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Yesterday I detailed how Colin Kaepernick’s extension seems to be a pretty great deal for both sides. Kaepernick will be among the top paid handful of players in the league so long as he or the team performs at a truly elite level. The 49ers will recoup several million dollars should that fail to happen. This contract ought to anchor the 49ers talented roster for years to come, possibly into the next decade. But will Kaepernick’s contract create a dynasty on par with that of Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl championships? Probably not.

Whether Kaepernick’s yearly cap hits end up being closer to $16, $18, or $20 million remains to be seen, but no matter what that money cannot go to anyone else on the team. Under Jim Harbaugh, who has coached in three NFC championship games in his three years with the team, the 49ers have yet to pay a premium for their quarterback services.

Season Starting QB Cap Hit % of Cap League Average % of Cap
2011 Alex Smith $4,900,000 4.08% $6,478,783 5.40%
2012 Alex Smith $9,250,000 7.67% $8,257,642 6.85%
2012 Colin Kaepernick $1,164,613 0.97% $8,257,642 6.85%
2013 Colin Kaepernick $1,397,535 1.14% $10,293,699 8.37%

Under Harbaugh the 49ers had one season when Alex Smith cost the same as a league-average starter1, and the other two years the 49ers’ starting quarterback cost them very little relative to the rest of the league. Getting quality quarterback play for such low cap hits gave the 49ers that much more money to add and retain talent elsewhere. And in 2014, Kaepernick’s cap hit remains a scant $3.767 million. But after that?

Year Cap Hit
2014 $3,767,444
2015 $17,265,753
2016 $18,765,753
2017 $21,365,753
2018 $21,865,753
2019 $21,200,000
2020 $23,400,000

Over the six-year extension (2015-2020), Kaepernick’s average cap hit is $20.644 million. Again, that could fall a few million in some seasons, depending on his and the team’s performance, but it will be at least $16-$18 million every year, if not more. It is not known what the salary cap will be in those years,2 but since 19993 the cap has, on average, increased each year by 7.15 percent. This is not, by any means, a perfect predictor of what the cap increases will look like going forward, but it may be close.4 If the cap increases roughly as it has in the past,5 what will Kaepernick’s contract amount to as a percentage of team spending?

Season Kaepernick’s Cap Hit (Overly Simplistic) Projected Salary Cap Percent of Salary Cap
2015 $17,265,753 $142,509,500 12.12%
2016 $18,765,753 $152,698,929 12.29%
2017 $21,365,753 $163,616,903 13.06%
2018 $21,865,753 $175,315,511 12.47%
2019 $21,200,000 $187,850,570 11.29%
2020 $23,400,000 $201,281,886 11.63%

Jim Harbaugh is a terrific football coach, but he has never had his team spend such a high share of its budget on the starting quarterback. General manager Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe and Co. have never had less money to spend on the other 45 players who will suit up on game day. Quarterback is the most important position, but there are 10 other guys on offense, and 11 other guys on defense, and three unique guys on special teams, too, and some backups, and they all matter to some degree. Even if Kaepernick’s contract diminishes some, and the cap increases more than the 7.15 percent average annual rate of the past, the 49ers will still likely spend 10 percent of their available funds on Kaepernick every season.

Teams spending so much on their quarterbacks can win the Super Bowl. But it is not easy.

Year Super Bowl Winning QB % of Team’s Salary Cap Super Bowl Losing QB % of Team’s Salary Cap
1999 Kurt Warner 1.31% Steve McNair 10.60%
2000 Trent Dilfer N/A Kerry Collins N/A
2001 Tom Brady 0.46% Kurt Warner 3.46%
2002 Brad Johnson 9.56% Rich Gannon 5.22%
2003 Tom Brady 4.42% Jake Delhomme 2.37%
2004 Tom Brady 6.28% Donovan McNabb 9.69%
2005 Ben Roethlisberger 4.94% Matt Hasselbeck 7.72%
2006 Peyton Manning 8.38% Rex Grossman 1.50%
2007 Eli Manning 10.75% Tom Brady 6.73%
2008 Ben Roethlisberger 7.11% Kurt Warner 5.17%
2009 Drew Brees 8.42% Peyton Manning 18.88%
2010 Aaron Rodgers N/A Ben Roethlisberger N/A
2011 Eli Manning 11.75% Tom Brady 10.79%
2012 Joe Flacco 6.63% Colin Kaepernick 0.97%
2013 Russell Wilson 0.55% Peyton Manning 14.23%

Reliable data for the salaries of Dilfer and Collins back in 2000 was not available, and in 2010 there was no salary cap.6 But in the other 13 seasons since 1999, 26 unique teams made the super bowl. Only six of those 26 teams paid their quarterback more than 10 percent of the salary cap: the 1999 Titans (McNair), the 2007 Giants (E. Manning), the 2009 Colts (P. Manning), the 2011 Giants (E. Manning), the 2011 Patriots (Brady), and the 2013 Broncos (P. Manning). (Whole lotta’ Mannings comin’ at ya.) Only a small minority of recent Super Bowl teams had crossed the 10 percent threshold with their starting quarterbacks. What does it all mean? Are the 49ers’ Super Bowl dreams dashed?

