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Yesterday Kirk Goldsberry, contributor at Grantland, put up an impressive, super cool, honestly just exciting piece about the recent developments in the use of big data in the NBA. The timing was perfect. In writing “DataBall“, Goldsberry essentially said, “Hey Colin! Feeling down without football? Need to be caught up with the awesome stuff happening in basketball, which you know much less about? Here is this great article about the current state, and future potential, of basketball analytics.”

Cool, right? This is a positively exhilarating time for the NBA, or at least for nerds that like basketball, or at the very least NBA executives and coaches that like winning. The spread of improved technology will make this season the source of the most data of any year in basketball history. Though a little daunting to work with, the data are useful, useful useful useful, in a practical sense, and can quantify essential, previously quantifiable player traits and skills.

A Game of Big Men, and Bigger Data

SportVU technology, of STATS LLC, tracks the movements of every player on the court. Constantly. Precisely. Using SportVU, one can make a replica of the play like the one below: Tony Parker’s assist to Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning three in a February 13th, 2013 game San Antonio played in Cleveland. Check out Goldsberry’s article to actually run the continuous animation; these are just screen shots.

Screenshot (91)

Screenshot (92)Screenshot (93)

Very cool. Very very cool. This animation exists because Cleveland was one of fifteen NBA teams to have SportVU cameras and what-not installed in their arena last season. But before this season, the NBA installed SportVU in every arena. This season there will be data on everywhere a player goes, every time he steps on the floor. Last season, in half the games, SportVU produced 800 million player locations. The academics Goldsberry speaks of, presenting at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference later this month, used 93 gigabytes for their work, using only last season’s data.1 And there will be twice as much this year, and in years to come.

Future Discoveries of NBA Basketball

It is foolish to quantify a player’s talent with a single number, and equally foolish to think the league won’t learn a lot from this newfound data. Which players create the best possessions for their teams? No longer must this question be gleaned at from filtering assists, shot charts, player efficiency ratings, and whatnot. Using SportVU tracking, with over a billion player positions every season, different floor positions can be assigned probabilities for different outcomes. A player open under the basket with the ball has a high probability of scoring two points; without the ball, a slightly less probability depending upon his probability of receiving a pass; closely guarded but with the ball, a slightly different probability based on his shooting percentage, his defender’s prowess, etc.

Every game state–the location of all ten players and the ball, in relation to each other and their respective baskets–has an expected point value for both teams. If this sounds like how Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats determines his Win Probability Calculator, his Fourth Down Calculator, etc, that is because it is fundamentally the same analysis.2 But because basketball is a little simpler, having only ten players out there, and because each NBA team has around a hundred possessions every game, and plays 82 games a season, the analysis can become way more complicated awesome.

With a good estimate of the expected value of every game state in the NBA, breakdowns like the following become possible:

Leonard Options Expected Values

Staring at this graphic is just… enthralling. Look at it! Aaaauuuggghhhhhh!!! Who is the best passer in basketball? No longer is “Well, Player X has the most assists” or “Player Y has the lowest turnover rate” or “A team’s most points per possession come when Player Z mans the point” the best we can do. Now, we can say “Player A made a pass that maximized his team’s expected possession value on 94 percent of his passes, while Player B made a pass that maximized his team’s value on only 82 percent of his passes.” No, it does not have the same ring to it, but damn, is it sexy?!?

Forget passing, which player is the best decision maker?3 In the above image, Leonard’s shot probability is tied for the most likely outcome, even though by expected possession value it is his worst option; passing to anyone would be better. And these numbers can be tailored to individual players! With substantial sample sizes for individual players over the course of thousands of possessions, we do not have to settle for “Shooters make X percent of open corner threes”, we can specify that “Player Y makes Z percent of open corner threes”. Which point guard best understands his teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, the differences between the starters and the subs, etc? Which big man has the most added value when getting the ball at the post?

