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.
11 Nov 2005
by Mike Tanier
Dick Vermeil and Marty Schottenheimer have been around for decades. They've both had their share of success. Both ply their trade in the AFC West. But apart from some surface similarities, they couldn't be more different.
Vermeil is Harry High School: an intense but upbeat booster for his players. Schottenheimer is Sergeant Slaughter: a stern disciplinarian who has mellowed just a little in recent years. Vermeil is ebullient; Schottenheimer gruff. Vermeil has had higher highs and lower lows: a Super Bowl win and two NFC titles, but battles with burnout and sudden retirements. Schottenheimer's career is a steady stream of 10-6 records followed by playoff plunges.
Vermeil takes risks. Schottenheimer plays it safe. It's an oversimplification, but not a gross one.
Last week, both coaches wrestled with tough goal line decisions. Vermeil's Chiefs faced first-and-goal from the one-yard line with four seconds left, trailing by a field goal. Schottenheimer's Chargers faced fourth-and-1 from the one-yard line early in the fourth quarter with an eight-point lead. Go for it or kick? For the Chiefs, it meant the choice between overtime and a "one toss of the dice" chance at victory. For the Chargers, it meant the difference between a two-possession lead and the chance to apply the coup de' grace to a struggling opponent.
Vermeil gambled and won. Schottenheimer played it safe. He won, but barely: the 11-point lead he built almost didn't hold against the Jets. Vermeil was applauded for his decision. Schottenheimer was criticized for his.
In the ultra-competitive AFC West, Vermeil's choice may have playoff implications. Schottenheimer's conservatism, say his bashers, may keep the Chargers out of the postseason.
Days after Johnson's last-second touchdown, fans and analysts were still gushing over Vermeil's decision to go for the win rather than attempting a game-tying chip shot field goal.
"I thought it was about as gutsy a call as I have seen broadcasting the NFL, which I've done every year since 1985," said announcer Kevin Harlan. The Kansas City Star devoted a whole article to the jubilant reactions of dumbstruck fans.
It was a great call, a great play, and a great finish. Johnson's run looked like a simple dive into the line, but after about 30 replays, its beauty revealed itself.
From left to right, the Chiefs offensive line consisted of Tony Gonzalez (tight end), Jordan Black, Brian Waters, Gary Wiegmann, Will Shields, John Welbourn, and Kris Wilson (tight end). Jason Dunn lined up as an H-back one yard behind the line on the left side. The backs, Johnson and Tony Richardson, were in the I-formation.
The Raiders assigned Warren Sapp, Ted Washington, Terdell Sands, Grant Irons, Tyler Brayton and Tommy Kelly to the defensive line. Kirk Morrison and Danny Clark were the linebackers. Stuart Schweigert, Renaldo Hill, and Nnamdi Asomugha were also in the game, meaning that five Raiders defenders were on the second level, standing in the end zone.
The Raiders linebackers and safeties were shifted to the left side of the formation. That made sense: the Chiefs run to the left more often than the right (33% of runs versus 22%), and the two top receiving threats on the field (Gonzo and Dunn) were on the left. When Dunn went in motion across the formation, Asomugha shadowed him.
Dunn never made it to the opposite side of the formation; he stopped in the guard-tackle gap. At the snap, Waters and Wiegmann executed a simple trap block. Waters stepped back from his position at left guard, looped around Wiegmann, and attacked the hole between center and right guard. Waters stepped left, took on Washington, and turned him out, pushing him just wide of the play.
Shields smothered Sapp at the point of attack. Black sealed off Irons far from the hole. Welbourn and Wilson took care of their defenders. Gonzo helped Black with Irons for a moment, then just watched. Hill watched Gonzo, wary of a play action pass.
The Chiefs executed swiftly. Clark and Morrison keyed on Johnson and tried to fill the hole. Waters crushed Clark, blowing him backwards into the end zone. Dunn isolated on Morrison and flattened him. Asomugha might still have made a play, but Richardson finished him off. Schweigert was a spectator. The hole opened wide, and Johnson hit it hard, but his linemen and offensive coordinator Al Saunders made his job easy.
