Note: Each Wednesday, we take a look at a critical coaching decision from the prior week’s game that had an impact on the final score—from a statistical point.
There are decisions in an NFL game that are obviously huge. Whether to go for it on 4th-and-short is a good example.
Other decisions seem rather banal; in the end, however, they are just as meaningful.
The Broncos—and coach Josh McDaniels—faced such a decision last week against the Jets. Leading the game 17-10, and with 0:36 left in the 3rd-quarter, the Broncos were fortunate to recover a fumble by Santonio Holmes at their own 19-yard line. It was a momentum killer for the Jets; another opportunity for the Broncos to take control of the game.
On the first play of their subsequent drive, RB Knowshon Moreno was stuffed for a 1-yard gain at the line of scrimmage on a slow-footed cutback attempt.
On their second play, the Broncos ran a great play-action pass, but Kyle Orton held onto the ball way too long and took an 8-yard sack. He should have known better than this.
Now the Broncos were up against it. With exactly 14:00 remaining in the game, they faced a 3rd-and-17 from their own 12-yard line.
To most fans, the next call probably seemed rather trivial, but I ask you to stop reading for a moment (Raiders fans, just try and read) and consider what the next call should have been.
Philosophically, you’re likely going in one of two directions:
1) Pass the ball and get as many yards as possible to help the punter.
2) A draw play to try and fool the defense.
Most folks know, I’m not a huge fan of the 2nd option. I think it rarely fools the speed-merchant defenses in the NFL today. But, if you’d like to argue that it would fool the defense enough to get 8-10 yards and help Britton Colquitt, I think it’s reasonable.
Personally, with the league’s top-ranked passing offense (we’ve been told), I’m for the first option. Attack. Maybe you only pick up 12 or 13 yards, but you’ve helped to maintain balance in the field-position war.
What did the Broncos do? They showed a 113 personnel package (a 1-back set with 3 wide receivers), with Orton under center. The Jets countered with nickel coverage and soft zone, deep-4 coverage.
Orton wasn’t in shotgun. There was no draw play. No attempt at fooling the defense. The Broncos simply had Orton hand the ball off. A few seconds later, Correll Buckhalter struggled to get two yards on a running play. Dan Dierdorf—not exactly a bastion of intellectualism—immediately noted that before the game Josh McDaniels said the Jets usually out-gain their opponent by 100 yards per game in field position.
Book ‘em, Danno. McDaniels, guilty as charged.
In my post-game Gut Reactions I criticized the call. I’m even more certain now that it was bad. There are several reasons. To illustrate them, we’ll use some Expected Points (EP) analysis.
I get a lot of questions regarding Expected Points values, so a brief review is in order. Every down-and-distance on the field has an expected points value, which has been calculated through the analysis of thousands and thousands of previous plays in the NFL. Wayne Winston and Jeff Sagarin (yes, that guy) have done a study that shows these values. So has Brian Burke, at Advanced NFL Stats, one of the best websites you’ll ever find.
The EP value is that value, on average, of the next team’s score. Let’s run through an easy-to-understand example. If I have a 1st-and-goal at my opponent’s 1-yard line, according to Burke, the EP value of such a down-and-distance is 5.96 points. What this literally means is that, on average, the next team to score will be the offense; further, on average, that score will be worth 5.96 points. It’s as easy and simple as that.
Now that you are a whiz on EP values, let’s return to the McDaniels call. The EP value of facing a 3rd-and-17 at his own 12-yard line was about -1.76. That means that on average, the Jets were likely to score next. Nothing you can do about that, right? Just run the ball and hope Colquitt jumps into a phone booth and comes out Ray Guy.
In these kinds of situations, in which a team is backed up against its own end zone, you often see coaches play conservatively and call runs. What they are really telling you with these calls is that they are afraid of their quarterback throwing an interception. But in reality, the EP values they are facing are always negative, anyway. In short, being conservative (over the long-term) is not likely to prevent the other team from scoring—it’s only going to delay that score.
The better move in these situations is to go against the grain and become even more aggressive. Pass the ball. Throw deep if you see man coverage. But don’t become conservative. Even if McDaniels didn’t get the first down, he still would have been gaining EP through aggression. For example, let’s say that he only managed 14 yards on the next passing play. It would have been 4th-and-3 at the 26-yard line. It would have added another 14 yards to Colquitt’s 39-yard punt. Instead, the conservative call only added 2 yards—hardly a swing in EP.
That potential 14 yards makes a huge difference. The Jets got the ball at their own 47-yard line. The EP value to the Broncos at the time was -1.87 for the Broncos. Another 14 yards on the punt, and the Jets take over at their own 33-yard line. The EP value to the Broncos of this? -1.05. That’s a pretty significant decrease in EP.
The reality of what happened is that the Broncos gave the Jets awesome field position. The Jets got a three-and-out. But they punted and pinned the Broncos back further. The Broncos responded with their own three-and-out. The Jets then got the ball in good field position once again. That’s when they drove down and scored a touchdown.
There were a lot of plays the Broncos could have made between McDaniels’ call and the Jets’ tying touchdown. But, unfortunately, the EP gods do not reward conservative play calling. The EP values were bound to get them in the end. And they did.
An aggressive call on what seemed like a throwaway down-and-distance was a big deal. It could have made a difference. Josh McDaniels knew it. He even told Dan Dierdof as much.
One can only speculate, but perhaps McDaniels thought the run would fool the Jets much worse than it did; he thought he’d give Colquitt more room. I’ll grant this possibility. But if so, the personnel package was an odd way of doing it. Orton under center can only mean two things. He’s either going to play action (useless on 3rd-and-17) or he’s going to hand it off.
Of course, all of this analysis is a perfect 20/20 in the rear view mirror. However, I bet if McDaniels had this down back again (regardless of the result), he would have been much more aggressive.
That’s okay. It’s why we have Raiders week. Most of the time, the Raiders commit a stupid penalty on plays like this.
So you always get a do-over.
If you like to see The Dude slack off 24/7, you can always find him on Facebook and Twitter. Or you can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He assumes you are following It’s All Over, Fat Man! on Facebook and Twitter, but if you are not, that’s nihilistic.