The answers to these questions will not be 100 percent perfect; a single number, or even a combination of numbers is unlikely to completely quantify what a player brings to the floor.4 But we will know more than we do now, in really an unprecedented way. The moral of the story is: with football over, I will be watching more basketball now. What perfect timing.


  1. Ninety-three gigabytes is a lot of data. For some perspective: the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, the extended editions, on BluRay at 1080p definition, is 12 gigabytes. The complete series of Breaking Bad is 40.3 gigabytes. Of course, the Library of Congress estimates that they add five terabytes of content a month, or 93 gigabytes every 13 hours or so. 
  2.  The Markov model, kids. Read about it. 
  3. My money is on Lebron James. Remember in the 2011 Finals when everyone shamed James for passing off to Wade in clutch moments? Maybe those passes were smart! Or, maybe they actually were terrible. From now on, with unprecedented objective data, we will have a much better idea. 
  4. Obligatory reminder: if a player sells out the house night after night, does his owner still care as much about his less than optimal expected possession value added? Probably not. 
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I love sports, and of course I love sports announcing. Though a San Francisco Giants fan1, I’ll definitely watch any west coast Dodger game just to enjoy the magnificence that is Vin Scully.2 And where would I be in the Olympics without Bob Costas guiding me along in the studio? I’ve never had quite as much love for any football game commentators, with the possible exception of Pat Summerall and John Madden. Generally, I feel they do a good job– it actually isn’t easy to sit down for three hours and talk during a football game while being appealing to millions of viewers– but they say many silly things. Or things that are just wrong. I find this most aggravating when it’s the “expert” color commentator, guaranteed to be a former player or coach, whom I feel people usually, often wrongly, trust. While they may offer some fascinating insights, they may also offer some terrible ones. It is rare that I watch a game and at no point think to myself “That’s wrong,” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yesterday as usual I started watching football at noon, and unusually finished at 11:30 pm thanks to an overtime thriller in Foxborough. While not a comprehensive list, I tried to make a note when a commentator said something silly.3 Here we go.

With the Ravens trailing the Jets 3-0 and 4:10 remaining in the first quarter, Ray Rice gained two yards on a 2nd&1 from the Jet 28.

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel remarked:

Ray has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.

And color commentator Dan Dierdorf, 13 year NFL veteran, five-time First-team All-Pro selection, replied in his infinite wisdom:

Well he did, an- and because the criticism was all on him, when in reality I saw a whole bunch of tape on these guys where there were no holes whatsoever. Ray Rice was being met at the line of scrimmage.

At the moment Ray Rice has the worst Pro Football Focus grade4 among all running backs in the NFL, and it’s not close. With a -0.2 in the passing game, a -11.6 in the run game, a -3.1 as a blocker, and a -0.5 in penalties, he totals a -15.4. The next worst running back, C.J. Spiller, checks in with a -11.2, and third worst, Darren McFadden, registers a -7.9. PFF’s “Elusive Rating” is a statistic designed to gauge how well a running back evades tacklers, controlling for the quality of his blocking. Ray Rice is dead last among the 50 running backs with enough snaps to qualify with a 7.0; tops is Marshawn Lynch with a 72.7. (The rating roughly scales from 1-100.) So I know Dan Dierdof “saw a whole bunch of tape” and I believe him. But a whole bunch of guys at PFF saw all of the tape, and firmly conclude that Ray Rice has played abysmally this season. So if you caught a few Ravens’ games and heard Dierdof’s remarks and thought “Oh, it isn’t on Ray Rice, it’s the people around him,” rest assured: it is on Ray Rice. He has truly earned the second worst running back contract in football. Which is to say, he has not earned his contract at all.

With the Steelers leading the Browns 10-3 on a 2nd&10 from the Brown 14 with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass for Antonio Brown in the end zone was broken up by Joe Haden.

Solomon Wilcots, six year NFL veteran and color commentator of CBS, broke down what happened:

This is a great play by Joe Haden. Watch him knife in underneath. He understands that down around the goal line, look at that play! You have to get between the quarterback and the receiver. He allowed himself to slip underneath, he had great position.

