) have been written?

    “If I had known this, I would have REALLY thought he lost his mind. Later Saban would say that the kid makes 60-yarders at practice, which is just a bizarre thing to say. I’m sure he makes 60-yarders at practice — so what?”

    If the kick is good, wouldn’t we be reading about how Saban had prepared his team for even THIS situation?

    “Now, he ran 100-plus yards, and to be honest the only real threat was the sidelines. He had to tiptoe those. No Alabama player came close to tackling him.”

    If no ‘Bama player “came close,” why did he have to run so dangerously near the sidelines?

    By the way, what percentage of 55-60-yard field-goals (college) are made, and what percentage are run back for touchdowns?

    And should you be more leery if you’re a field-goal kicker in Tuscaloosa or a tree in Auburn?

    Reply
    1. jposnanski Post author

      Alabama has tried one kick all year from 55-60 yards. It was returned for a touchdown. So I guess that 100% have been returned for touchdown.

      Not one Division I-A college football player has made a 57-yard field goal all season.

      Reply
      1. Stratman

        C’mon Joe, that’s a typical after-the-fact statement. “They tried 1 kick and it was returned for a TD.” How about before the kick was tried? You state that no kicker has kicked a 57-yd fg all year. How many attempts have been returned for TDs? Saban’s a damn good football coach that knows his team. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he thought his kicker would make the kick. Heck, while it was up, I thought the kick was looking like it would sneak back through. I think the poster made a valid point, if the kicker had made it, would the same article have been written. I think not. I love your writing Joe, but you’re starting to sound like a typical Monday morning QB with your articles lately.

        Reply
        1. Craig From Az

          I later heard there have been 4 missed field goals returned from the end zone for touchdowns in the history of Div 1A football. Don’t know if the announcers were correct, but it seems to me a ridiculously small possibility. I would have tried the FG also.

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          1. Ross Holden

            It’s not just the return from the endzone, but the return off a block that you have to consider. There have been more than 4 blocked field goals returned for TDs in history. Probably about that many just this year.

            I believe that Joe would have written a similar article had the kick gone in. It would have had a different tone, but he still would have said it was a bad decision. Joe must have had done some calculation like there’s a 1% chance the kick goes in and a 3% chance it gets returned for a TD, so he shouldn’t kick it (those are my numbers).

            Check out Bill Barnwell’s weekly column “thank you for not coaching” where he goes through the best and worst coaching decisions in the NFL that week. He consistently has a decision or 2 that worked out well even though it was a bad decision (by the numbers) or one that did not work out even though it was a good decision. He includes those decisions. The analysis should be outcome independent. I’ve read enough solid analysis by Joe to give him the benefit of the doubt that if the kick had gone in, he would have said “that was a bad decision, the odds were against him, but it worked out this time”.

            Also, though, my defense of Saban saying “well, he makes 60 yard-ers in practice all the time” is that that is what gave him a >0% chance in his analysis similar to above (maybe he didn’t do a similar analysis, and that is the problem). Had the FG attempt been from 70 yards, it would be a 0% chance and he wouldn’t have tried it.

        2. wordyduke

          Saban was delusional if he thought his kicker would make the kick. He HOPED his kicker might make the kick (and he forgot to consider how bad the consequences could be if the kick wasn’t made and was, instead, returned). He thought he was playing with house money and it turned out to be his own.

          Reply
          1. Stratman

            Again, he makes the kick and we’re not having this conversation. He missed it so it’s so easy to second guess. Even first-guessing and saying before it happens that “watch out, they can return this”, how many have been returned for TDs? My guess is not many.

          2. stevemarines

            Stratman, that kick is so unlikely as to be ludicrous to even attempt. That’s the point. It’s not second guessing. The chances of something bad happening – no matter how small – are certainly higher than something good happening.

            Or another way to put it: You decided to play for OT, why second guess that decision and make a risky play with a very low chance for success?

      2. Bob Lince

        Mr. Posnanski, thank you for the response.

        During the game, I, too, was wondering about Saban’s play calling, but more along the lines of: why is Alabama running the ball when they seem to be able to pass at will? Whether the stats show that assessment to have been reasonable is another story.

