A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
07 Oct 2005
There are a lot of little topics clamoring around in my hard drive this week. I figured I'd clean them out while I'm getting my winter clothes out of the closet and finding excuses to not put in my storm windows.
The Bengals faced a third-and-goal from the Texans 40-yard line last week, the result of a delay of game penalty, a stuffed running play, and a 24-yard intentional grounding foul. Carson Palmer wisely completed a short pass to improve the Bengals' field goal position, but Shayne Graham missed the kick wide right.
It turns out that third-and-40 was the most futile down-and-distance situation any team in the NFL has faced in the last four years.
The second-worst down-and-distance situation in recent history also occurred this season. The Bears were driving in the third quarter against the Redskins in Week 1. On first-and-10 at the Redskins 34-yard line, Thomas Jones lost three yards. The Bears were then flagged with three straight false start penalties. Kyle Orton was sacked on second-and-28. That brought on third-and-38, not an ideal situation for a rookie quarterback making his first start. The Bears punted two plays later.
The Bears faced the worst third-and-long of the 2004 season when they played the Cowboys in Week 12. They were driving late in the half. On first-and-10 on the Cowboys 41, Jonathan Quinn dropped back to pass and was sacked by two Cowboys. He fumbled, and the ball rolled all the way back to the Bears 38 before Bears guard Marc Colombo pounced on the ball. Colombo celebrated his fumble recovery with a false start penalty. Quinn attempted a pass on second-and-36, but the Bears blinked on third-and-36, handing the ball to Thomas Jones and then punting.
The 2001 Saints were the last team to face a predicament more dire than third-and-40. In the fourth quarter of a Week 12 game against the Panthers, Aaron Brooks drove the Saints to the Panthers 43-yard line. Brooks then did what he does best: he fumbled on first-and-10, and by the time the ball stopped bouncing, the Saints faced second-and-41 from their own 26. An incomplete pass brought third-and-41. Brooks' pass was intercepted by Jimmy Hitchcock, whose long return set up a game-tying score for the Panthers. The Saints won 27-23, in what can safely be called a â€œwild finish.â€?
The Browns faced a third-and-34 last year; five teams had to deal with third-and-33 in 2004. The Vikings have had to cope with third-and-31 this season. Third-and-twenty-something situations aren't that unusual; they happen to most teams once or twice per year. The third-and-thirties are far more rare. Many teams surrender, executing draw plays on these impossible downs, but most teams pass, hoping for a miracle or (more likely) a holding penalty that yields an automatic first down.
Call Mulder and Scully. Convene the Warren Commission. The NFL is covering up the Steelers-Patriots clock malfunction, the one that added 52 seconds to the game clock two weeks ago.
Okay, that's not true. The league was forthright about the mistake, issuing a detailed explanation of what occurred. And Steelers coach Bill Cowher said the incident was a dead issue, despite the fact that the Patriots used the magic minute to drive for a game-winning field goal. Cowher was so oblivious to the error that he changed his timeout strategy late in the game: when the Patriots were driving with over three â€œadjustedâ€? minutes on the clock, Cowher decided to save timeouts that he might have used if there was less time left in the game.
But the gamebook, the official press release that contains starting lineups, stats, and a detailed play-by-play of the game, sweeps the fourth quarter temporal anomaly under the rug.
Here's the gamebook account of the plays in question. With 14:51 to play, Pittsburgh's Cedric Wilson was stopped for no gain on a reverse. After a false start penalty (listed at 14:51 in the official record), Ben Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass to Wilson; the clock read 14:37 at the snap. At 14:29, the Steelers punted.
Contrast that with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's account of the game. The reverse to Wilson occurred at 14:51. The Steelers huddled. Roethlisberger stood under center at 14:09. He took the snap at 14:01. Then came the false start penalty.
As the referees announced the penalty, there was 13:59 on the clock. But by the start of the next play, the clock read 14:51. Somehow, no one noticed. Referee Bill Carollo whistled for the clock to start, and the next play started at 14:37.
Everything lines up, but the mystery minute vanishes in the official account. It's as if the Wilson reverse, a long play that ended with a tackle in-bounds, took zero seconds, with the penalty occurring simultaneously with the play. It makes no sense.
It's a minor issue, to be sure. But the gamebook becomes the primary source of game information for researchers like me and my fellow Football Outsiders. A simple note about the clock malfunction would explain why the times at the start of the fourth quarter don't quite line up, and it would be better than just shoehorning events into an incorrect chronology.
