Should the Falcons Have Punted?

Down 17 to 14 with 2:52 left to play, the Falcons faced a 4th and 6 from their own 43-yard line. With two timeouts and the two-minute warning in their pocket, they chose to punt, hoping to make a stop and get the ball back with enough time to tie or win in a final drive. Did head coach Mike Smith make the right call?

A punt in this situation typically nets 37 yards, which would give the Saints a first down at their own 20. This would give the Falcons a 0.15 Win Probability (WP).

Fourth-and-6 attempts outside the red zone are successful about 44% of the time. A success gives the Falcons a first down at (at least) their 49-yard line, worth 0.37 WP. A failure giving the Saints the ball at Atlanta's 43 would mean a 0.12 WP for the Falcons. All would not be lost. A stop or even allowing a FG still gives the Falcons time for a TD drive, which when all four downs are available are successful more often than many realize.

In total, the fourth down conversion attempt would be worth:

0.44 * 0.37 + (1 - 0.44) * 0.12 = 0.23 WP

The conversion attempt would have been the percentage play, by a margin of 0.23 to 0.15. In fact, in terms of WP, it's more than half-again better than punting. One way to think of it is that the Falcons' decision to punt lopped between a third and a half off of their chance of winning.

I think game-specific considerations would tend to favor going for the conversion and keeping the ball out of the Drew Brees' hands. Normally offenses ahead in that situation are very reluctant to do anything but run straight ahead, making them predictable and easy to stop. But the Saints trust Brees to make completions. In any case, neither team was playing far from league-average Monday night, with a total of 31 points on the board.

Ultimately, the Falcons allowed two first downs and never got the ball back, falling 17-14.

  • Spread The Love
  • Digg This Post
  • Tweet This Post
  • Stumble This Post
  • Submit This Post To Delicious
  • Submit This Post To Reddit
  • Submit This Post To Mixx

22 Responses to “Should the Falcons Have Punted?”

  1. kingkhan says:

    Amazing how NFL coaches are just giving away these games, and barely taken to task on it. Most of the analysts/announcers agree with the decision!

  2. Wheell says:

    In general going for it in situations where 1 first down beats you seems wise.

  3. Brad Warbiany says:

    As soon as I saw this play, I thought to myself "I wonder what Brian Burke's take on this will be." Which, in itself, is scary. But you didn't disappoint.

    Being an apostle of Breesus (I'm a Boilermaker and have watched him do amazing things late in the game), and given your earlier post showing Matt Ryan as the most statistically "clutch" player of 2010, I think the intuitive smart move is to let Ryan have the ball and keep it away from Drew. Glad to see that WPA analysis backs that up.

  4. Wez says:

    Where does the ole 60 yard FG attempt lie?

  5. Anonymous says:

    They should have gone for it, in that case they would have their fate in their own hands.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I watched the game with a friend from NO. He was nervous, i was very optimistic. My pre game tipp was 27-20 for NO, because i tought ATL will not be lucky again.

    I was right: Smith punted on a obvious "go for it" situation, no "clutch" again by Ryan, and the Saints got the right bounce to recover the fumble in the last drive.

    But i was wrong too: NO outgained ATL by 153 yards(!), yet the final margin is only 3 points. Why? Well, a team must be very lucky when it catches 2 DL-Ints, because the great QB decided to have mental mistakes at the worst time, and when they are penalized only once and the opponent 8 times (including a nullified TD).

    Conclusion: Atlantas streak of luck is still going on, but they were so bad, that not even luck got them a win. There is hope that CAR repeats the miracle of 1980 (Lake Placid), and this bad ATL-Team don´t get the home field advantage.

    They are the worst good team (:-)) since 1960: No team ever had a record of .750* or better in the NFL/AFL and was outgained in Y/PP by more than 0,3. Actually there were only 8 (of 217 !!) teams with a negativ Y/PP difference.

    (* Including SB-Teams which didn´t had a .750 record or better. I included those teams, because the champion belongs to a list of best teams in a season)

    So either Smith found the formula of winning with little talent or he got the luckiest team in 50 years. It tend to the 2nd conclusion.

    P.S.: Brian, your model is (almost) perfect. It just came at the wrong time, when the biggest outlier (ATL of 2010) spoiled it.