        In the end, I was and am happy with Saban’s field-goal call. It led to an unbelievable ending to what had been, for the general fan (I’m a Pac-12er), a marvelous game.

        It ended with one team attempting something extremely improbable (a very long field-goal) and the other team actually doing something extremely improbable (running 109 yards for a touchdown), all in one play.

        And the wonderful irony of the whole thing: the ‘Bamas arguing for the one second to be put back on the clock, and the Auburns hoping against hope it wouldn’t be; Saban going to the one part of his team that had failed him all night, the FG-team, as if to poke the football-gods in their figurative eye, and the football-gods poking right back; this great team that had been #1 not only all season but for most of the last three seasons, shooting itself in the foot as if they were little more than UAB.

        Coincidentally, apropos your comment that 100% of ‘Bama’s 55-60 yard FG attempts have been returned for touchdowns (a stat that, unfortunately for Mr. Saban, was not available to him before the attempt), I read about a week ago a story from 1914 published in the English humor magazine Punch called “The Converted Statistician,” which makes the same exact point. If anyone is interested, it’s at:

        http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=10080

        Reply
  5. KC Oracle (@KCOracle)

    I agree going for it on 4th and 1 was a bad decision. But I don’t understand the criticism of Saban citing that the kicker made 60 yard kicks in practice. Of course, he partially relied upon what the kicker did in practice. The only relevant question is whether the probabilitly of win is greater with the kick or with the hail mary. I don’t know, but my guess is that it is the kick.

    Reply
    1. John

      Well, no, that’s not the “only” question that matters. There’s also the question of the likelihood of losing due to a return either of a missed/blocked field goal (Ding! Ding! Ding!) or interception/fumble. I’m not sure why people are putting *any* stock into what a backup redshirt freshman with two career attempts (and one make–from 20 yards) does in practice. That situation in no way resembled practice on any level, and I’d give the chance of that particular kick succeeding almost zero percent. I do think the odds of the kick coming up short (no one has made field goal of 57 yards or longer this season) and being returned (especially with slow guys on the field) for a touchdown is significantly greater than making it. If the kicker was an All-American with several career field goals of 55+ yards, I might feel differently. But he’s not, so I don’t.

      Reply
      1. Bill Caffrey

        Almost 0%…You think if that kid took that particular kick 100 times he’d hit it 0 times or maybe once? There’s no way that’s an accurate assessment. The actual kick wasn’t too bad. That kid had to have at least a 20% chance of making that kick. (That still means he misses it 80 out of 100 times).

        Reply
    2. wordyduke

      Another relevant question is whether Alabama had a better chance of winning in overtime than did Auburn. If they’re really #1, why wouldn’t Alabama’s chances in an additional 15 minutes be better than with a one-second-left long-shot play, which just might backfire, from the 40?

      Reply
  6. RPMcSweeney

    I had the same initial reaction as you, Joe, but I’m growing suspicious of that intuition. Of course in hindsight it seems like Saban blundered opting for the FG, but we’d need to know so much more about the probabilities of each event to know for certain. Upon reflection, it seems like while the likelihood for a catastrophic result is higher with the FG than a Hail Mary (i.e., a return for a TD), the chances of success are probably higher, too. So we’d want to know the differences in the probabilities to make an informed analysis.

    Plus while there was indeed a lot on the line, I’m not sure why that matters in picking the redshirt kicker. Practice is where players display their potential. If the kicker is reliably hitting from 60, what other info should Saban base his decision on? Maybe Saban should’ve discounted his confidence given the game situation, but that would just be factored into the original analysis—are the chances of winning with an untested kicker capable of hitting from 57 greater than throwing a Hail Mary, given the likelihood of catastrophe?

    Reply
    1. John

      The end of the Iron Bowl with a third straight national championship on the line does not resemble practice in any way. It’s not even worth addressing further. And remember, Saban didn’t *have* to do either. It’s not like they were down by 1-3 points, in which he would be forced to try to score. The game was tied, and they could have played for overtime. But Saban tried to win it right away, and it cost him. And no, it doesn’t take hindsight to realize that a 57-yard field goal with a backup redshirt freshman with one career make from 20 yards is a bad idea.