Perhaps not, at least not completely. Five of those six teams come from 2007 or later, with four coming from the last eight teams to play in the Super Bowl. Fans keep hearing it, and not without reason: the game really has changed significantly, even since I started watching football 15 years ago. More than ever, it is a passing league. Quarterback salaries are, literally and figuratively, on the rise, not only in absolute terms but relative to other positions. That the 49ers will spend more than 10 percent of their budget on their starting quarterback every year may not be ideal, but it makes a lot more sense now than it would have 15 or even 10 years ago. And this is not just any starting quarterback we have been talking about; it’s Colin Kaepernick.

Nonetheless, with two more years on his contract, Russell Wilson remains the envy of every general manager in the league. Not to overreact, but at what point do we start discussing rather Wilson is the greatest draft pick of all time?7 If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl again next year? Peyton Manning is still probably better than Wilson, but his share of the Broncos’ cap when they met in the Super Bowl last season was nearly 30 times larger than Wilson’s. The Seahawks had a lot more money to spend elsewhere. We all saw what happened.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have a powerful opportunity this year, with Kaepernick only taking up 2.8 percent of their funds. After that, the road gets tougher, with every draft pick, every low-budget signing becoming that much more important. Hopefully the 49ers can pull out a Super Bowl win in the next seven years, maybe two with a bit of luck. But do not expect an NFC championship game appearance every year, Harbaugh or no. It’s just too darned expensive to keep getting there.


  1. The average cap hits of the top 25 paid quarterbacks in each year, according to OvertheCap.com. I use the top 25 because though there are 32 teams and therefore, technically, at least 32 starters, the dregs of the league tend to see high turnover rates and are not really “true” starters, due to poor play, repeated injuries, or what have you. 
  2. Kaepernick’s cap hits escalate every season, as the salary cap is expected to, so Kaepernick’s percent of the whole cap will hopefully change little year to year, even as the 49ers pay him millions more. 
  3. 1999 is something of an arbitrary end point; the modern salary cap really began in 1994. For some other findings in this piece I didn’t find much data before 1999, but most of the data after 1999 is available, so I am keeping it consistent. Something of a nice coincidence, as the Titans-Rams Super Bowl following the 1999 season (played in 2000) is the first one I remember watching in its entirety. 
  4. Most increases were five to six percent, with a couple outliers wherein the league drastically increased the amount of money teams can spend. Since the new collective bargaining agreement, the 2012 salary cap was 0.5 percent more than 2011’s, 2013 was 2 percent more than 2012’s, and now 2014’s is 8.13 percent more than 2013’s, so who really knows what the hell the league will do. 
  5. Again, this is not guaranteed to happen. It is a very, very, very simplified estimate, not a concrete prediction. 
  6. Salary data from Spotrac.com 
  7. Yes, Tom Brady went in the 6th round. But Brady was not drafted to be who he is today; he was clearly a backup coming out of camp and fell into the Patriots’ lap as a great player when Bledsoe was injured. The Seahawks took Wilson in the third round with the intention of him competing to start from day one, and that is exactly what happened. Goodness, how they have reaped the rewards. 
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Last Week: 8-7-1. My entire life: 20-21-2.

The (NFL) week has started most excellently. Last night I finished watching season 4 of Archer, shortly after the Jaguars covered +3 against the Texans, winning outright for the first time at home since November 25th… 2012. (BOOM!) I don’t even want to guess how many headlines across east Texas already said this, but Houston, we have a problem. A bunch of problems. And as I’m going to make foolish predictions anyway, I’m going to say the Texans take a dose of the ole’ improve-quarterback-play-and-coaching-amid-the-backdrop-of-an-already-talented-team, a la the 2011 49ers and the 2013 Chiefs, and make the playoffs next season. As for this one, here are my Week 14 picks. Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

JAGUARS (+3) over Texans

That went surprisingly well!