It’s great, except CBS is showing the replay as Wilcots is saying this, the replay in which Haden very clearly grabs Brown’s jersey with his left hand and holds on for a good moment. It wasn’t blatant pass interference, but it was pass interference. It’s one thing for the officials to miss it live; it’s another for Haden to miss it during the slow motion replay, as he remarks what a terrific play it was by Haden. And even though this is the type of penalty that may not be called most of the time, Wilcots doesn’t acknowledge that Haden grabbed Brown at all. Fans at home, Joe Haden is a very good corner in the National Football League, but that doesn’t always mean “slipping underneath”. Sometimes it may mean “gets overly physical without getting whistled”.

Down 10-3 at home after an incomplete Case Keenum pass on 3rd&goal from the Jaguar two yard line with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Texans took their offense off the field to kick a field goal.

Said CBS color commentator Steve Tasker, 13 year veteran, seven-time All-Pro:

And that’s going to force the field goal, the fans aren’t happy about it but it’s the right move.

Of course if you’ve ever heard of Brian Burke, or know the difference between actual good strategy in the NFL and the still-prevailing conventional wisdom, you know that’s the wrong call. A quick rundown of the numbers: on average going for it in that situation produces a win probability of 0.38; kicking a field goal produces a win probability of 0.31.  From up in the press box Kubiak’s decision cost his team a 7% chance of winning the game.5 For going for it to be worthwhile in this situation, the Texans need to convert only 26% of the time. It’s two yards, and lest we forget, THEY’RE PLAYING THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS! For Tasker to dismiss this as “the right move” is just… how can he… it’s so obviously… RAGE!!! Furious George, L.O.L. I didn’t watch the end of the game, which the Texans went on to lose 13-6, but I bet at no point during the Texans’ final drive6 did Tasker point out “HEY, the would only need a field goal right now if they had gone for it on fourth down earlier and scored a touchdown, as was quite likely given that they only had two yards to go. And as it is, they STILL need to score a touchdown and are in a situation where they have to go for it on fourth down anyway, even if it’s way more than two yards to go. Jeez, I guess I was just saying what I always say and talking out of my @#$ earlier, huh Bill?” Of course if he did point that out, then, well, tip of the hat to him. But I kinda doubt it.

On a 1st&10 with 8:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers, down 20-7 to the Vikings, replaced Scott Tolzien with Matt Flynn, who promptly completed his first pass for nine yards.

Fox play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt stated:

A completion. And it’s got this crowd back in the game.

Color commentator and 15 year NFL veteran, four-time All-Pro safety John Lynch chimed in:

He goes to Matt Flynn and they get a little momentum right away.

Whether or not you “believe” in momentum in sports or not, you probably know there is no factual evidence for it if you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Bill Barnwell, of the great Grantland.com, has sort of made “Nomentum” a thing this year, bringing facts a bit further into the mainstream. I’ll only say this: what do you mean when you refer to “momentum”, exactly? Lynch said they got “a little momentum right away.” Scott Tolzien, just benched, had pulled off two nifty moves on a six yard touchdown run earlier in the game. Did that play accrue momentum? And if so, it must have disappeared, since Tolzien was benched? So was the momentum from this pass from Flynn more noteworthy than any momentum Tolzien had gained, an indication that the Packers’ fortunes would be reversed and cause for the fans to rejoice? I, uhh, kinda doubt it. On the next play James Starks ran for 34 yards, setting up 1st&10 from the Viking 37. The momentum must really be going now, right!?! Then Starks ran for two yards, Flynn threw an incomplete pass, and Flynn threw a pass for a loss of five yards, leaving the Packers with 4th&13 from the Vikings 40. They punted. Tragically neither Burkhardt nor Lynch explained where that momentum had gone, and what impact, if any, it had on the game.