      Reply
      1. BIP

        “The end of the Iron Bowl with a third straight national championship on the line does not resemble practice in any way.”

        Yes it does, actually. It’s still football.

        Reply
  7. KC Oracle (@KCOracle)

    Saban said he had warned the field goal team to be ready to cover the return. I assume he must have done so. It seeems obvious. I don’t necessarily accept that the risk of an interception return for a TD is significantly lower than the return of the missed field goal. It seems in some respects to be a similiar play. The defender could get the interception and take off with just the lineman between him and the goal line. I assume somone will produce the probability of TD/win on each choice and my guess is that Saban will be proven correct.

    By the way, there was an Auburn coach in the “white zone” on the sideline who impeded an Alabama defender and technically should have been called for a penalty. It was a defender who already missed his shot at the returner and could not have caught him, but it was a penalty (I think).

    Reply
    1. Patrick Bohn

      “I don’t necessarily accept that the risk of an interception return for a TD is significantly lower than the return of the missed field goal. It seems in some respects to be a similiar play. The defender could get the interception and take off with just the lineman between him and the goal line”

      But the specific type of interception that occurs on a hail mary is different. There are often several receivers in the area, though they are usually outnumbered by defensive backs,

      Reply
  8. SWL

    I’m not an Alabama fan and was glad to see Auburn win, but I actually thought (given that the kicker had enough leg) that it was a good decision with bad results. If I was Saban, I would not beat myself up over this one. He took a gamble (something that you tend to praise when it works and criticize people for not doing when they don’t) and it didn’t happen to work. While I have tended to admire Joe’s objectivity and ability to look at a scenario reasonably, he has recently shown a tendency to be overly harsh in some criticisms of coaches decision-making with a hindsite 20/20 armchair quarteback mentality. (see article done about a month ago berating Mattingly for putting a fast runner in to run when they needed a run late in the game-Tom Tango basically showed that mathematically it was the right decision). While some of these decisions are debatable, it is an over-reaction to act like a coach is a complete idiot when he makes a calculated gamble that doesn’t happen to work.

    The criticism of going for it on 4th down is at complete odds with recent posts by Joe.

    I check Joes column all the time looking for new material because I generally agree with his content and, probably more imporatantly, always am impressed by his writing style. I recognize that there is probably a lot of pressure on Joe to continue to come up with new material and he probably has to balance churning out material against being consistent and fair.

    For that reason, I won’t be too hard on him. I’ll continue to read and just chalk this up to being not my favorite article by him. I’m just wanting to stick up for Saban (who I am not a fan of)

    Reply
  9. Mark Daniel

    Eh, a lucky win by Auburn. To beat a great team, you need luck sometimes. And Auburn has loads of it this year. If this is what is needed for the SEC, the best conference in the nation, to deliver one measly loss to Alabama, than that sort of proves how great Alabama is.

    Reply
    1. Kevin C. Turner

      I’ve never understood Bammer logic but I guess we all have to blindly follow something right? No? Okay, just you… What I don’t get is why you or any other Alabama fan would degrade their rival… especially after getting beaten by them. I know they don’t really teach math at UA but let me explain to you what the transitive property is… If a > b and b > c then a > c. It’s not hard. In other words, the worse Auburn looks, the worse Alabama looks because they fell to them when it mattered so stop insulting Auburn. Who’s to say they got “lucky.” Who’s to say why that happened? When Saban saw the opportunity to kick 57 yards Gus saw the opportunity to RUN 100 yards. If it were simply a game of wits in that moment, Gus would have won.

      Reply
  10. Jude Thomas (@TJude1962)

    This is probably colored by my dislike of Saban, but I thought at the time it was an act of hubris fueled by the coach’s arrogance. The 1-second reprieve Alabama got must have got Nick to thinking a Bama victory was meant to be because greatness was not to be denied. Of course the odds were greatly against a 108-yard return, but it wasn’t a fluke–it was bad choices (ask new kicker in highly pressurized situation to carry out something he had never done before and that no player had done all year) combined with bad execution (nobody came close to tackling the returner). Then after the fact, Nick throws the players under the bus–I told them to watch out for a return, so I don’t understand why all my fat guys couldn’t run that sprinter down.

