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Pooch punt

Pooch punt is a superb phrase. Well it is …

Great response from Brilliant Reader Drunyon to the Ron Rivera post. That post was all about Rivera’s decision to kick a field goal on fourth and one with less that two minutes left and his Panthers up three points. He kicked the field goal rather than go for it and try to put away the Bears. I intended for the post to be more about the thought process of a conservative coach like Rivera than the decision itself. But Drunyon pointed to a great tool — Advanced NFL Stats’ 4th Down Calculator — that uses NFL data to give you win probability data.

And, in this case, it gives some surprising results:

OK, let’s remember the situation again. Panthers led Bills by three. They facde a fourth and one. There was 1:40 left. The Bills were out of timeouts. The last thing — how many timeouts the Bills had — is not figured into the calculator, so these calculations might be adjusted just slightly. But the adjustments do not change the overall point.

The Panthers decided to kick the field goal. According to the calculator, if you make the field goal in this exactly situation, your chance of winning the game is at 82%. If you MISS the field goal, your chance does not change much at all — it’s down 81%. So total chance for winning the game when you kick the field goal is 82%.

That, I will admit, is a little bit lower than I expected — I intuitively had the chances between 85-90%. Maybe the Bills having zero timeouts left does increase that 82% win probability a little bit. Either way, let’s mark it down for the record.

Kick the field goal: 82% chance of winning.

Now, what about if the Panthers went for it, like the fans wanted? According to the calculator, the Panthers chances of making it on fourth and 1 was 74% — about three out of four. And if they had gone for it and made it, the calculator figures they would has won the game 97% of the time.

Once again, I actually think timeouts are a factor here. The Bills had zero timeouts, so I actually think that the Panthers chance of winning was 100%. I guess there’s always the chance for a Miracle at the Meadowlands. And now here comes the crazy part. What if the Panthers had gone for it and failed to get the first down? The calculator figures they would still win 84% of the time.

Huh? Eighty-four percent? Take a minute and look back up at the field goal winning percentage. Yep, you’re seeing that right. The calculator says the Panthers actually had a better chance of winning by FAILING ON FOURTH DOWN than by KICKING THE FIELD GOAL.

How is this mathematically possible? I’m not sure, but I’ll take a guess. One, if they miss the field goal, they give up eight yards of field position. Those yards are pretty important, so I think that’s figured into the percentage. Two, if the Panthers make the field goal, they have to kick off. These days most kickoffs lead to touchbacks, but kickoffs are still a bit of a wildcard. A returner can make it all the way back to midfield. A returner could go all the way.

Anyway, we total it up.

Go for it: 94% chance of winning.

So the calculator says that Rivera cost his team roughly 12% of a winning chance by kicking that field goal.

But here’s the craziest part of all. There is a third option. It’s so ridiculous an option, I never even considered it. But it’s absolutely an option. The pooch punt. Yes, I know, ridiculous, pointless, stupid. But — and I suspect you know this — it turns out the pooch punt is actually the second-best option. Punting is actually a better option than kicking the field goal. The key, again, is field position. Every yard is valuable. A pooch punt could gain your defense 10 or 15 or even 20 yards if done just right. And, even if the ball goes in the end zone, you gain a yard.

You will say: Punting would be insane.

So what does that tell you about kicking the field goal?

Punt: 89% chance of winning.

Obviously Ron Rivera had different percentages running through his head which is why he kicked the field goal. And like I said earlier, there is no way you could show him numbers that would convince him he made the worst choice. He believes in the power of field position, the power of defense, the power of Murphy’s law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The Bills and their fans will be forever grateful.

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24 Responses to Pooch punt

  1. prophet says:

    Part of the problem is that the calculations rely on an average NFL team under average conditions against an average NFL teams, with the average number of timeouts remaining and an average number of injuries.

    It’s certainly possible – likely, even – that the actual chances are different. They wouldn’t have to be very different to make his choice the right one (e.g. if you have a horrible punter kicking with the wind, he’s probably going to put it out the back, etc.).