    Greetings from Karl, Germany

  7. slushhead says:

    I would agree to some extent that Atlanta got "lucky" to have Brees make those bad decisions which resulted in interceptions. At the same time, few would consider the Saints "unlucky" to have that happen. In fact, Brees was quite lucky to only have two turnovers - his lateral to avoid a sack was a terrible decision which the announcers inexplicably were in love with.

    We consider a team lucky when the other team makes mistakes, but do not consider a team unlucky if they make the mistakes. As such, a team which minimizes its errors will often be viewed as lucky. I consider a team which minimizes its own mistakes to be good.

  8. slushhead says:

    Also, Wez - you mean the ole 74 yard field goal attempt? Now THAT would be ballsy...

  9. Anonymous says:

    I consider ATL as the most lucky team in 50 years because they win without effiecient passing. Neither on offense, nor on defense. I also could consider Atlantas opponents are unlucky, the way they found ways to loose to them.

    If ATL goes to the SB, they would be only the 6th team since 1960* to reach the final (either SB, NFL-CG or AFL-CG) with a negativ Y/PP differential. All users of this site know that effiecient passing is (normally) the reason for winning.

    * the others were CLE 1964,
    NE 1996,
    BAL 2000,
    NE 2001 (the luckiest team so far),
    NYG 2007 (the worst SB-Team so far).

    Karl.

  10. Tarr says:

    Brian, at this point, you should just have a script file where you can plug in the names of the teams, time on the clock, and field position, and it automatically produces this post for you. You could just fill in the title and the last paragraph, and post it.

    I kid, but one wonders how long it will take before we stop seeing this sort of idiocy every other week.

    There was an argument during the Indy/Oakland game in the booth as to whether the Raiders were correct in deciding to go for it, down 12 with 6+ minutes left, from the 37 on 4th and 2. Of course, all you really need to know is that it was 4th and 2.

  11. Brian Burke says:

    Very funny! I've actually thought of that. Actually, there was a company that contacted me last year who had an idea of creating scripts to write entire sports articles automatically.

    Part of the weekly parsing script looks at every 4th down and calculates the delta between going for it and punting. I can just sort every 4th down by the delta and come up with a list of the most boneheaded decisions of the game/week/year.

    However, I can usually fine tune the numbers better manually, especially for end-game situations where the WP model's extrapolation algorithms are a little rough.

  12. Ian Simcox says:

    I like the sound of that script Brian - will we be seeing a "Most Preposterous Punt of the Season" Award after week 17 then?

  13. Anonymous says:

    ...and the announcers moronically intone "the Falcons are forced to punt". They're not forced to do anything - they are electing, of their own volition, to concede the fourth down play and give the ball back to the opposition.

  14. Martin says:

    Brian, how big bins are the WPA model working with? Is there a "bin" for every down, distance, yard-line and second? That would of course make it quite accurate, but also very "nosiy"

  15. Chase says:

    I approve and second the request for a Most Preposterous Punt of the Year award!

  16. Brian Burke says:

    I don't think I did one last season, but here is the worst 4th down call of 2008.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Have you thought about tracking 4th down calls by coaches cumulatively over the course of a season? For example the above would score -0.08, in other words, that coaching decision cost his team 0.08WP's. Just a thought.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Anon, I believe Zeus does a coaching WP based ranking like you describe.

  19. Anonymous says:

    "neither team was playing far from league-average Monday night"

    Brian, do you really think that mattered at all? That makes it sound like you believe in the hot hand!

  20. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the reference to Zeus...I could only find actual numbers for 2007, is there anything more recent that I missed?

    It looks like what they're doing is pretty comprehensive and perhaps time-consuming. I would suggest cutting it down to 4th down calls would be much simpler and virtually as useful

  21. Chuck Winkler says:

    I would think a coaching WP calculation based on these types of decisions would be useful. There probably too many good decisions made throughout a game to take everything into account but a negative culmination, like you do with the O-line, could be a good thing.

  22. Anonymous says:

    We know that punting surrenders 3% - 8% of WP in this situation. (See The Best Gift of All.) It would be interesting to see how much WP field position gains.

Leave a Reply