    Reply
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  12. Rob

    I think there’s a fair amount of hindsight here with regard to the long FG attempt (I completely agree that going for it on 4th-and-1 instead of what should have been a chip shot FG was dumb, dumb, dumb, regardless of how bad a day the kicker was having).

    Regarding the end of the game, let’s be honest, by far the most likely outcome is the kid misses and nothing comes of it (let’s say 95%). The “freshman kicker” was a highly-regarded recruit known for having a strong leg (true), so let’s say his change of making it is 4% (1 in 25 tries). Chances of getting it blocked and returned for a touchdown? I will be EXTREMELY generous and say it’s 1% (and hence why you have all the fat guys on the OL, to make sure it doesn’t get blocked). Chances of the guy fielding it and returning it for a touchdown? Considering it’s happened exactly four times in the HISTORY of college football (and NEVER on the last play of the game – talk about unlikely!), I think the chances of that happening have to be considered at less than 0.1% (and again, I think that’s generous – Four times out of how many hundred or thousands of previous kicks?). So the chances of winning vs. losing would be four times higher by attempting the kick – and roughly 1 chance in 100 that anything bad happens at all.

    I suppose opinions may differ on risking 1% chance of failure versus 4% chance of winning outright (and 99% chance of either winning or going to OT), but to say it’s a no-brainer and clearly a dumb decision is clearly hindsight.

    Mathematically, Saban did the right thing. That is totally backfired is just an extremely unlucky (and highly delightful to everybody who is tired of Alabama winning, which includes yours truly) roll of the dice. Hell, I bet the chances of Alabama losing because McCarron bobbles the snap attempting to take a knee and Auburn recovers the fumble and returns it for a touchdown are comparable.

    (And anybody who has coached at any level knows that when you try something and it works, you’re a genius, and when you try the exact same thing and it backfires, you’re an idiot. Shit happens.)

    Reply
    1. Dave

      A little misleading to say it has only happened 4 times in college football history as most coaches wouldn’t put their players in that situation. The more accurate stat would be “how many 55+ yard field goals have fallen short of the goal posts and been returned at all?” Cumulatively, Division 1 NCAA kickers this year are 75 for 123 on 50+ field goals. With 125 schools in D1, that means on average each team has attempted about 1 50+ FG this season. In fact only 16 kickers have attempted more than 2 this season. Perhaps most telling, there are only three kickers in the country who are 0-1 from 50+ counting Adam Griffith. The point is, and I think Joe’s point as well, most coaches would not put their kicker or their team in that spot.

      As Alabama was lining up for it, I thought there was a decent chance of a run-back of some kind. Given that a) the kid was not good enough to be their #1 kicker; and b) their #1 kicker stunk, I thought it likely he would come up short and Auburn would get to return the kick.

      Reply
  13. chris h

    A couple thoughts:
    1) How common is it for teams defending against field goals to place a return man under the goal posts? The ordinary play, surely, is to go for the block, particularly when the kicker is likely to aim low and long. Obviously it worked out to go for the return.

    I have often wondered why teams don’t go for the return more often on long kicks, since it seems it would give you a good shot at improved field position – but on the last play of the game, getting anything under 100 yards on the return is irrelevant.

    In any case, it seems the element of surprise is destroyed for a while.

    2) There are times when you bench players for failing to execute because some element of the particular game is against them (a particular defensive style, field conditions, whatever), or because you suspect they’re not telling you about injury or illness, or because they just need a time out, or because they’re not hustling. But I’ve never had patience for coaches who bench players as punishment for failing to execute, when by all appearances the player is trying his or her best. At any level.

