Scenario 1: Your team is up 28-23, though the other team has moved the ball quite efficiently all game. There is 10:56 left in the fourth quarter, and you have fourth and goal from the one yard line. A field goal puts you up by eight points; a touchdown probably ices the game. (“Checkmate,” as Urban Meyer would say.) What do you do?
Scenario 2: Your team is up 21-17. The other team has the ball on roughly your two-yard line. Thirty-six seconds remain; they have just run the ball on second down so the clock is moving. They have no timeouts, but you have all three of yours. The other team has just quickly driven the field to get into this position. Question: do you call timeout to preserve some time for yourself in the chance that they score a touchdown on third or fourth down? Or do you leave the pressure on them to execute on those two downs over thirty-six seconds. What do you do?
Analysis (and identities of the coaches) after the jump.
Scenario 1 – What actually happened: Mike Leach, with his team leading 28-23, called a quarterback sneak on fourth and one that was stopped. His team eventually lost to Houston, 29-28, in the waning seconds. Unsurprisingly, he has taken a lot of heat for not kicking the field goal. Indeed, it looks like he has even recanted, saying, “If I put the field goal team out there, at that point in the game that’s the better thing to do,” Leach said. “And I didn’t do it.” But should he feel bad?
I’m not so sure. I will say this for certain: if it is the first half, I think we can all absolutely agree that he going for it was the right call. Fourth and one is quite literally almost always worth it from just about anywhere on the field, and especially so on the goal line. The analysis goes something like this, though see the link above for more: Afield goal attempt has an expected value of about 2.5 points (the chance of making it multiplied by three). The value of “going for it” is a bit murkier, but from that part of the field the chance is worth about four points, give or take some of the yardage values. You arrive at this number by taking the chance of success times six, plus the subsequent chance at a good PAT times one, plus factoring in the opponent’s horrible field position if you fail. These numbers are fairly quantifiable, and even if they aren’t to an exact degree we know that four, the expected value of going for it, is higher than two-and-a-half. (Again, people often treat field goals as if they were automatic.)
The question is whether things change that late in the game, in the fourth quarter. Going back to Urban Meyer, I think that depends on the flow of the game and the type of opponent. And the biggest criterion is whether you think there will be more scoring. My sense is that Leach’s impulse was that eight points was probably not enough to straight win the game at that point (Houston wound up with over 600 yards of offense), though, with perfect knowledge in hindsight, it turns out that it would have been. But these decisions are made ex ante, and it still strikes me as the right one.
Now a lot of people who are understandably upset, maybe Leach himself, say, “Well, even if I agree with the call to go for it the playcall was bad.” There might be something to this but it strikes me generally as a copout way to say “I just disagree because it didn’t work.” Now the QB sneak itself was pretty ugly, so maybe it could have been practiced better, but it’s not like the team doesn’t work on the sneak or that isn’t the most direct way to convert those plays.
In any event, I’m curious if there are any comments on the call to go for it. I am looking for real analysis though, not just monday morning quarterbacking. I am legitimately interested in the best way to view these decisions as time begins to get more scarce late in games. I think the data supports the idea that the fourth and one on the one is quite literally always the right call in the first half.
Scenario 2 – What actually happened. Danny Hope, Purdue’s first year coach, called a timeout with 36 seconds left. It turns out, however, that Notre Dame’s head coach, Charlie Weis, had signaled in the “spike play” to be run on third down. As a result, because we know what Weis’s decision was going to be, the result of Hope’s timeout was to give Notre Dame two chances to score — one on third down and another on fourth — rather than one (a spike on third down and just a fourth down play). Many people excoriated Hope, including the announcers, and well, me, via twitter. But now I’m not so sure I was right. Several people pointed to my own article, which makes clear that Notre Dame had no need to spike the ball on third down — thirty-six seconds is plenty of time to run two plays. And here’s Hope’s defense of his call in his own words:
“I want to retract my statement from last night. Last night, I wasn’t sure it was the right call, but now that I look (back) at it, I’m sure it was the right call, in spite of what a lot of the experts and the critics think.
“You know, it was second-and-goal and they ran it. I was on the headset with Coach (Gary) Nord and any time you get down there, on first- or second-and-goal inside the 5-yard line, the probability of getting a touchdown is pretty good. … I don’t know what the statistics would say, but it’s very significant, the chances that when you get down there, you’re going to score.
“If that was going to be the case, we needed to get in a position to get a field goal to go into overtime or a touchdown to win. We couldn’t do that if there wasn’t any time left on the clock. I was on the headset with Coach Nord and said that if they threw a pass, one of two things would happen, that they might get a touchdown or they might throw an incompletion that would stop the clock. But if they ran the ball and it’s not a touchdown, the clock’s going to keep running, and I don’t want to run out of time.
So I got the official’s attention (and said) that if they ran the ball and it wasn’t a touchdown, that I wanted to call a timeout as soon as I could to save as much time as I could on the clock. I don’t have any reservation about that at all.”
I think this is quite persuasive. Now, again, with hindsight, the only scenario that would make the timeout a bad idea actually was the one happening: that Charlie Weis would make the amateurish call to waste third down by unnecessarily spiking the ball on third-and-goal with over 30 seconds left, which was plenty of time to run two plays. But how could Hope know that? I suppose you could say you could wait to see if your opponent was going to do something so lucky for you, but that might waste precious seconds.
And it offends my sense of order to say that Hope erred by not presuming that his adversary would do something so suboptimal, even if [insert Charlie Weis joke]. Unfortunately for Hope, he saved Weis from himself, but otherwise he left Purdue in a better position than it would be otherwise: ND still had two chances to score, and Purdue still had more time than it would have had otherwise to put together a drive. Although it didn’t work out for Purdue, that Charlie Weis after all these years doesn’t know his clock management well enough to see what a huge waste of a down spiking the ball would have been with that much time is his problem, not Hope’s. They just need to play better defense in that situation (i.e. not giving 25 yard cushions on third and 18 to give up the 20 yard comeback….).
But, as with the Mike Leach scenario, comments and criticisms necessary. And, for this second one, apologies to Coach Hope as I initially thought it was the wrong call. I retract.