The Coach Potato

A weekly look at what we can learn from the in-game decision-making of NFL head coaches and why they fear looking dumb more than anything else.

There is a great deal that we know about the probabilities associated with fourth-down decision-making in the NFL.

NFL coaches — as a whole — seem fairly insistent on pretending most of this knoweldge doesn’t exist. This is very strange when you consider that the head coach — more than anyone else — is held accountable for a team’s lack of victories. You would think self-interest would spur him — or in the future, her — to make any decision that would improve the chances at a victory.

Alas, we chronically underestime the fear of looking dumb, which is where we’ll start this week’s analysis of in-game decision-making in the NFL.

NFL coaches are so afraid of looking dumb that it can be hard for them to do the smart thing.

It’s understandable in some respects. Doing something perceived to be dumb can get you benched as a player and hollered at as an assistant coach. When you’re the head coach, looking dumb can turn you into a punchline and in extreme cases generate enough media coverage to undermine the confidence of your owner.

This fear of looking dumb is something we fail to adequately consider when evaluating the fourth-down decision-making of NFL head coaches, and by “we” I mean people like me who love to drill down on this one specific aspect of an NFL coach’s job. I can’t tell you why a specific passing-game concept is flawed, but I sure as heck can read a probability chart.

Let’s start with what I think is a fairly straightforward set-up from the Sunday night game between the Ravens and the Chiefs. Baltimore has the ball fourth-and-1 on its own 43, 1:05 left in the game. The Ravens lead by 1 and Kansas City has just used its last timeout.

Here are the Baltimore coach’s options:

1) Punt, believing you’ll pin Kansas City inside its own 20 and then hope against hope that quarterback Patrick Mahomes won’t be able to guide the Chiefs the 55 or 60 yards it needs to be in field-goal range.

2) Go for it. On average, NFL teams convert a fourth-and-1 about 72 percent of the time. If you get the first down the game is over. If you don’t get it, the game’s probably over, too. The Chiefs are going to need 10 yards, not 55 or 60, to kick that game-winning field goal.

There’s something I left out of that decision tree, though. How would the coach look dumbest? Well, he looks dumbest if he goes for it on fourth down, doesn’t get it and Kansas City is gift-wrapped the game-winning field-goal attempt. According to the Next Gen Stats, you could expect that to happen 28 percent of the time. So basically, there’s a one-in-four chance the coach will look like an idiot. That’s significant exposure even for a coach with a Super Bowl ring!

But how do those odds compare to the likelihood that Mahomes would lead a field-goal drive after a punt? He wouldn’t have a time-out, and he would have needed 55 or 60 yards but that’s assuming a pretty good punt. Mahomes is going to have about 55 seconds, though, and Kansas City only needs a field goal. I think it might be a coin flip that the Chiefs wind up in position to attempt a game-winning field goal. Maybe 40 percent. Definitely greater than 28 percent.

The coach won’t look as dumb if he punts, though. He’ll have done what is expected and people will praise the opponent instead of just criticizing the coach, but now we’re talking about perceptions instead of the actual thing that matters: the result. It doesn’t matter if you look like an idiot or it looks like you did the right thing if the end result is the same: a loss. The smart thing is not to avoid embarrassment. The smart thing is to make the decision that gives your team the highest likelihood of winning. In this case, that’s going for it, which is exactly what John Harbaugh did because he’s a smart coach. The Ravens got the first down and ran out the clock.

Let’s try another example: With 5 minutes left in last Thursday’s game, the Giants led Washington by three points when Joe Judge opted for a 55-yard field-goal try instead of going for it on fourth-and-4 from the Washington 37. Now that’s a really long kick. In fact, in the first half, the Giants punted from the Washington 38 instead of attempting a kick let alone going for it. So let’s lay out the choices Judge had:

1) Go for it. The upside: If you pick up the 4 yards and the first down then you’ll be in position to – at the very least – bleed 3 minutes of the clock or force Washington to use its timeouts. You might even get really crazy and try, score a touchdown and take a two-score lead. The downside: You run the risk of looking like an idiot if you turn the ball over on downs and Washington kicks a field goal to force overtime.

2)      You can attempt the field goal. The upside: Converting the field goal would push the lead to six points, taking a game-tying field goal out of the equation. That’s good, right? Well, mostly. It takes a game-tying field goal out of the equation and forces the opponent to go all-in on a touchdown. That’s actually a hidden risk, though. With a three-point lead, if your opponent gets in scoring range, say your 25-yard line, he might be prone to get a little more conservative, not wanting to jeopardize the chance to kick that game-tying field goal. Down six, it’s touchdown or bust. The downside of attempting the field goal: A 55-yard kick is hardly a gimme. Miss it and you’re in even worse position than had you gone for it on fourth down, and you don’t get the upside of extending the drive.

3)      You can punt, in which case you should be forced to wear yellow and bock like a chicken in response to every question at your post-game press conference. Taking – at best – 30 yards of field position with that much time left and passing on an opportunity to score would be absolutely cowardly.

It's pretty clear to me that going for it is the best play here. It has the highest upside, which is getting a two-score lead. The next-best scenario will take resources from your opponent. The downside isn’t any worse than what would happen if you miss the field-goal attempt.

So what did Judge do? He went for the field goal, which Graham Gano made with his big leg. Washington needed just two plays to score a touchdown on the next possession, and things got really crazy after that with each team making a field goal in the final 2 minutes.

Judge didn’t look stupid. No one has been screaming about how dumb he was. But his team lost, and while that’s not because they took the field goal, I don’t believe kicking was the best route for him to take. But all too often coaches in this league want to avoid what might make them look stupid if they lose instead of doing what makes the most sense to help their team win.

Scared money makes none: Mike Zimmer loves to punt. Absolutely loves it. He did it twice on fourth-and-1 Sunday against the Cardinals. Then for good measure, he punted while facing fourth-and-6 from his own 29, trailing by a point with 2:52 left. Now to be fair, after all that punting the Vikings did have a field-goal attempt that would have won it only to see kicker Greg Joseph push a 37-yard attempt to the right. Still, Zimmer should be kicking himself for not getting a little friskier on fourth down.

When you gotta’ go, you gotta’ go: Frank Reich’s tenure in Indianapolis has been exceedingly strange really through no fault of his own. When he took the job, he expected to have a bona fide stud hoss franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck, and Reich did. For one year. Now, Reich is on his fourth different starter in his four seasons, and while he’s an offensive-minded coach, his team’s defense has been the most consistent unit.

The one thing I like a ton is that Reich’s in-game decision-making is based on process not results. He knows what he should do and he doesn’t let a little bad luck or poor quarterback play influence that. For instance: Indianapolis was stopped twice on fourth down in the second half of the Week 1 loss to Seattle. Both times, the Colts were in field-goal range. Now, a coach with less conviction might look back and say had the Colts kicked those two field goals, it would have been a one-score game with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. But not Reich. You know what he does when he’s facing fourth-and-goal from the Rams 1 on the first possession of the Week 2 game? He goes for it. Like a boss. And yeah Carson Wentz was sacked for a 9-yard loss and the Colts lost 27-24, but he stuck to his process. I love a man with conviction!

How about we try that again? Houston’s David Culley opted to keep a 13-yard gain by declining a 5-yard penalty against Cleveland for offsides, which makes sense until you find out it was third-and-15. Accept the penalty, and Houston would have faced third-and-10 with a shot at picking up the first down. By declining it, the Texans faced fourth-and-2 and chose to punt. To his credit, Culley admitted he messed that up entirely after the game.

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