    I can only speculate on what was in Saban’s mind, of course, but going for a fourth-and-one when the obvious choice was a chip-shot field goal looks like punishing your kicker for his earlier misses. I’m not sure what Saban thinks is to be gained by that. And while I would say it seems likely that the freshman kicker had way more leg, and that Cade Foster would never have hit a 57-yarder, something about that decision looks like rubbing it in. Or at least, having your mind clouded by anger about those earlier misses (and your subsequent bad decision that didn’t work out well), so that you end up making another bad decision.

    Certainly Cade Foster has to be wondering if Coach Saban’s got his back, and he’ll have to be mature indeed not to carry that onto the field in what will now be the last game of the season.

    Chris.

    Reply
  14. Bob Burpee

    The bottom line is that Auburn gave itself a chance to win on the last play. They had the right guy in the end zone and they appear to have called for a return to the left. On reviewing the replay, it appears that Davis headed straight upfield or slightly to the right and then purposely veered left. And whether intentional or not (I haven’t heard), there appears to be a wall of Auburn blockers. Despite not have a coverage team on the field, Alabama came very close to pushing Davis out of bounds, he did a great job to stay in.

    A couple of things at the end of the play were amusing to me. One of the Auburn players in front of Davis was running backwards for 10-15 yards and another Auburn player came pretty close to bumping into Davis and could have sent him to the turf short of the end zone.

    LIke everyone else, I can’t believe Alabama didn’t kick the short field goal on 4th and one.

    Reply
    1. Kevin C. Turner

      Not disagreeing with anything you said, but just letting you know that the “wall of Auburn blockers” you referred to was indeed intentional. When special teams practice returns (of any kind) they usually have a signal for the returner to give that tells the rest of the team which way he will go. Notice all of the players watch Davis when he cuts right. I would wager that that was the signal to block for a route to the left because Davis had no reason whatsoever to consider hurling himself into the pack of Bama players. Just food for though. WDE!

      Reply
  15. bellweather22

    In looking at this decision you have to factor in the liklihood of making the kick against the liklihood of the play imploding and getting a TD scored against you. I couldn’t find NCAA stats, but from the distance this FG was taken, in the NFL, the block rate is 3.5%. I think it would be obviously quite a bit higher for a walk on freshman in college… somewhere, I’d estimate, between 5-10%. Not all of those would be returned for TDs. The odds of a FG being returned for TD is small obviously, but it is definitely much higher when attempting a kick that far. Most FGs are kicked beyond the end zone and have no chance of being returned. But when you have a Freshman attempting a kick from that far, in a situation where a fake isn’t likely & you can actually contemplate setting up a return for a kick that could likely be short…. the odds can be very different. I can’t estimate them, but at that distance in this particular situation, clearly the odds of a blocked kick or a FG return for TD are much higher than normal. Still, you’d be at no more than a 5% chance of a TD being scored & that’s probably generous.

    Then you’d need to factor in the odds of making the FG. In looking at the Top 40 NCAA Div 1 kickers (who made at least 15 FGs) the longest among them was 56 yards…. by a few of the kickers…. and these are the best kickers in the country. I don’t know how many attempts there were of that distance, but I tend to think that in a normal situation you either pooch punt or go for it when you’re at the 40 yard line.

    But bottom line…. there was risk, albeit somewhat low of a TD being scored and the reward was also low since the odds of a make were very low. So with a low reward play that had some risk, likely the risk/reward was equal, the right call would be to reduce the risk and throw a hail mary or eliminate the risk and take a knee and go to OT.

    This was one of those “gut feel / give it a shot” game calls that can come back to haunt you (and did). There really was no statistical basis that I can see for trying that FG. If the kicker had a track record of kicking 50+ yard FGs in an actual game, then you could say that the reward and odds are in our favor, and try it. But basing it on 60 yard kicks in practice by a walk on freshman is really dumb. I see High School kids, who have never even approached making a 40 yd FG in a game, making 50 yarders in practice. Practice has nothing to do with a game. The fact that Saban even mentioned that just shows some really fuzzy thinking.