There wasn't much the Raiders could have done to stop the play. It's hard to imagine putting more beef than Sapp, Washington, Kelly and Sands on the line. If Charles Woodson were healthy, he would have replaced Hill and covered Gonzo, but Woodson isn't known for his tackling. When an offense executes flawlessly, it is guaranteed that yard.
Great stuff. But let's keep it in perspective. "If it would've went the other way, it could've buried him," fan Kenneth Sharrer told the Kansas City Star. Indeed, sometimes making the right call isn't enough to silence your critics.
Fans in Kansas City were quick to contrast Vermeil's style with that of Schottenheimer, who coached the team from 1989 through 1998. A trio of fans identified as Tom, Peter, and Bill stated in the Kansas City Star that their former coach would never have taken such a risk.
"Because Schottenheimer plays not to lose," Tom said.
"He would've kicked the field goal," Pete added.
"Then lost it in overtime," Bill finished.
Schottenheimer has no shortage of critics. His 5-12 record in the playoffs has left him branded: He Can't Win the Big Game. His 182 regular-season wins place him eighth on the all-time list, but his teams are remembered for The Drive, The Fumble, Nate Kaeding's missed field goal, and other postseason stumbles. When his teams lose close games, a chorus of naysayers materialize to take their shots: Marty can't win games like those. He doesn't have the killer instinct.
But last week, the critics didn't even wait for Schottenheimer to lose.
Television analyst Jim Rome, like Tom, Pete, and Bill, would argue that Schottenheimer's conservative approach hurts his teams. On the Monday edition of his television show, Rome took time out from ESPN's 24-hour Terrell Owens format to attack Schottenheimer for kicking a field goal from the one-yard line in the fourth quarter against the Jets.
To paraphrase Rome, the Chargers had their hands around the Jets' neck but refused to squeeze. Schottenheimer has become even more conservative late in his career, Rome argued, and the Chargers blew several leads this season (see the Cowboys, Eagles, Broncos and Steelers games) because their coach would not take necessary risks.
The Jets' near-comeback was offered by Rome as the latest case in point against Schottenheimer. Leading by eight points, the Chargers drove to the Jets nine-yard line with over 10 minutes to play. A run by LaDainian Tomlinson went nowhere. A pass to Lorenzo Neal gained six yards. On third-and-1, the Chargers called a trap to Neal -- Neal takes the quick handoff up the middle while Tomlinson fakes a sweep -- but the play was stopped at the goal line. Kaeding's 18-yard field goal gave the Chargers an 11-point lead, but the Jets benefited from a long kickoff return to set up a short drive on the next series. On their next posession, the Jets nearly won the game.
Did Schottenheimer play it too safe by kicking? Perhaps. But research suggests that most coaches are too conservative when faced with a tough fourth down decision.
William Krasker is a professor of economics and the mastermind behind FootballCommentary.com. His analysis frequently appears on Football Outsiders. He has been using probability theory to evaluate football strategy for several years. His research suggests that teams should go for it on fourth down far more often than they currently do.
Krasker's research shows that when a team is at its opponent's 40-yard line late in the second half of a game and the score is tied, it should try to earn a first down on fourth down if it has a 42 percent chance of success. When trailing by a field goal with three minutes to play, it should go for it, even if its chance of success is just 13 percent. Up by eight with 12 minutes to play (as the Chargers were), a team with a 56 percent chance of success should try to convert from the 40-yard line.
Krasker has performed his calculations for hundreds of score, time, and field position situations. When inside the five-yard line the best bet is very often to attempt to score a touchdown.
Dr. David Romer, a professor at Cal-Berkely, would agree with Krasker; Krasker comments at length on Romer's work on his website. Romer published a paper in 2001 that stated that teams should go for it on fourth down in just about any short yardage situation. Krasker critiques and extends Romer's comments, but their conclusions are largely similar.