Up 24-3 facing 3rd&1 from the Colt 45 with 4:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was stuffed for a loss of two.

After the play, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts, 15 year NFL veteran and two-time First-team All-Pro, praised the Colts for the stop, saying:

It looked like the Colts- er, the Cardinals had momentum.

What a curious statement! It LOOKED like the Cardinals had the momentum. But in fact, the Colts now have the momentum? The Cardinals had the momentum because they were up by three touchdowns at home and driving in their opponent’s territory? But then, in one fell swoop, the Colts got a stop and now they have the momentum? Or some momentum? The Cardinals have less momentum now? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, DAN??? You know, I think I know. I was never the quarterback for any football team, let alone the San Diego Chargers, and I’m not in the NFL Hall of Fame, but hear me out: “momentum” is when a team improves their situation, relative to the previous situation. And it gets thrown around for a variety of situation types: momentum accrued from a winning streak (sometimes dating back to last season!), unanswered points, a string of good plays, or just one good play, or penalty, whatever. So far as I’m aware, there is A LOT of anecdotal, personal claims that such “momentum” helps a team or player perform, but actually zero (scientific) evidence that it does. Certainly, that’s the case in other sports7, and given the fickle nature of momentum’s tangible effects on performance, I sure don’t see a case otherwise.

On 4th&4 down 27-3 with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Andrew Luck’s pass from the Cardinal 36 was batted into the air and nearly intercepted on the Cardinal 20 before hitting the turf.

Fouts pointed out:

Well they’re better off not catching that ball.

And good for him, it’s a good point and he is totally right. On 4th down, unless there’s a good run back opportunity, the defense improves field position by batting the ball down instead of catching it. And then play-by-play man Ian Eagle chimed in:

It doesn’t matter other than the yardage. So you can pad your stats as a defensive player, but you actually are going to benefit if it’s incomplete.

Eagle sort hits on the right point (after Fouts brought it up), but uhhh… “It doesn’t matter other than the yardage”? Yeah, that’s what the teams are doing in football, trying to gain yards and get to the end zone. The yardage matters! According to Advanced NFL Stats‘ Win Probability Calculator, in this situation the yardage matters to the tune of a single percent chance of winning. Starting on their 36, the Cardinals had a win probability of 95%; starting on their 20, it would have been 94%. That’s not a lot, but disregarding yards in a football game, especially 16 of them (nearly a fifth of the field), is pretty silly.

With 4:52 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football, down 31-24, Wes Welker dropped a pass over the middle on a 1st&10 from the Patriot 36.

Cris Collinsworth, eight year NFL veteran and three-time Second-team All-Pro selection, wondered of Welker’s drop:

How many times do you see that?

Fortunately, NBC play-by-play caller Al Michaels jumped right in:

Once too many for some New England fans.

Fans who don’t obsess over the numbers but just enjoy watching football (God bless ’em) may well think Wes Welker has terrific hands, because nearly without fail, every time he drops a pass, whoever is announcing the game remarks “Oh, a rare drop from Wes Welker!” Except Welker’s drops are hardly rare, so over the course of a season it is a pretty regular occurrence to hear a rare Wes Welker drop proclaimed on television. Going as far back as PFF data goes, through the 2008 season, Welker’s drop rate is the following (league-wide rank among players with 25% of their team’s targets or more in parentheses):

  • 2008: 6.03% (19th of 81)
  • 2009: 4.65% (24th of 101)
  • 2010: 13.13% (70th of 89)
  • 2011: 9.63% (48th of 95)
  • 2012: 11.28% (58th of 82)
  • 2013: 9.72% (54th of 97)

Welker certainly doesn’t have the worst hands in the NFL, but he’s hardly elite. Larry Fitzgerald, for example, finished 13th or higher all of those seasons except 2012, when he finished 24th. To answer Collinsworth’s question, counting 2013, the last four seasons Welker has dropped 9% or more of his catchable passes. Counting last night, so far in 2013 he’s dropped seven passes; only seven players have dropped more than him this season. Kudos to Michaels for hinting to Collinsworth that, in fact, a Wes Welker drop is not all that unusual.