    So, even though it’s second guessing…. there is a valid reason for it. It was just not a sound decision. You can discount it by saying that FG returns for TDs are rare…. but there was some identifiable risk of a block and a potential return attempt in that particular situation that should have been assessed. Certainly Auburn took the step of calling timeout to get a returner on the field… which normally isn’t done for FGs (initially they lined up to prevent a fake until they thought about it more)…. because the situation called for it. So the Auburn coach identified the possiblity of a return for TD, but Saban only gave it a passing thought.

    On the going for it on 4th down, I’m not going to question it. They should have been able to make it. Maybe the play calling was a tad conservative and that’s where the questioning should go, but we all know going for it on 4th down and short is a high percentage play…. especially when the FG kicker is struggling.

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  16. bellweather22

    Since Saban trotted the kicker out for, what?, four attempts? I can’t say he had a quick hook. The kicker was missing short field goals and likely it was in his head. I don’t think that’s a bad call at all in a crucial situation.

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  17. Ross Holden

    Stewart Mandel’s column pointed me to this link. It suggests that Saban was saying something like “I told you…”.

    http://thebiglead.com/2013/11/30/nick-saban-after-auburns-game-winning-touchdown-i-told-you/

    My first reaction was “ok, that makes a bit more sense now, it wasn’t Saban’s choice and he understood the risks”, but the more I thought about it, the situation becomes more baffling. Did Saban defer his decision to someone else? Did he go against what he thought was the best decision in deference to someone who works for him? That doesn’t sound like Saban, but could be what happened here.

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  18. Chris Smith

    I’m disappointed, Joe. Here you write almost weekly about how “clutch” doesn’t really exist, yet you say that making this kick is somehow different than kicking in practice. The only differences I could see are noise and a defense that actually wants to block the kick. As far as the mechanics are concerned, they’re identical to what he does every day, as long as he’s moving at game speed for the snap, hold, and kick.

    I don’t think going for the kick is a bad choice. I think kneeling is a bad choice, or at least a wimpy one, and Hail Mary plays end up getting intercepted about as often, it seems, as they do working. With the interception, I would think, would come a similar probability of running it back 109 yards for a touchdown.

    This was just a freak occurrence that will be remembered forever in the Iron Bowl lore. Not that it really means anything outside of the state of Alabama…

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  19. Johnny Football Writer

    Let me see if I’ve correctly understood a main point of this post: A coach should choose successfully making a short field goal on 4th and 1 over going for it on 4th and 1 and not making it. Really, that’s a brilliant insight, when you think about it.

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  20. Geoff

    Hey Joe, I love your work and agree with about 95% of what you write (including Saban’s decision to go for it on 4th down), but I think you’re dead wrong with your assessment of the 57-yard FG attempt, particularly in arguing that what the kicker does in practice isn’t relevant to the calculation. This isn’t like saying that a QB is amazing in 7-on-7 drills, which is clearly a situation that is fundamentally different from actual football; a kick is basically a kick. This isn’t to say the freshman kicker is as likely to hit a 57-yarder against Auburn as he is in practice, but it’s silly to say that what he does in practice shouldn’t factor into the decision. Let’s say he makes that kick 30% of the time in practice…you really think he’s not *half* as likely to make it in this situation? If anything, I’d expect the extra adrenaline to give him some extra yardage on the kick. Hell, Davis caught the ball nine yards deep in the end zone, so he basically had enough distance to be good from 54-55 yards.

    Here’s a quick back of the envelope calculation…

    Odds of Hail Mary success: 5%
    Odds of Hail Mary catastrophe (i.e., sack/fumble return, INT return): 1%
    Chance of overtime win: 47%
    Chance of overtime loss: 47%

    Odds of FG success: 10%
    Odds of FG catastrophe (i.e. block/return, kick return): 5%
    Chance of overtime win: 42.5%
    Chance of overtime loss: 42.5%

    Total odds of winning (Hail Mary): 52%
    Total odds of winning (FG attempt): 52.5%

    If you go with this numbers, Saban increased his overall chances of winning the game by .5%. Obviously, I’m making this up and could be off slightly, but I can’t see how this numbers could be swayed more than a couple of points in either direction. Unless you think the odds of the kick are basically zero, it seems perfectly reasonable to attempt it.