Inventing a number just to make things line up is wrong; 85.75% of fans would certainly agree.
The Steelers clock error was reminiscent of one of the most amazing finishes in college football history: the infamous â€œfifth downâ€? play in the 1990 meeting between Missouri and Colorado.
The Buffs trailed 31-27 at Missouri but were driving late in the game. On first-and-goal at the Missouri three-yard line, Colorado QB Charles Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock with 31 seconds left. On second-and-goal, Eric Bienemy rushed to the one-yard line; the Buffs called timeout with 18 seconds left. Bienemy was stopped on third down.
The officials stopped the clock briefly, claiming that Missouri players were stalling by not lining up quickly. Once the clock was restarted, Johnson spiked the ball again. Wait a minute â€¦ that was fourth down! But someone lost count and forgot to change the Dial-a-Down. So Johnson plunged into the line on fifth down to score the game-winning touchdown.
Missouri fans rushed the field, thinking their team had won. An official signaled a touchdown. All heck broke loose. Missouri tried to challenge the ruling, but the NCAA, a governing body that has rules about how many bacon bits a player is allowed to take from a hotel salad bar, had no mechanism for overturning the result. Colorado won, and a few weeks later, they had a share of the national title.
Times had changed since 1940, when Cornell traveled to Dartmouth boasting an 18-game winning streak. Dartmouth led 3-0 late in the game on a Bob Krieger field goal (Do it, Bobby, do it!) when Cornell drove down to the five-yard line. Referee Red Friesell lost track of the downs at that point, and the Big Red scored on what turned out to be fifth down.
But the Cornell coaches spotted the mistake two days later when reviewing game films. The coaches allowed the players to vote on what to do next. They gallantly forfeited the game, congratulating Dartmouth of their victory by telegram. The official records state that the Cornell winning streak was snapped by a 3-0 loss to Dartmouth. You can look it up.
That's the way they do business in the Ivy League. Or so I'm told. I went to a Big Five school; we probably would have burned the game film.
The Colorado-Missouri gaffe may have been the worst officiating error in history; after all, it affected the national championship race. But in 1996, a fifth down error marred the Texas high school six-on-six football state championship game.
Gordon High School beat Whitharral 51-50 in the title game that year, but they needed an extra down to win. With a minute to play, Gordon QB Jim Kostiha threw a 36-yard touchdown pass, but officials determined that he stepped over the line before passing. The penalty for an illegal forward pass is supposed to be five yards and the loss of a down, but the officials only assessed the yardage. Two plays later, on what should have been fifth-and-7. Kostiha hit Jason Sizemore for the touchdown that counted.
The Lubbock Avalanche Journal reported that the game officials weren't aware of the exact call on the penalty. They were probably confused by all of six-man football's unique penalties, like â€œseven men on the field.â€?
I wrote about the Texans offense last week. I probably should have said something about their defense, which ranks dead last in the league in our advanced DVOA metric (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, as shown here).
The Texans are assembling some wacky defensive statistics in the early part of the season. Their defensive line has zero sacks and just two tackles for a loss. Their secondary has two sacks and three other tackles for a loss, but no interceptions and just three passes defensed.
The Texans execute a 3-4 defense, and 3-4 teams often get little statistical production from their linemen. The Steelers, for example, use an almost identical defensive scheme and have no sacks by linemen this season. But Steelers linebackers have nine sacks and three other tackles for a loss, while their secondary has picked off three passes, broken up five others, and recorded five sacks, several of them against the Texans.
The Texans are the only team in the NFL without a takeaway. They have more sacks (four) than the Browns (three), but Houston's sacks have yielded just 10 yards. Opponents average 8.4 yards per pass attempt against them, the third-worst total in the league.
So naturally, the offensive coordinator got fired. Only in the NFL.
Seattle is considered one of the most liberal cities in America, but the city council voted recently to enact some of the toughest rules in the nation regulating gentlemen's clubs.
Seattle strip joints will no longer have private rooms. Lighting must be kept above the brightness level of a typical parking garage (I forget my college physics light intensity units ... how many "dingy basements" in one "parking garage"?). And dancers will be required to maintain a four-foot distance from patrons while on the job, making the lap dance a thing of the fondly-remembered past.
Exotic dancers in the Northwest are preparing for a new reality: a work environment in which contact will be strictly forbidden, leaving them to go through the motions and shuffle around ineffectually.
But there's no truth to the rumor that they are preparing for the new laws by watching film of the Seahawks secondary against the Redskins.
44 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2005, 11:39pm by Det. John Kimble