NFL teams don't ignore this kind of research. When then-Giants head coach Jim Fassel saw Romer's calculations in 2001, he turned the paper sideways and upside down in a charming attempt to appear anti-intellectual, then dismissed the research with a "what does this professor coach?" remark. But successful coaches like Bill Belichick took a longer look. "I think, basically, he was saying that if you get down there and don't score, you're putting the other team 80, 90 yards away from the goal line anyway, and the chances of them scoring aren't very good," Belichick said. "You'll probably get the ball back in good field position. And the percentages added up to his conclusion, which was to go for it."
The key to the decision is Krasker's percentages, which are essentially incalculable with any precision. Who says whether a team's chances to convert on fourth down are 60 percent, or 70 percent, or 80 percent? But in some circumstances, the bold call is surely the right call: like when you have the best running back in the NFL on your team, and when the other team is starting a novice quarterback unlikely to execute a 99-yard drive if your goal-line plunge fails.
Maybe Schottenheimer should take some cues from his fellow elder-statesman in Kansas City.
Schottenheimer may not have been playing the percentages perfectly when he sent Kaeding onto the field to kick an 18-yard field goal. But closer examination of the Chargers statistics reveals a surprise: they are the best red zone team in the NFL. Football Outsiders ranks them first in the league with a Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) of 74.3 percent. So Mister Play it Safe doesn't make a habit of leaving points on the board.
The Chargers have reached the red zone 33 times. They have scored 23 touchdowns and eight field goals. When they are inside the 20-yard line, they aren't afraid to throw the ball, as evidenced by the ten touchdown passes that Drew Brees has thrown inside the red zone.
In fact, the Chargers' late lapses against teams like the Cowboys and Steelers can't be blamed on arch-conservatism. The Chargers drove for two fourth-quarter scores against the Steelers. They reached the seven-yard line in their final drive against Dallas. Their fourth-quarter woes stem from turnovers (an interception against the Cowboys, a fumble against the Eagles), special teams mistakes (the blocked field goal in Philly, long kickoff returns by the Steelers and Jets) and other factors, including a vicious schedule.
A turnover against the Jets had more impact on the Chargers' near collapse than any case of the goal-line shivers. The Chargers faced third-and-14 after a false start penalty and a pair of stuffed runs as they were trying to run out the clock. Brees dropped back to pass, was sacked, fumbled, and the Jets recovered in Chargers territory. The "safe" call would have been a draw play, then a punt. Schottenheimer (coordinator Cam Cameron, actually) gambled for a first down and it backfired.
Chances are, even if Brees completed a 20-yard pass and the Chargers ran out the clock, critics like Rome still would have taken pot shots at Schottenheimer. There's air time to fill.
Goal-line decisions, whether on fourth down or in the final seconds, represent the ultimate gut-checks for head coaches. Everyone in the stands says "go for it". The players say "go for it". Even probability theory says "go for it." But more often than not, the kicker trots onto the field.
Schottenheimer and Vermeil faced two different decisions last week. Faced with a chance for three easy points against a bad opponent, Vermeil almost certainly would have sent Lawrence Tynes onto the field. Given the chance win rather than tying the game with four seconds left, Schottenheimer may well have ... no, he would have kicked a field goal no matter what.
There are no easy answers, but second guessing is always easy. Analysts like Rome can make a hero out of Vermeil and a goat out of Schottenheimer, but there's a deeper truth that you'll never hear on a radio or television talk show. The secret to success in coaching isn't making the right decisions at the one-yard line. The secret is to make your team so good that they can consistently reach the one-yard line, and so good on defense that opponents rarely reach the one-yard line. Reach the red zone ten times per game, and you can afford to be conservative on occasion. Overwhelm your opponent in the first half, and no one will nitpick your calls in the second half.
It's a secret that Vermeil and Schottenheimer know well, which is why they win so many games.
37 comments, Last at 17 Nov 2005, 2:07pm by Nelphonious of Pennefielde