The Kansas City Football Team (-3.5) over THE WASHINGTON D.C. FOOTBALL TEAM

I’m torn here, because Brian Burke actually gave Washington a slight edge, and Bill Simmons pointed out that Kansas City has pretty much nothing at all to play for, being assured of not catching Denver and not getting caught by anyone else for the five seed. I have RGIII in fantasy, but then I also have KC’s defense and special teams. My opponent has Alex Smith at quarterback, but Fred Davis at tight end. I seem to recall the 2011 Alex-Smith-led 49ers winning in D.C, so that’s that.

RAVENS (-7) over Vikings

I made a promise to not take the Vikings on the road for the rest of the season.

Browns (+13) over PATRIOTS

What’s less impressive, the Browns running game or the Patriots run defense? The Browns quarterback situation or the Patriots wide receiver situation? Anyway, I’m reading this as “Josh Gordon (+13) over AQIB TALIB”, and I feel a little better.

Raiders (+2.5) over JETS

As I’ve mentioned, the Jets’ point differential indicates that their record is way, way better than it should be.

BENGALS (-6.5) over Colts

I wonder how much this line would be if we could make them swap quarterbacks?

EAGLES (-3) over Lions

Doesn’t everybody know this season is going to crush Chicago Bears fans’ hopes for the playoffs in the most depressing way imaginable? There’s no drama if Bears fans don’t have to see themselves with the same record as the Lions but actually a game behind because they lost to them twice. Plus it could even give some hope to Packers fans! Come on Vegas! Easy money.

STEELERS (-3.5) over Dolphins

Again, it’s about the drama. Drama, when 10 AFC teams still have a hope come Week 17.

BUCS (-3) over Bills

Some home rookie quarterback who could be good over some away rookie quarterback who could be good.

Titans (+13) over BRONCOS

Yeah…

CARDINALS (-6) over Rams

Yeah…

CHARGERS (-3.5) over Giants

Yeah… wait, it’s the Philip Rivers-Eli Manning revenge bowl!

Seahawks (+2.5) over 49ers

At last! The 49ers have some definite advantages: an extra day of rest with the Seahawks playing on Monday night, the potential for a Seahawks letdown after a super-hyped blowout against the Saints, being good despite not doing anything to have the Seahawks take us seriously the last two times we played, having a little more to play for as the Seahawks have leads of three games in the division and two in the conference with only four games left, elite offensive tackle Joe Staley might actually play a week after spraining his MCL, and Jim Harbaugh’s dislike of Pete Carroll. BUT normally when we play the Seahawks, someone good on the 49ers gets injured in the first half and can’t return (last time it was Vernon Davis and Eric Reid), so if Staley does play, how long does he last? Also guard Mike Iupati is still out.

SAINTS (-3.5) over Panthers

If we believe the Saints are down but not out (I do), then they’ve got to be pretty pissed off, and looking to set the record straight with the national television audience.

Cowboys (-1) over BEARS

After watching Detroit open the door on Sunday, losing on Monday night seems the only way to go for Bears fans.

And that’s what’s happening Week 14. You may notice a game is missing. Where’s the Falcons at the Packers? Staying the hell out of casino books until we know whether Aaron Rodgers is playing. You remember, Aaron Rodgers, the guy who swung a game’s line by nine points earlier this season when the Packers announced he was out. Yeah. That guy.

Last year the Kansas City Chiefs finished 2-14, tied with Jacksonville for worst in the league. The league office officially declared them the worst when granting them the first pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, using the strength of schedule tiebreaker. Back in Week 2 of this season, plenty of “The Chiefs have already matched their win total” talk was going around. While a great many people expected the Chiefs to play a great deal better, before the season I don’t think many had the Chiefs losing their first game in Week 11, on the road, against Peyton Manning, to fall to 9-1. And like Jim Harbaugh’s takeover of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, most of the players remained on the team. Despite losing all those games, and despite that the Pro Bowl is a so-so indicator of talent, the 2012 Chiefs still fielded 6 Pro Bowlers, as many or more than 27 of the league’s 32 teams.1 The story was they were an okay team, hindered by terrible coaching and quarterbacking, with bad luck and tragedy thrown in. And like the 2011 49ers, the solution was a competent coach guiding Alex Smith’s check-downs, a solid running back, and a terrific defense to one of the best records in football. So what’s more impressive? The 2012 Chiefs going 2-14, or the 2013 Chiefs starting 9-1?

