Fourth-and-dumb? The numbers say Mike Smith got it right

Who knew that Mr. Smith majored in higher math? (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Who knew that Mr. Smith majored in higher math? (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

I’m not the world’s biggest numbers guy, but I do enjoy it when I find numbers that buttress my inexact gut feeling. These numbers come courtesy of Brian Burke, whose fairly fascinating data-powered site is Advanced NFL Stats. And Mr. Burke’s numbers tell us:

The odds actually favored going for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime.

Mr. Burke notes that “a typical punt from the 29 nets 38 yards,” giving the Saints the ball at their 33.” That translates to a Win Probability of 58 percent, which means the Falcons’ Win Probability would, by punting, be 42 percent. And if they go for it, which is, as we know, what they did? Writes Mr. Burke:

Conversions on fourth-and-1 are typically successful 74% of the time. But this includes all fourth “and 1″ situations, everything from a yard-and-a-half to go to an inch to go. For now, let’s stipulate that it’s 74%.

The total WP for the conversion attempt is: 0.74 * 0.57 + (1 – 0.74) * 0.18 = 0.47

The go-for-it option is worth, on net, a 0.47 WP. That’s better than the 0.42 WP of the punt option, at least according to league-average percentages. I’m certain the fact that Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints’ offense is not league-average helped sway Mike Smith’s mental calculus.

To me, that last sentence is as powerful as the actual numbers. Do you trust your 23rd-in-the-league pass defense to fend off Brees and the NFL’s No. 2 passing offense one more time, or do you bank on your offense to gain six inches against a Saints’ defense that has yielded an NFL-worst 5.2 yard per carry?

Everyone agrees that the ponderous play chosen was a mighty whiff: A handoff to Michael Turner over left guard at a time when the Saints were crashing everyone into the line. Why not, we all wonder, a quarterback sneak? The ever-helpful Mr. Burke trots out numbers that indicate quarterback sneaks succeed on fourth-and-1 82 percent of the time, a far better success rate than handoffs to the running back (66 percent) or the fullback (70 percent).

His conclusion: “We can infer from this data that, whatever coaches believe about the general potential for success of the two tactics, they underestimate the QB sneak and rely too much on the RB dive.”

Mr. Smith might want to make a note of that.

By Mark Bradley

128 comments Add your comment

Pete

November 15th, 2011
9:32 am

Pete

November 15th, 2011
9:34 am

Sweet!

Mark, I agree completely. Not the best play call in the world, but still the right decision. I will say though that the Saints had an extra advantage in that they could decide to stuff the line and guess the snap count for a better push since an offside would have been worth the risk of winning the game.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
9:36 am

Kudos, Pete. And the play, which looked awful in real time, looks worse every time it’s rerun. Did somebody tie everyone’s shoelaces together?

juvenal

November 15th, 2011
9:39 am

CPJ’s fault-he gave him the idea(same result, tho’)

Najeh Davenpoop

November 15th, 2011
9:42 am

Hey, a bunch of people multiplied and divided a bunch of random numbers and came to the same conclusion as me! Therefore I’m right! Who cares if nobody knows how Win Probability is calculated? It sounds cool so it must be completely accurate!

There’s a simple reason why the call was bad in that particular situation — because if you fail, the other team is already in field goal range. It would be a very different story if they went for it on the 50, because then failing to convert would still require the other team to gain a couple of first downs before being able to kick the game winner.

teamguy

November 15th, 2011
9:49 am

I thought Inspector Gadget would have been more creative in that instance. Given the play called, the outcome was not surprising. Matt could have faked everyone out by not handing the ball off, and running a naked bootleg. Every Saints player was expecting Turner to get it.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
9:50 am

I wouldn’t have run anything but a sneak. Can’t put the ball in the air. Can’t try to run wide. Just a sneak on the first sound.

Najeh Davenpoop

November 15th, 2011
9:51 am

In other news, Matt Schaub is out for the season. One of the Falcons’ two remaining games against winning teams just got a lot easier. There’s a very real possibility they could run the table.

Coma Blood

November 15th, 2011
9:51 am

Nothing convinces that it was the wrong play at the wrong area of the field at the wrong time.

bucket

November 15th, 2011
9:53 am

This is scary, but I agree with Mr. Bradley on this one. I liked the decision to go for it, I hated the play call. In fact, there were two awful play calls in OT: The 3rd and 2 in the first series when they emptied the backfield and didn’t even make the Saints worry about a run and the 4th and inches handoff to Turner that took forever to execute. QB sneak, pitch to outside, play action pass, QB bootleg, anything but a slow developing run up the middle where 10 Saints were waiting for Turner!

Frank Lane

November 15th, 2011
9:56 am

Money Ball for football.

Big Play Ray

November 15th, 2011
9:58 am

Loved the call. Loved the faith in the guys. The team loved it. Players loved the faith in them that the coach showed. I loved it. You’re the man Mike Smith.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
9:58 am

As noted, I’m not a numbers guy. But sometimes I enjoy looking at numbers. (Which kind of makes me sound like a trainspotter, does it not?)