Lastly, I just thought I’d remind everyone who the Top 10 quarterbacks have been in fantasy football this week, pending MNF (standard points in parentheses):

  • 1. Philip Rivers (27.78)
  • 2. Tom Brady (24.76)
  • 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick (24.4)
  • 4. Alex Smith (21.46)
  • 5. Carson Palmer (20.56)
  • 6. Cam Newton (20.06)
  • 7. Drew Brees (18.52)
  • 8. Josh McCown (18.48)
  • 9. Ryan Tannehill (18)
  • 10. Matthew Stafford (16.48)

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and Josh McCown all cracked the Top 10. What is the world coming to? Although to be fair, yesterday at mid-afternoon Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Kellen Clemens, and bad quarterback superstar Brandon Weeden were also in the running. Mike Glennon actually scored more points (16.18) than Peyton Manning (13). I give up. Go 49ers!


  1. And also a Seattle Mariners fan. That Pacific Northwest life, being close to the homeland in Alaska. Incidentally my mother’s two favorite baseball teams are the Washington Nationals, where she grew up, and the Mariners, closest to where she lives now. They are the only two active Major League Baseball franchises that do not have a single appearance in the World Series. (Yes, even before when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos.) It’s a hard life. 
  2. Also, Vin Scully had the call for “The Catch”, so it’s even more okay. 
  3. How did I catch calls from so many different games? DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. God bless DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. 
  4. Among running backs who’ve played 25% or more of their team’s snaps. PFF has multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game. Click here to learn more about PFF’s grading system. 
  5. Poor Kubiak. His recent health scare is keeping him from the sidelines, and after losing to the Jaguars, at home, you’ve got to wonder if he’ll be coaching the Texans next season, or even at the end of this one. I only take issue with his chosen strategy in this case; I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being and I wish him and his family the best. 
  6. Which ended on a Case Keenum interception from the Jaguar 41. If the Texans had only needed a field goal to tie then, they might have squeaked it out. 
  7. See all scientific findings regarding “the hot hand”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot-hand_fallacy 

It’s Tuesday, Week 11 is in the books, I lost fantasy football 107.22-105.52 (within the margin of a 17 yard Rob Gronkowski catch, or a Matt Prater field goal, or the Seahawks not getting a return touchdown, etc.), and my 49ers lost two games in a row for the second time under Jim Harbaugh, and the second time this season, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to talk about it. But a couple things Harbaugh did are bothering challenging me quite a bit. A couple challenges, as it were.

With two timeouts and 3:33 remaining in the first quarter of a 0-0 game, Harbaugh challenged that Drew Brees had crossed the line of scrimmage before completing an 8 yard pass to Darren Sproles on a 1st&10 from the 49er 25. Many people, including 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco, have pointed out that the challenge was terrible, as replays clearly indicated Drew Brees wasn’t close to crossing the line of scrimmage. After the game, Harbaugh confessed “We didn’t have a video review [on that challenge].” Challenging a ruling that was obviously correct is, uh, obviously bad, and revealing that you challenged it without any evidence to the contrary, um, also obviously bad, but I wondered: why challenge this play in the first place? 2nd&10 is harder than 2nd&2, sure, but worth one of your two (or three) challenges and the risk of losing a time out? This isn’t the Jacksonville Jaguars of Week 8, it’s Drew Brees and the Saints of Week 11. Over the course of the game the Saints averaged 5.8 yards per offensive play. Even if Harbaugh had challenged on firmer ground, and the call was reversed… so what? The Saints were already looking at a 42 yard field goal (in a dome), and there were still a few yards between them and the end zone. To save the touchdown, the defense would need a stop either way, and it could come on a new set of downs. To shut them out, the defense would need to create a turnover. Both of these situations are quite possible whether the Saints have 2nd&10 or 2nd&2, so why risk it?

