Waiting for strategic thinking to reach the NFL can be hard. Watching famous, respected people get paid to @$%# up on television is something that should be left to politics, in my opinion.1 And watching other famous, respected people get paid to explain why, in their “expert” opinions, what those first people did was right, should be left to Fox and NBC News. But it isn’t. A decade after Moneyball (by Michael Lewis), many decisions in sports are still, well, bad. Sub-optimal. Downright stupid, sometimes. Still, even at its worst, watching bad decisions play out is entertaining. Unless it’s your team. Then it hurts. Sitting powerlessly by while your team seemingly tries to lose, that can be hard. And that’s currently where I find myself, not sure whether to laugh it off or shriek in frustration.
Yesterday my San Francisco 49ers2 hosted the Carolina Panthers in a game officially decreed “pretty important”. The 49ers were 6-2, the Panthers 5-3, and with both teams trailing their division leaders by a game or more, the consequences for the NFC Wildcard Race were paramount. With 6:21 to go in the second quarter and up 6-0, the 49ers left the offense on the field for a 4th&1 from the Panther two yard line, instead of attempting a field goal (henceforth, “FG”). Brian Billick, broadcasting the game for Fox, said this:
Well you got to kick the field goal he- here, it makes it a two score game. These defenses- although it looks like he’s sending Miller the fullback in, this is quite a statement by Jim Harbaugh. We talking up six nothing, you kick the field goal it makes it nine to nothing, that’s a two score game. Carolina hasn’t even come close to scoring, this is a gutty call by Jim Harbaugh, a statement call by Jim Harbaugh.
Play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman then mentioned:
49ers six out of eight on fourth downs this year, on fourth and one, and that’s what this is right here, on fourth and one they’re a perfect four for four and all four times they have run the ball.
They came to the line of scrimmage, and the Panthers called timeout. Upon returning to play, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick shouted and motioned a lot at the line of scrimmage, and when the Panthers didn’t jump offside, purposefully took a delay of game penalty. (And Phil Dawson kicked a FG to go up 9-0.) Color commentator Brian Billick (former Super Bowl winning coach) again explained the strategy:
Now I like this, I like this Thom, the fans are booing, but again I like the bravado of Jim Harbaugh thinking okay we go for it, but remember, the field goal method, points are at a premium here, yards are at a premium, this makes it a two score game, I like the idea of going for the field goal, he was just trying to draw them offside, see if he could get a cheap one, but this is tactically the right call by Jim Harbaugh, given the circumstances that Carolina hasn’t been able to get into scoring position at all.
Using Brian Burke’s 4th Down Calculator from his website Advanced NFL Stats, one sees the reality. Using NFL averages, Burke’s calculator estimates that by going for it, a team in this situation would win 81% of the time, compared to 79% by attempting a FG. Going for it is worthwhile if the 49ers convert 57% of the time or better. On average, today’s NFL teams convert 4th&1 68% of the time. I have a few things to say to Mr. Billick.
One, this 60 minute game was only 24 minutes old. Going up two scores guarantees a win if the other team only has time for one possession. It wasn’t even halftime. There would be ample time, ample possessions for the Panthers to score. (SPOILER ALERT: The Panthers went on to score 10 points, winning 10-9.) The 49ers do have a good defense and they had played well against the Panthers, but the game was far from over, 36 minutes as a matter of fact. Two, “points are at a premium”… what does that mean? With two above-average defenses, it was going to be harder than usual for both teams to score. So touchdowns, being worth more than twice as much as a FG (usually), become even more valuable. Three, what’s the risk? If the 49ers don’t convert, the Panthers, whom Billick had just pointed out were struggling offensively, would be 98 yards away from the end zone.3 If you expect the 49ers defense to give up points in that situation, maybe you shouldn’t expect them to hold a nine point lead for 36 minutes. (Again, they didn’t.)