Jake Dawg

November 15th, 2011
9:58 am

I was glad they went for it. I was stunned when he turned around to hand it off. Not a big fan of going backwards 5 yards to go forward 5 inches. That play has to be a sneak.

Jake Dawg

November 15th, 2011
10:01 am

A person who can successfully identify obscure music a DJ plays?

Arthur Blank

November 15th, 2011
10:03 am

I want everyone to know that it was an organizational decision.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:04 am

I believe a trainspotter is a British thing — people stand in stations and make note of the numbers on the passing trains. I don’t get it, either.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:05 am

Actually, Arthur M. Blank stood foursquare behind the decision. I know this because I asked him.

The Real Falcon

November 15th, 2011
10:05 am

This is a much better source for why the play failed by Gregg Easterbrook.
It explains why the play did not work, should not have been called and why it cost us the game.

http://espn.go.com/espn/page2/story/_/id/7204143/tmq-says-offensive-creativity-trickled-short-yardage-plays

Courtesy ESPN

dmr

November 15th, 2011
10:06 am

Right call to go for it. Wrong to go straight up middle with a 3 yard deep hand off when you have a qb 6′4″ and only need 6 inches. Hopefully, it won’t cost the Falcons a playoff appearance,but they have to take care of business.

PMC

November 15th, 2011
10:07 am

No one who watched the game that is a fan of the Falcons is crushing Mike Smith for going for it. We’re all disapointed with the results.

I’m more annoyed with that horrid on side kick attempt than the 4th down in OT. I’m more annoyed with the other 5 play calls in OT than that one.

They didn’t even try to run in OT, at all until that play. Regardless, it’s over and done with, on to the Titans.

The Real Falcon

November 15th, 2011
10:07 am

Anyone who’s still glad we went for it after what happened is NOT a Falcons fan.
I don’t know what fan they are.

What else is Blank going to say? It stunk? You provide a united front outside the team.

PMC

November 15th, 2011
10:07 am

We should be focusing on what it will take to go 6-1.

The Real Falcon

November 15th, 2011
10:08 am

The first day to take care of business was last Sunday.
You deal with where you are at the time.

TomB

November 15th, 2011
10:09 am

Disagree, the numbers lie. This was a gut decision, and what made it a lousy one was field position. The head coach is there to put his team in the best position to win. You play the percentages here and punt the ball. Why? Because it puts your team in the best position to win the game. Even if the Falcons had the worst defense in the NFL, you still punt because your opponent may fumble, throw an interception,or have two penalties that back them up to the goal line. Who knows what would happen? All I know is by punting the ball, you still give your team a chance. By going for it and failing to make it, game over.

2010 BCS CHAMPS

November 15th, 2011
10:10 am

“The numbers say Mike Smith got it right”

The other numbers say differently. You know, the ones showed the Falcons losing.

The Real Falcon

November 15th, 2011
10:11 am

Lets see 6-1.
Beat NO in NO, Beat Tampa here. Beat Houston in Houston. (Now without Schab).
Take out the rest of the trash.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:11 am

Actually, PMC, a guy I know wrote about the Falcons and the playoffs just yesterday.

The Real Falcon

November 15th, 2011
10:12 am

2010 BCS CHAMPS got it right.
It’s about winning.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:13 am

I didn’t like the onside kick, either. But the Saints messed that up. Didn’t even get a field goal. The Falcons were still in position to win the game.

Najeh Davenpoop

November 15th, 2011
10:14 am

“We should be focusing on what it will take to go 6-1.”

It won’t take much. Look at the schedule. The Falcons play two winning teams for the rest of the season and one of them just lost its starting quarterback.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:14 am

Actually three winning teams. Tennessee is 5-4.

steve brown

November 15th, 2011
10:15 am

As the play was run if we fail the Saints win, if we succeed we keep a drive alive. I go for it but I go for the win. The play they least expect has, perhaps, the greatest likelihood of succeeding. Fake into the line and throw the ball. If complete odds are we get into position for a field goal and a win.

Falcons 73

November 15th, 2011
10:16 am

I’m not mad at the decision to go for it on 4th and 1, just a very poor choice in play calling. The bigger issue that I have is this…Is this team better overall at this point with all the offseason improvements, than last year’s team?

My initial thought is yes and no. The overall talent on both sides of the ball is better, but the lack of factual production is a net loss. We should be “explosive” on offense and yet we rank middle of the pack in almost every statiscal category (including points). We have pro-bowlers at QB,TE, WR, TB, TACKLE, and yet we still play like a team that has no option but to squeeze the clock and hope to keep the ball away from the opposition. Case in point that this is not going to lead to success in the playoffs, the TOP in first half favored the Falcons almost 2 to 1 and yet they trailed at halftime. We have all lamented the lack of imaginative play calling by Mularkey, but it’s his responsibility to make this team better/explosive.

