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:
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