Redskins should have gone for a first down after Josh Morgan’s blunder

September 19, 2012

After every game, each NFL coaching staff evaluates the performance of players on each and every play. Coaches also grade themselves on play selection and other decisions, such as challenges, clock management and fourth down decisions. The Redskins staff should take a hard look at the final decision of Sunday’s game to attempt a 62-yard field goal rather than try to convert a 4th and 16.

First, let’s take a look at the field goal option. Attempts from 62 yards are rare and hard to quantify, but there have been 26 attempts from 61-63 yards since 2000, four of which were made, for a 15% success rate. That’s likely the top end of the estimate because one of those successes was at high altitude in Denver, where the thin air adds several yards  to every kick. And although kicker Billy Cundiff has a very strong leg, he is not Sebastian Janikowski.

Had Cundiff made the kick, it wouldn’t have assured overtime. The Rams would have had about 1:10 to assemble a field goal drive of their own, far from impossible in today’s league. Based on win rates from the past decade of actual games, the Redskins could expect to win 46% of the time had their kick been good. Overall, that means the decision to kick gave the Redskins a (.46 * .15 = ) 7% chance of winning.

The other choice would have meant that the Redskins would need to gain at least 16 yards on a single play. Fourth and 16 situations like that are rare. In most circumstances, conversions are successful 18% of the time. Offenses face a similar task on third and 16 too—they’re both make-or-break situations. Third down attempts are converted 17% of the time, slightly less than fourth downs. This makes sense, considering some third down and very long plays are designed to improve field position rather than convert. To be conservative, let’s settle on 17% as the chance of conversion.

A success here means several things. The Redskins would have plenty of time to continue driving for a game-winning touchdown. Failing that, a field goal attempt would be much more manageable. And lastly, it would deprive the Rams of the time they would need to respond in regulation. Overall, had the Redskins converted on the play, they would have had the upper hand. Based on recent history, teams win about 57% of the time when they are down by 3 with a first down at their opponent’s 28. Had head coach Mike Shanahan chosen to go for the first down, the gamble would have been worth a (.17 * .57 = ) 10% chance of winning.

That might not sound like much, and in absolute terms it’s fairly dire. But it’s nearly half again better than the most optimistic field goal scenario. Josh Morgan’s penalty was obviously the cause of the Redskins’ predicament, but the fact is it happened. All Shanahan could do was make the best decision given the situation presented to him.

There isn’t the luxury of time and a computer full of stats on the sideline during a game, so it’s hard to fault the Redskins’ coaches. The value of analyses like this one is not to prove there is always a right or wrong answer, but to recalibrate a coach’s intuition so that he’s armed with the best information next time.

Brian Burke is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a Web site about football, statistics and game theory.

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