    Reply
    1. Russ Feingold

      “I can’t see how this [sic] numbers could be swayed more than a couple of points in either direction.” I can. For starters, the probability of winning in both of your scenarios is more than “a couple of points” less than 100. In your first scenario there is only a 96% chance that a team wins the game. In your second scenario there is only an 85% (!!!!) chance that a team wins the game. As far as I can tell ties are not allowed in college football. Therefore, your math does not make any sense. Even if you are a 20-year old drunk Auburn student. Please get a new back of your envelope and try again

      Reply
      1. Geoff

        Wow, Senator…did they have to let you out of the youtube comments section to troll here?

        I appreciate your attempt at snark, poor as it was, but I feel secure in the knowledge that my Ivy League education paid off. In each scenario, there are a total of four possible outcomes, each team winning in regulation and each team winning in overtime. If you take another look at the back of my envelope, you’ll see that while my assumptions could be off a bit, the math is right. In the first scenario, there is a 94% (47 +47 = 94, not 96) chance the game ends in overtime, and a 6% chance the game ends in regulation. In scenario 2, there is an 85% chance the game ends in overtime and a 15% (!!!!) chance the game ends in regulation. In each scenario, the probabilities correctly add to 100%.

        Oh, and thanks for correcting my typo with a [sic]…I promise to proofread my comments more carefully in the future.

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    2. djalexando Doxen

      Kenyan Drake….as usual.. should have been used in the 2 nd half instead of being relocated to the sidelines as an observer… and much more in 1st half of Game…Drake carried 4 times I believe he averaged 8 yards a carry.. .. gaining 8 Yards a Carry..I would still be giving Kenyan Drake the Ball today ..& today is Tuesday….

      Reply
  21. Joe

    Plus, freshman kicker’s practice prowess was so overwhelming and Saban thought Foster was spooked, why not bring the freshman in to kick the sdhort field goal on 4th and 1 from the 13?

    Reply
    1. djalexando Doxen

      It would have been better to leave Foster in to kick Field Goal…even though he had missed three.. with increased odds of chance after missing 3 along with his experience. I would have stayed Foster…

      Reply
  22. David

    i think the main smell test for whether a coaching decision was bad should be: was it obviously, glaringly bad AT THE MOMENT IT WAS HAPPENING, to the point where you sat in stunned disbelief watching (prior to and independent of the outcome)? and in the case of the decisions joe mentions, the answer for me is, YES! and the worst part is, saban was clearly motivated in all of those decisions by his total loss of faith in his regular kicker. he went for it on 4th and one because he thought his kicker would miss a chippy. he begged for the extra second — even that seemed silly to me — then brought out an untested freshman because he thought the regular kicker had no shot. he tried to win the game in regulation because he feared his kicker would miss in the OT, thus making it necessary to score a touchdown. therefore all of the decisions were made out of fear, and were bad from the start.

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  23. Geoff

    There seems to be an assumption that the freshman was brought in because Saban was convinced that his regular kicker (Foster) was spooked by his previous misses. While that’s certainly possible, I find it a little implausible. Saban was probably worried about Foster (which explains his decision to go for it on 4th down earlier), but I’d be SHOCKED if the pressure of the moment was lost on him with 0:01 remaining. Like all coaches, Saban certainly knows the absolute best-case-scenario outer range for each of his kickers, and my guess is that Foster has never shown that he’s capable of making a 57-yard field goal, regardless of what’s going on in his head.

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  24. Salvadore Perez

    The amazing finish of the game obscures the actual controversial coaching decision, namely Auburn’s final offensive possession. 2:41 to play, down by seven points, with three timeouts, Auburn reels off six straight rushing plays, interrupted only by an Alabama timeout. They score on what seemed to be either a broken offensive play or a breakdown on Alabama defense (the QB had the ball in his non throwing hand before spotting a wide open receiver, switching the ball to this throwing hand and making the pass) with less than 50 seconds to go. I haven’t seen a single article discussing this drive, yet if it was unsuccessful, Joe almost certainly would be calling the Auburn coach insane. After sitting through that 4th quarter, complaining about a few Saban calls is sort of like complaining that the Stanford band director didn’t have enough tuba players protecting the redzone against Cal.