Surprise! The numbers from Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL StatsWin Probability Calculator suggest there is good value in challenging.1 In the Saints’ resulting situation, 2nd&2 from the opponent’s 17 in a 0-0 game with 3:22 left in the first quarter, their probability of ultimately winning was 0.65.2 If Harbaugh had won the challenge, making it 2nd&10 from the 25, the Saints’ win probability would have been 0.61.3 Increasing your chances of winning by 4% isn’t a lot, only actually it kind of is. (You may remember, this game came down to the final play, when the Saints’ Garrett Hartley kicked a game-winning 31 yard field goal.) In an article last month on AdvancedNFLStats.com, Kevin Meers, Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, laid out some neat work he’s done on coaches’ challenges. Using the difference in win probability resulting from winning the challenge minus that resulting from losing the challenge, which he dubs “leverage”, Meers charts all challenges in the 2012 season.

2012 Challenges by Leverage

Neat huh? That first challenge’s leverage was 0.04, and probably worth going after, again forgetting, as Harbaugh did, the replay which guaranteed the original call would stand. But you know, if what Harbaugh thought had happened had actually happened, it would have been an okay move. And that’s actually more than many NFL coaches can say. 15% of all challenges last season had zero leverage– whether they were successful or not had no discernible impact on the outcome of the game. In that article Meers also attempts to value timeouts, gauging them to be worth around 0.03 in win probability. I won’t get into his methodology (though I may try to build on his foundation in the coming weeks), and you can read it for yourself, but just take that 0.03 number for a moment. In terms of the lost timeout, it’s worth challenging when you yield 0.04 in win probability if you win the challenge 42.9% of the time. While I wouldn’t take that 0.03 number as a universal truth, and it’s worth mentioning again that these win probabilities are averages not personally tailored to a team’s own defense or offense, it’s still interesting. Mostly, it’s suggestive of the cool things we can learn once these types of models are further refined and improved.

Harbaugh’s second challenge was a similar story. Down 7-0 with 10:21 left in the second quarter, Harbaugh challenged that Kaepernick’s pass to Jon Baldwin in the end zone on 1st and 10 from the Saints’ 11, ruled incomplete, was in fact a touchdown. This was the ole’ Calvin Johnson rule about securing the ball for 547 minutes after you make a catch and go out of bounds, and while stupid, is a rule that coaches and players (and fans) know about. Under the rule, it was clearly an incomplete pass, leaving the 49ers with 2nd and 10. This was a little more troubling than the first failed challenge. Harbaugh said of the decision to challenge the play “I was talking to Eric [Mangini, our challenge consultant up in the booth]”. Cleveland Browns fans surely won’t be surprised by Mangini’s involvement, as he, uh, never really panned out as their head coach. Unfortunately he seems to have brought some similar failings to his new post. But failings aside, how often would the 49ers need to win this challenge for it to be worthwhile? 30% of the time.4 Given the replay (and the fact the game was in New Orleans), I’d say the chances of an overturn were zero, maybe 10% being generous. Nonetheless, that wasn’t Harbaugh’s area. Hearing the false possibility from Mangini, and not knowing the 49ers would score on the next play, this Harbaugh challenge was much more defensible.


  1. Assuming the challenges themselves aren’t completely hopeless. That’s still on Harbaugh. Well, actually the truth may be more complicated. More on that later. 
  2. Also, their probability of gaining a first down was 0.75; a field goal 0.41; and a touchdown also 0.41. 
  3. First down probability 0.52, field goal 0.37, touchdown 0.34. 
  4. The 49ers had a 0.48 probability of winning if they won the challenge, and a 0.41 probability if they lost, for a challenge leverage of 0.07. 

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.


  1.  As well as those celebrity guest editions of game shows. 
  2.  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. 
  3. Okay, the 49ers could lose yards or turn the ball over. But Burke’s 4th Down Calculator accounts for those possibilities, which are slight. 
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