by Matt Meiselman
Matt has been helped me crunch some numbers this off-season. He is graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in broadcast journalism. He's originally from New Jersey, but loves New York sports. Matt aspires to work in sports media and has a passion for sports statistics.
We're trying hard not to be broken records on 4th down decisions, but this one is special. -BB
Jason Garrett is not typically regarded as a savvy 4th down decision maker, and his clock management skills aren’t the greatest either. Garrett consistently makes blunders in way too many of his strategic decisions. But even after all the mistakes he’s made as the Cowboys head coach, he somehow found a way to top every one of them with a single mistake in Week 2 against the Chiefs.
With 3:50 to play in the 4th quarter, Dallas trailed Kansas City 17-13. It was the Cowboys’ ball, but they faced a 4th and 10 from the Chiefs 35. They held all three of their timeouts and undoubtedly still had a decent opportunity to come away with a win. Garrett had a decision to make: should he go for it? Punt? Or a kick a field goal?
Based on the 4th down calculator, the Cowboys chose the worst of the three options, and it wasn’t even close.
Based on this chart, Dallas had a 25% chance of winning if they tried to convert the 4th down, a 36% chance of winning if they punted, and an 18% chance of winning by attempting a field goal. The punt may seem like the best choice, and it most likely is, but a case can be made for going for the first down because succeeding would have raised the Cowboys’ win probability all the way up to 49%. It’s nearly impossible to make a case for the field goal attempt, however. Dan Bailey did in fact convert the 53-yarder, raising his team’s win probability to 24%. But as you can see on the chart, that’s still lower than a punt by a significant margin.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that scoring 3 points when trailing by 4 late in a game is not ideal, but it may not be entirely clear why the punt is so much better. If Dallas had punted, they likely would have pinned the Chiefs inside their own 15-yard line. Teams playing closer to their own goal line tend to play more conservative, and the Cowboys would have gotten the ball back with better field position after a stop. There’s also the fact that teams needing a touchdown are better at moving the ball down the field than teams needing a field goal, because coaches get way too conservative in the latter situation and hurt their team’s efficiency.
After the Cowboys converted their semi-meaningless field goal, the Chiefs got the ball back with a 17-16 lead. They then picked up a couple first downs before punting it back to Dallas with just 16 seconds left. Tony Romo completed a pass to Demarco Murray on the next play and time expired with the Cowboys never really having a chance to win the game.
The numbers guys that constantly complain about decision-making in the NFL are usually pleading for coaches to be more aggressive. This was one of the rare situations where it would have been much better to be more conservative.