Before discussing the Chiefs, an anecdote. While looking for numbers relating to this piece, I came across a hilarious, embarrassing, presumably unnoticed error on Bleacher Report. In his article, Andrew Garda indicated the Chiefs’ strength of schedule this season was a .473 based on the record of their opponents last season, who combined to go 121-135. This was good for 5th easiest schedule in the league. The problem is those numbers of wins and losses. 121 + 135 = 256 games the Chiefs’ opponents played last season. As they each played 16 games (the playoffs are excluded), 256 / 16 = 16 teams the Chiefs play each season. Peachy, right? Wrong. Very very wrong. The Chiefs have 13 opponents every season. They play 16 games, but they play the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders twice each in intra-division match-ups. The Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders were double counted to reach that 256 game total. In 2012 the Broncos finished 13-3, the Chargers 7-9, and the Raiders 4-12. Removing those numbers from the total, you get 97-111.2 You are still left with the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders records in this figure, just only counted once. The actual strength of schedule the Chiefs face this season is a .466. Only a .006 difference? Well, the same article had the Raiders with the 4th easiest schedule with a .469, only .004 ahead of the Chiefs. Of course, this double counted their division opponents as well. What a mess. I’m not going to go back and calculate each teams strength of schedule properly, but the message is clear: Beware the Internet!

When outlining each of the Chiefs’ seasons, I used football’s Pythagorean numbers a lot. It’s a way of gauging how many games a team “should” have won using their total points scored and allowed over the course of a season. Bill Barnwell of Grantland explains it, and some other good NFL stats, in this article. I also used this Pythagorean metric to determine strength of schedule. That number represents the percentage of games the Chiefs’ opponents “should” have won, against all competition. On to the Chiefs!

The 2012 Kansas City Chiefs

  • Record: 2-14, .125 (tied for worst in league)
  • Pythagorean Wins: 2.6 (under-performed by 0.6, 12th unluckiest in league)
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: 16% (worst in league)
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: .513
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: 2-3
  • Turnover Margin: -24 (tied for worst in league)
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: -17.7 (Matt Cassel -4.9, Brady Quinn -12.8)
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: 26-41, .388 (Romeo Crennel)
  • Dead Money: $2,462,176

The 2013 Kansas City Chiefs

  • Record: 9-1, .9 (tied for 2nd best in league)
  • Pythagorean Wins: 7.7 (over-performed by 1.3, 4th luckiest in league)
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: 77.4% (3rd in league)
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: .421
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: 3-0
  • Turnover Margin: +15 (1st in league)
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: -4.5 (Alex Smith -4.5, Chase Daniel 0.0 on 3 snaps)
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: 130-93-1, .583 (Andy Reid)
  • Dead Money: $16,667,470

The Improvement

  • Record: +7 games/ +.775 and counting
  • Pythagorean Wins: +5.1 wins and counting
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: +61.4%
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: -.092
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: +2
  • Turnover Margin: +39
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: +13.2
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: +78.5/ +.195
  • Dead Money: +$14,205,294

Yeesh. When the only thing that gets worse from one season to the next is the opposition, a team wins a lot more games. Oh, actually the Chiefs are spending $14 million more on players who don’t play for them than they were last year? Well, ignoring that it’s a close call, but I’m going to go ahead and declare the 2013 Chiefs more impressive at being good than the 2012 Chiefs were impressive at being bad. Congratulations to the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs! Proof of what can happen when you significantly upgrade your quarterback3 and coaching situation.

A few other teams have enjoyed similarly large improvements in the past. The 1999 Rams (13-3), 2004 Steelers (15-1), and 2012 Colts (11-5) all improved by nine wins over the previous season. The 1999 Colts (13-3) and the 2008 Dolphins (11-5) improved by 10, tying for the NFL record. With six games remaining, the Chiefs have already improved by seven wins. The six remaining are home for the Chargers, Broncos, and Colts and at the Redskins, Raiders, and Chargers. I think they’ll at least get to 12-4, tying the record. Hell, I’ll say that they are So Impressive this season that they’ll get to 13-3, and set an NFL record by improving 11 wins from the previous season. Of course, a part of me hopes they lose the rest of their games; the 49ers get their 2nd round pick in the daft.4


  1. And all other teams with 6+ Pro Bowlers made the playoffs, let alone got to .500. 
  2. If you still don’t believe me that this is bad, 97 + 111 = 208. 208 / 16 = 13, the actual number of teams the Chiefs play every season. They play 10 games against opponents they only play once, and 6 against 3 opponents they play twice. When determining their strength of schedule, one team gets one record. You can’t count the Broncos twice because they play them twice. Yes, it does make a difference. 
  3. You may notice, that quarterback improvement is more than a full standard deviation. When I looked at QBs last week, the standard deviation of performance was a 10.4. 
  4. That Alex Smith guy? He got us TWO second rounders, one last year, one this year. And he beat the Saints in a home playoff game. And he still has yet to start two straight seasons with the same offensive coordinator. What a guy. 

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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