    The one incontrovertible point is that the Panthers D couldn’t stop them going most of the way down the field with no timeouts when the game was on the line. (And in fact, if you know you have a weak defense, taking time and making them score a TD to win instead of a field goal to tie gives you better odds – every offense will fail given enough plays.)

    • drunyon says:

      Actually, surprisingly enough, making them score a TD to win instead of a field goal does NOT give you better odds. Here’s why, from another post on the Advanced NFL Stats’ site:

      “Notice that WP Fail on a field goal is significantly higher than a successful field goal. This seems strange, you would think that making the field goal increases your chances of winning. The truth is, win probability here is based on actual historical performance — rather than optimal NFL play-calling. If a team is down three points, they are much more likely to be conservative and settle for the game-tying field goal. If a team is down between three and eight points, they are forced to be aggressive, going for it on fourth down and passing the ball more. Both of these tendencies lead to more efficient play-calling and performance.”

      Yup, you got it: It’s better to be up three points late than be up six points, as counter-intuitive as that is. Crazy, right? The reason is that if you’re up three points, the opposing coaches get super-conservative and overwhelmingly play for the field goal, meaning at worst you go to overtime. But if you’re up six, the opposing coaches will never kick a field goal, will use all four downs, and will always go for the win, meaning you have a good chance to lose.

      Moral of the story: It’s almost never a good choice to kick a FG when up 3 late in the game.

    • Rob Smith says:

      This reminds me of the High School coach who plays the odds completely. He never punts, always goes for it on 4th down. He never attempts to field a punt because of the high odds, in High School, of a fumble (critical turnover). He therefore plays extremely aggressively and basically just blows the other team off the field. The NFL is getting more aggressive in their play calls then they were, because of liberalized passing rules & the realization that you won’t win 10-7 very often. But, teams leading the game still get hyper conservative in the 4th quarter, while the losing team gets super aggressive since they score or lose, often leading to late game meltdowns and comebacks. It is human nature to try to hang on to what you have. When you have nothing to lose and go for it, you are far better off. But it’s difficult to have that mentality when you feel you do have something to lose. As an aside, this is a common problem at Sr. Mgmt positions in companies. They should be powerful people making powerful and assertive decisions. However, often they don’t. They have a nice high paying job that they want to hang on to. If they make a bad decision, and are fired, they lose their cushy position. So, they play defense and hold on to the status quo. I think you can see this play out in a number of arenas.

  2. Rob Smith says:

    The odds of winning should be the same for a missed field goal and for a failed attempt to go for it. The result of both plays is that the ball will be in the same place, unless they lose yards going for it or the kick gets blocked backwards. But in all likelihood, field position will be the same with roughly five seconds run off the clock for either play and the clock stopping for change of possession. So the percentages should be a lot closer than they are.

    • Nope. As Joe writes, “if they miss the field goal, they give up eight yards of field position.” But good try!

    • Ross Holden says:

      Also it’s possible that a “missed field goal” includes blocked field goals, which could be much worse than not getting it when going for the 1st down (if it was returned, etc.).

    • doc says:

      Also, a running play–with the other team out of TOs–will almost certainly take more time off the clock than will a missed kick (the clock stops at the end of the play in either case, inside 2 minutes, right?). That may, in fact, mean a difference of several seconds…

    • Rob Smith says:

      Ross: after thinking about it, I think you are right on the money. The possibility of a blocked field goal has to knock those odds down. Lots of bad things can happen with a field goal, bad snap, bad hold, low kick… and a blocked field goal can be devastating, potentially returned for a long run or a TD.

      That, and as “sons” notes, the ball isn’t placed on the line of scrimmage (as I thought… it’s hard to keep up with the rule changes throughout the years), it’s at the spot of the kick…. so an 8 yard loss of field position.

      Doc, the problem with your comment is that if you don’t make the first down on a running play, the clock still stops for the change of posession. So that doesn’t factor into it like the other two comments.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Adding to it…. I think a running play takes 5-7 seconds (especially if it’s stuffed at the line of scrimmage), while a kick takes about the same, maybe 1-2 seconds less from that distance. I don’t think that makes a significant difference.