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      1. Salvadore Perez

        Oh please, they were calling nothing but running plays with less than a minute to go in the game, not calling any timeouts, eating away the clock. It’s a non issue in retrospect, but if that third and two fails, they have fourth down with less than 50 seconds to go in the game — after having burned through nearly two minutes without stopping the clock. And obviously they’d have to go for it. It worked out perfectly, but it would be hugely controversial if it didn’t work out perfectly. If it doesn’t work out that Auburn coach is branded as someone who doesn’t know how to manage the clock by people like Joe Posnanski and Bill Simmons.

        Reply
        1. David

          sorry, sir: doing something that’s within the nature of your gameplan to give you the best chance to win, when you have the time to do it, is not controversial. that’s why there are no stories about it.

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  25. bellweather22

    The main reason Auburn ran the ball is that they are a great running team and not a good passing team. So, as long as runs were working, they had timeouts and there was still (until the last play) a minute left…. why would Auburn choose to pass the ball? It did come off a little crazed, but I have to give Malzahn credit for sticking to what they do best… instead of panicking and calling only pass plays like most coaches would do.

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  26. bellweather22

    I’ll add that any success that Auburn has had passing the ball has played off their effective running with play action passes that create wide open receivers. When forced to pass against defenses on 3rd and long, or late in the game when they have to pass, not so effective. Against Georgia, they were in the process of going four and out and losing the game…. the pass on 4th down was a prayer & not a good one. It was, at minimum an incomplete pass, and more likely an interception. There was no chance at a reception except the Georgia safety tipped it out of his teammate’s hands up in the air and bizarrely into the hands of the Auburn receiver. This experience in mind may well have played into Malzahn’s strategy of sticking with the run. He realized that they didn’t do well in obvious passing situations at the end of the game & was given the Georgia game by a poor play by the Georgia safety. I give him all the credit for his approach.

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  27. djalexando Doxen

    Okay Bama Lovers and Haters… Let’s stop all the talk about the Field Goal….Most logical thinking people must agree … Nick Saban … on a minimum of three Occasions.. fell victim to the unthinkable… deviating from what got him there…& that is ” The Process ”
    YES ! If the Field Goal had been made , I would have been pleased but still in disbelief he made such a risky decision …with a possible history making 3-Peat on the Line.
    Also forget the missed Field Goals Foster did his best..& just for a moment let’s forget a couple passes maybe the Receivers Could have caught..
    The Million Dollar Question is Why wasn’t KenYan Drake used in The 2nd Half ??? … If Coach Saban had only continued utilizing ” The Process Recipe ” for his Primary Running Back Tandom. of 3 parts YELDON with 2 parts Kenyan Drake ( Drake.. missing 2nd Half )..with a sprinkling of Justin Fowler…Had Kenyan Drake been used in the 2nd Half ..this discussion about the Field Goal would only be an after thought…
    Sheldon gave us a 110% but he is Human and needed a Breather especially after being given the ball about ten times and told to run up the GUT ..what as just happened be Stacked 2 deep…..If anyone Knows how Drake runs..He was needed and It was unthinkable not to insert him…especially on 4th and one…
    Someone please explain the lake of Sabans use of Drake…and NO ! Drake wasn’t injured..inquiring minds would like to know why he was held out of 2nd half…..Yes! I am a Bama Fan. !

    Reply
  28. Joshua Raisen

    A poster above felt that the decision to use the second-string kicker based on practice results was a reasonable one, and I tend to agree. Wouldn’t claim that circumstances didn’t affect his odds, but placekicking is about form, and hitting the ball right, and if he’s able to do it at all, why SHOULDN’T he be able to do so under game conditions? It was very close, in the end.

    But really, I see the ending of the game as an indictment of the horrible Kansas tiebreaker. That Saban didn’t have his man just take a knee suggests to me that he felt the Kansas Tiebreaker was a 50-50 proposition . . . where I know (and I’m sure he knew) that his Alabama team over 15 minutes of full play is better than a break-even proposition . . . even at Jordan-Hare.

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