The Real Falcon

November 15th, 2011
10:16 am

10-6 will not make the playoffs because of our 4 conference losses.
Chicago owns the tie-breaker and is hot.
A playoff team will come from the East and the Div champ.
Dallas is still in the mix.
Detroit is fading but still has a chance.
Tampa is in the mix and owns the tie-breaker now until the final home game.
10-6 will not do it.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:17 am

There’s a chance a pass off a fake handoff could yield a 71-yard touchdown. There’s also a chance the quarterback could get hit or the receiver could trip or the pass could hit a low-flying egret (even indoors). Just sneak.

Beauvighn

November 15th, 2011
10:17 am

Of course he was right to go for it..that is not the problem i have. The problem I have is why not QB sneak the darn thing instead of handing it 5 yds deep to gain 3 inches. The saints were firing across the line and we are trying to pull linemen for a power play. That is just stupid. The play never had a chance. Run the damn QB sneak and the ref would have given the first down on principle

JSS

November 15th, 2011
10:17 am

Schaub is out again… 3 times in 5 seasons he has not made past 11 games. Somebody went on a half-of-a-page rant on me back in the pre-season when I brought up the fact that he has never shown that he can stay on the field… Vindication is just too easy on the AJC Blogs!

Dawgdad (The Original)

November 15th, 2011
10:18 am

All I know is that Bart Starr would have faked to the FB and hit the TE over the middle for a TD. I can see Ron Kramer steam rolling toward the end zone as I type.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:18 am

I’m not going to argue with you, Falcons 73. On talent, this shouldn’t be a mediocre team.

Mark Bradley

November 15th, 2011
10:19 am

Think Lombardi would have gone for it there, Dawgdad?

DeepDiver

November 15th, 2011
10:19 am

If Roddy catches the ball in the end zone the game is won in regulation. He was all-world last year but cost this and the Tampa Bay game this year with drops of easily catchable balls.

JK

November 15th, 2011
10:20 am

MB, unadvanced, simple, stats show that the Saints kicker has not missed a FG inside 40 yards since 2007. Drew Brees had not shown that he was on fire. In fact it looked like he was ready to enter choke mode like he did in the 2nd half of the Outback Bowl when UGA performed, what was then, the Greatest Comeback in Bowl History. Kick the ball!!!!!!!!!!! Man cover and put pressure on Brees and get the ball back. Plain and simple, Smith made a terrible decision.

JSS

November 15th, 2011
10:20 am

Look, the Falcons ran two bonehead plays in a row… The swing pass to Cox was blown up… he made a great effort to get it close. He fumbled, no gain… The coach does not trust his own defense… Tragic!!!

jerry

November 15th, 2011
10:22 am

With a life time of football experience behind him, should not Mike Smith have known the odds? The bigger question is, has Smith taken the Falcons as far as he can?

Supes

November 15th, 2011
10:22 am

Mark,

you are right on with this one.

That was an absolutely the WORST call in that situation. The Saints knew what the Falcons were going to run, called a time out and got 11 in the box…11 Saints defenders were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. I get it, earlier in the game on a 4th and 1 in Saints territory we ran the EXACT same play and converted easily…but the situation in OT and the fact that the Saints had time to change up their defensively set up dictated the FALCONS offense run a different play.

I’ve seen countless times Big Ben or Brady use the following in the same situation…SPREAD the field…as in 3 or 4 WR, use a hurry up quick snap and run a QB sneak. You can’t tell me that a 6′4 QB in Matt Ryan can’t fall forward for a foot of distance in that situation…the Saints also wouldn’t have been able to put 11 in the box…and most important you are not taking the ball back 5 yards to gain “inches”.

Coach Mike Smith should be praised for going for it, but criticized for the play call selection b/c although Mularkey runs the offense, he has the ability to over ride him and say I don’t like that play, especially after the Saints called a defensive time out and set up their defense exactly for it…to stop TURNER!

JSS

November 15th, 2011
10:23 am

Mark Bradley
November 15th, 2011
10:19 am
“Think Lombardi would have gone for it there, Dawgdad?”

The Lombardi led team would have blocked the other team… There’s the difference!

Falcons 73

November 15th, 2011
10:24 am

No it shouldn’t. I’m not going to throw the entire coaching staff under the bus, but TD has provided them with the necessary tools to be successful. The Falcons have every opportunity to be a “top tier contender”, but if they don’t some changes (philosophically) we will struggle to make the playoffs.

TomB

November 15th, 2011
10:25 am

Look, it was the wrong decision. I’m willing to bet that if the Falcons made that first down, but failed on the next series,the head coach would have punted on 4th down. It was a gut decision and it was wrong.

Innocent Bystander

November 15th, 2011
10:26 am

Definitely agree with the decision to go for it. I’m glad I’m a Tech fan for this very reason… It’s stupid when a coach opts to punt on 4th and short just to play it safe, when the numbers suggest you should do otherwise. CPJ is smart enough to know his offense can pick up a couple yards most of the time.

However (and I’d still say this even if they got the 1st down), that was the “safest” play call you could’ve chosen. You can’t play it safe on the play call when you’ve elected to not play it safe by going for it. Run the ball to the perimeter. Heck, throw the ball. A complete pass probably gets you a TD and wins the game.