The 49ers and Panthers are not the non-existent “average” NFL teams upon which Burke’s calculator is based. The Panthers’s above-average defense (especially that front seven) makes going for it harder. But the 49ers above-average offen– errr, running game, the 49ers above-average running game makes going for it easier. As Brennaman pointed out, the 49ers were 6/8 (75%) on fourth downs on the year and a perfect 4/4 (100%) on 4th&1s. (Again, that running game.) Kudos to Bryan Knowles, who noted in his article on Bleacher Report that coming into the game the Panthers defense had allowed opponents to convert 4/9 attempts on 3rd&1 or 4th&1 (44.4%), and that the 49ers offense had converted 10/13 attempts on 3rd&1 or 4th&1 (76.9%). I’d add that earlier in the game the 49ers lost a yard on 3rd&2 (first drive) and lost a yard on 3rd&1 (second drive), both running plays.
All in all, it was a slightly bad, but acceptable call by Harbaugh. If you split the difference between the teams’ success rates, you’d guess the 49ers would convert 60.7% of “&1TO-GOs” against the Panthers. Given small sample sizes, their true conversation rate could easily be lower than the 57% needed to make going for it worthwhile, but it could also be higher. The Panthers had already stopped the 49ers in short yardage twice, but again, small sample. Strategically, going for it was probably the right call by a slim margin. And Billick’s off-key, over-simplistic, just-take-the-points, make-it-a-two-score-game commentary completely missed the point(s).
Harbaugh made a similar strategic error earlier, during the game’s first drive. On 4th&3 from the Panther 34 in a 0-0 game, the 49ers kicked a 52 yard FG with 10:51 remaining in the first quarter. Said Billick:
49ers deciding that points could be a premium in this game, so they’re opting for the field goal.
If that’s what the 49ers were deciding, it didn’t help them win. First of all, on average an NFL team converts 4th&3 57% of the time, and a 52 yard FG 52% of the time. Going for it looks better already. Additionally, after missing a FG the other team gains 7-8 yards in field position due to the line of scrimmage moving to the spot of the kick. So converting fourth down is better than making the FG because you can still score a touchdown, and failing fourth down is better than missing the FG because the resulting field position is worse for your opponent. Burke’s calculator suggests that by going for it, a team in this situation goes on to win 55% of the time; attempting a FG, 52%; and punting, 50%. 49ers kicker Phil Dawson is 67.6% from 50+ yards in his career, and using those numbers (instead of the league average), kicking the FG results in a win 55% of the time, same as going for it. But those Dawson numbers include shorter FGs of 50 and 51 yards, so 67.6% is slightly artificially high for the 52 yard kick in question. Lastly, for going for it here to be worthwhile, the 49ers need to convert 42% of the time, 15% below the league average. The 49ers have an elite running attack, and at this point in the game still had tight end Vernon Davis as part of a semi-competent passing attack. The Panthers do have a good defense, but even against a good defense it isn’t that difficult to gain three yards. Even upon a conversion, the 49ers weren’t guaranteed a touchdown. They may have kicked a FG anyway (or even turned the ball over). But kicking a FG here was giving up. Giving up on their offense, and giving up some win probability, a little bit at a time.
The league average numbers suggest that by kicking FGs in these two situations, the 49ers decreased their chances of winning by 5%. Given the nuances of the situations, it may have been as little as 3%, 2%, even 1%. But every bit counts. Jim Harbaugh has a reputation as an old-school competitor going back to his playing days, and the 49ers head coach has given away as little as he possibly can when it comes to information about his team’s injury status, game planning, etc, seeking even the slightest advantage over opponents, often to the annoyance of the press, as well as fans like myself. It frustrates me (not to mention those fans in Candlestick who booed) when he misses an opportunity. It must frustrate him as well. If only he knew.
- As well as those celebrity guest editions of game shows. ↩
- Some people are troubled when fans say “my” team. Obviously the 49ers are Jed York’s. I watch their games, root for them, even think and write about them. If I’m at a bar and someone says “Oh, the 49ers,” I say “That’s my team!” Get over it. ↩
- Okay, the 49ers could lose yards or turn the ball over. But Burke’s 4th Down Calculator accounts for those possibilities, which are slight. ↩