There's a reason NFL head coaches turn into simpering cowards on fourth down: Nobody wants to be remembered for making a decision that could attract negative attention like what happened to Marty Mornhinweg over a decade ago.
When Steve Young threw a career-high 36 touchdown passes, Mornhinweg was the offensive coordinator. When Mike Vick finished a season with a passer efficiency rating above 100 for his first and only time, Mornhinweg was the offensive coordinator.
As a coordinator (and/or assistant), Mornhinweg's offenses have won six division titles and gone to a Super Bowl. When the New York Jets decided they'd draft a top rookie quarterback this season, they brought in Mornhinweg to groom him.
When anyone hears Mornhinweg's name, though, all they think of is taking the wind.
As the Detroit Lions head coach in 2002, Mornhinweg lost a divisional game in overtime after he took the side of the field with the more favorable wind after winning the coin toss instead of the ball. Ten years later, Deadspin pronounced him the worst NFL head coach in recent history.
This preseason has been rife with callow fourth-down decisions. Teams are kicking short field goals and punting in their opponent's half way too often. Head coaches are playing it safe when there's nothing at risk.
Playing the Percentages?
Once of the worst cliches in sports is "playing the percentages," as deployed by cartoon boss Mr. Burns in the legendary "Homer at the Bat" episode of The Simpsons.
"It's what smart managers do to win ballgames," said Burns, as he pinch hit a right-handed Homer Simpson for left-handed (eight-time MLB All-Star) Darryl Strawberry.
The joke cuts two ways: It's a swipe at wonky sports overanalysis (like, fair warning, the kind you're about to read) and a skewering of meat-head coaches.
When a coach talks about "playing the percentages," he should be applying an on-paper truth to a real-world situation. Burns knew batters tend to fare better against opposite-handed pitchers; this is the percentage Burns is playing.
The percentage Burns—and NFL head coaches—ought to play is their chance of winning the game.
Believe it or not, the likelihood an NFL team is going to win a game from a given situation can be calculated as a single percentage.
Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats both defines and calculates it at his site:
Win Probability: The probability that a team will win a game in progress, given a particular combination of circumstances including score, time remaining, field position, down, and to go distance. WP is based on a model built on actual outcomes of NFL games from recent seasons that featured similar circumstances.
Burke has created a statistical model of the NFL, based on his database of NFL play-by-play data. From that model, we can figure out the expected point value of punting, attempting a field goal or going for the first down on any given fourth down, anywhere on the field.
Using his model, Burke made a fourth-down decision-making guide every NFL coach should keep a copy of:
A quick glance reveals this chart is much, much more aggressive than most current coaches would ever dream of being. Let's take a look at a game from Week 1 of this preseason, where the Carolina Panthers hosted the Chicago Bears.
Leading 24-17 with just three minutes, 14 seconds left in the game, the Panthers were facing 4th-and-4 from their own 45-yard line. As any NFL head coach would do in that situation, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera chose to punt.
Was it the right decision? Let's use Burke's fourth-down calculator to find out.
The results come in two different models, Expected Points and Win Probability. Expected Points shows how valuable a change in down, distance and field position is to a team without considering what the score is or how much time is left. Win Probability uses the whole situation to calculate a percent chance of victory.
Considering the plus-1.98 EP value of a successful conversion, the minus-2.36 EP value of a failed conversion and—according to recent NFL history—a 53 percent chance of converting, going for a first down on 4th-and-4 from your own 45 is a better proposition than punting (minus-0.34) or attempting an impossible 72-yard field goal.
What about win probability?
If the Panthers go for the first down and convert (again, it's a 53 percent chance they do), their Win Probability jumps up to 96 percent; the game is all but over. If the Panthers go for the first down and fail, they still have an 80 percent WP. If they punt, their WP rises to 81 percent.
Let's say that again, loud and clear: Ron Rivera turned down better-than-even odds his chance to win would go up 16 percent for a guarantee it goes up 1 percent.
Decisions like these are made every week in the NFL.
A Criminally Deranged, Reckless Obsession with Playing It Safe
NFL head coaches take risk aversion to a shocking level. If a financial adviser told a client to take a guaranteed 1 percent return over a coin flip's chance at a 16 percent return, he'd be locked up.
Consider that head coaches are paid millions of dollars to assemble and manage coaching staffs 20-40 people in size, all of whom put in 100-hour weeks during the season. Then consider all of that football experience and brainpower—thousands of man-hours burned every week by football's best and brightest—working furiously to eke out even the tiniest advantage over their opponent.
Then, according to the numbers Burke put together, all of those NFL teams willfully threw away an average of 0.73 wins each in 2012, just by making terrible fourth-down decisions. Pat Shurmur, the former head coach of the Cleveland Browns, flushed 1.02 WP—a whole win!—down the drain, just by mismanaging fourth-down decisions.
Why on earth would the entire NFL be so collectively obsessed with poor decision-making? Is it old-school culture and conditioning overriding normally smart people? Partly, yes—but old-school culture and conditioning also says stuff like "the Wildcat won't work in the NFL," and it only took one coach running it effectively for a few games for every other coach in the NFL to give it a shot.
The reality is, coaches fear for their jobs. They feel the pressure of an entire fanbase calling for their head. They fear becoming the next Mornhinweg.
Back in 2009, in the dying moments of a crucial game against the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick went for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 28-yard line. The Patriots didn't convert.
Despite the move being the right one per Win Probability (by a 9 percent margin!) and Belichick having earned more credibility than any other working coach alive, he was still pilloried for the decision by fans and media alike.
Belichick gets to make that call, lose that game and keep his job. Few other coaches do.
Matt Millen, then president and CEO of the Lions, wasn't interested in any outside-the-box thinking when it came to Mornhinweg's fate. Despite a few voices in the wilderness, like the now-defunct site Football Commentary, considering the choice in terms of Win Probability, Mornhinweg was fired after that 2002 season.
To this day, Mornhinweg defends the call, according to the Detroit Free Press—likely to the detriment of his ever landing a head coaching job again.
What if NFL owners and general managers realized, though, their head coaches are so terrified of making unconventional play calls they willfully throw away win after win?
Why Not in Preseason? Because It's Preseason
In the preseason, though, there's little or no pressure to win. Why aren't coaches experimenting with more aggressive 4th-down play-calling when the results don't count? Why, in fact, does it seem like coaches are pulling out the special teams units more often?
Belichick gave us a hint during the press conference that followed his Week 2 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Per the Patriots' official site, during Belichick's opening remarks he said, "We had great practices against the Bucs and had a real competitive game here tonight – a lot of good situations came up."
Replying to a question asking if it helped that the Patriots started the game with a long drive, he answered, "Every play is an opportunity for us, whatever it is: offense, defense, special teams. We can use any reps we can get on anything."
Then Belichick fielded a question about whether he called for an early two-point conversion to test his players' readiness. "No," he answered, "it was getting the experience of the situation of a two-point play. We weren’t trying to catch anybody off-guard."
Is the NFL actually becoming more fanatically conservative on fourth down? Are coaches actually inflicting even more wounds on themselves? Possibly; the average 0.73 WP forfeited by coaches in 2012 was up from 0.65 in 2011.
In preseason, though, coaches aren't even trying to maximize their chance to win. They're trying to see players in certain situations, trying to scout the middle and bottom of the roster. There's no better way to see who can contribute on special teams by making all of the special teams units play in game situations as often as possible.
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