  3. Mike says:

    “The calculator says the Panthers actually had a better chance of winning by FAILING ON FOURTH DOWN than by KICKING THE FIELD GOAL”

    I suspect that relates to the fact that OT is essentially a 50/50 proposition. In other words, miss the FG or miss on 4th, the Bills all-but-certainly go for the tie. I.e., play to get to the 30 yard line and kick the FG. And, as noted, field position is better off the 4th down miss than off the missed figgie, so advantage to going for it in that part of the analysis.

    And the BEST CASE scenario for the Bills in both those situations is OT, where their odds are 50/50. So, essentially, multiply by 0.5 the Bills odds at scoring the tying FG to determine the odds of winning.

    But . . . Panthers make the FG, the lead is 6. Now, after the kick off (which Joe notes has a chance of improving the field position), the Bills MUST go for the TD. The odds of doing so are much slighter than to kick a FG . . . but if they score the TD, they win. Multiply the odds of scoring the TD by 1.0 to determine the odds of winning.

    So, in sum, the combo of (i) slightly better field position under the go-for-it scenarios, combined with the (ii) better odds of WINNING off the TD scenario, likely explain the funny looking probabilities.

  4. invitro says:

    Brilliant BR comment, incredible tool, and wonderful post.

  5. BobDD says:

    If I were interviewing to hire a head coach, I would be asking questions to ensure the potential coach knew all of this without hesitation and could explain why.

  6. Don’t forget that a field goal attempt can be blocked and returned for a TD. Same for a punt. I would think running on fourth down should appeal to a conservative coach, especially at that end of the field.

  7. Grover Jones says:

    “Obviously Ron Rivera had different percentages running through his head which is why he kicked the field goal.”

    I don’t think that’s anything close to obvious. What makes you think he had ANY percentages running through his head?

    • One Sock On says:

      One can have a thought process or a reasoning without literally assigning percentages to it. (“If we kick the field goal, it will be really hard for the Bills to score a TD” doesn’t need a number like ’25 percent’ to have a meaning. “There’s practically chance that we’ll be successful on 4th and 1” might mean 10 percent, but Rivera doesn’t need a number to have the opinion.)

    • Grover Jones says:

      I agree, although Joe said “percentages,” not “thought process,” “reasoning,” or “opinion.”

      But really my statement was intended as hyperbolic, since it’s impossible to know truly what was running through his mind. Heck, Rivera might not even know.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Old School coaches like Rivera go with their gut a lot. They might think it’s the “percentage play”, but it’s based on experience not actual numbers. It goes back to the basic fact that feelings lie. They make you feel you are in love with a stripper. They also make you kick a field goal instead of going for it on 4th and one. If you are aware of the numbers…. like 98% of marriages to strippers fail with the man losing 60% of his possessions…. and you increase your odds of winning by 12% by going for it on 4th and one…. should help you make a decision. That doesn’t say, however, that it’s completely ignorance of the numbers. Sometimes people know the odds and roll the dice. That’s known as stupidity when you know you’re wrong and do it anyways.

    • clashfan says:

      “98% of marriages to strippers fail with the man losing 60% of his possessions”

      –citation needed

  8. matt david says:

    Ask Green Bay Packer’s coach Mike McCarthy about going for it on fourth down.

  9. Mark Daniel says:

    If Rivera decided to go for it and failed, and the Bills went down the field and kicked a FG to tie the game, that strategy would have been considered a failure as well. It’s just that this particular failure would have resulted in a tie, not a loss per se (as Mike stated above).

    One important thing to note, the Bills were able to run 10 plays in that 1:38 time frame, all with no timeouts. It seems to me that gross incompetence on the defensive end was more important in this loss, though maybe that’s a symptom of the same affliction.

  10. Jovins says:

    A team that is down by 3 isn’t going to aggressively go for a touchdown. A team that is down by 6 will. Making a field goal makes it far less likely that the game goes to overtime, where ideally both teams have an even chance of winning.

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