Happy Monday, friends. Yesterday’s game got me thinking about coach’s challenges, and I wanted to share those thoughts with all of you. I’m a big fan of the new rule that mandates that all turnovers be automatically reviewed, in addition to all scoring plays. Those are the high-leverage events which tend to swing football games, and I applaud the NFL’s commitment to get them correct, to the extent that their scab officials are capable of doing so.
The rule change necessitates a re-thinking of challenge strategy, though, because in the past, coaches would save their challenges for scoring plays and turnovers. Since those plays aren’t challengeable any more, they’re going to be looking at lower-leverage plays. That will lead a smart coach to figure out what kind of play is even worth risking a timeout for. I came up with a few that I think are worth it, and a few that aren’t.
Down by contact on a possible lost fumble: If the call on the field is a turnover, the play is automatically reviewed. If the call on a fumble is that the runner was down by contact, the coach may still challenge the play. The key is that the coach of the defensive team would only want to do so if the ball was clearly recovered by his team.
A good example of this came in the first half of Sunday night’s game, when Cam Newton basically tripped on his own feet in the pocket, went to the ground, got up without being touched, and then had the ball knocked away from him. A Jets defensive lineman recovered, but the call on the field was that Newton had been down by contact. Rex Ryan successfully challenged the play, and was awarded the ball at the Panthers' 12-yard line. (Unfortunately, he coaches the Jets, and they only kick field goals.)
This situation is the best one in which to challenge, because it carries the potential for a change of possession. I suspect that NFL officials have probably been instructed to err on the side of calling a fumble on the field, but there will definitely be some times when they miss doing so.
A questionable play where the difference in outcome is a field goal attempt or punt: If it’s third and 15 from the plus-40, and a ten-yard sideline pass is (or is not) completed to set up a field goal attempt, that’s worth challenging.
A plus-territory first down in a high-leverage situation: It’s worth challenging a close first-down call when it seems to be leading your opponents to a key scoring opportunity. When I say high-leverage, that gets into a multi-variable calculation, in which the variables are primarily time left in the game, down and distance, score, and field position.
You should think of it in terms of the magnitude of the difference between the call on the field, or the potentially overturned call. Let me lay out two scenarios to demonstrate this.
Time: 8:35 to go in the 3rd quarter
Down and Distance: 1st and 10
Score/Situation: Tied at 14
Field position: Minus 35-yard line
Play Result: 12-yard completion to sideline, 1st and 10 from the minus-47
Alternative play result: Receiver didn’t get both feet down. Incomplete pass
This is a low-leverage play, because it’s only the 3rd quarter, and the difference between 1st and 10 from the minus-47 and 2nd and 10 from the minus-35 isn’t big enough to waste a second-half timeout on. The end result of the game is unlikely to swing on this play.
Time: 4:00 to go in the 4th quarter
Down and Distance: 3rd and 7
Score/Situation: Trailing by three points. Defense has all three timeouts
Field position: Minus-40-yard line
Play Result: seven-yard gain, 1st and 10 from the minus-47, with a running clock
Alternative play result: Bad spot. six-yard gain, 4th and 1 from the minus-46
This is a high-leverage play, given the time on the clock, and score. If the offense gets a first down, they’re going to be able to play four-minute offense, and burn either the clock, or all of your timeouts. Challenging this play has the added benefit of stopping the clock, regardless of the outcome, and the defense is going to start using its timeouts to preserve the clock anyway. This is a definite challenge situation.
You don’t want to challenge a random mid-game first down in most cases, but you do want to challenge plays where there is a significant possession or unfavorable clock implication. While the significance of challengeable plays has diminished, some are still much more significant than others.