You Be the Judge
Last week, after his third consecutive loss to open the 2021 campaign and boasting a measly 6-13 career record, New York Giants head coach Joe Judge was asked about his conservative actions on fourth down.
He replied, "Analytics is just a tool. You can look at a stat sheet all you want. I promise you if Excel was gonna win football games, Bill Gates would be killing it right now."
Well, he was correct in claiming that analytics is just a tool, but it is a very powerful tool that is creating a growing chasm between its enlightened advocates and its naysayers. NFL coaches can choose to shun this revolution, but they do so at their own peril. Judge's comments invited some scrutiny, and it is easy to see why. After finishing 29th among 32 NFL head coaches in the EdjSports rankings last season, he owned the fourth-highest error rate going into Week 4 of this season, with a total cost of -19.5% Game-Winning Chance (GWC). With this track record in mind, we decided to take a close look at his decisions in Sunday's contest against the Saints.
I must confess this article would have been easier to write if the Giants didn't manage to overcome a late 11-point deficit and win in overtime. However, as we often emphasize at EdjSports, good decision-making is not defined by short-term results.
|Four Key Errors|
|Fourth-and-1, Saints 16-yard line
score 0-0, 13:20 second quarter
|Field goal attempt||-2.9% GWC|
|Fourth-and-goal, 5-yard line
trailing 14-7, 8:36 third quarter
|Field goal attempt||-1.2% GWC|
|Fourth-and-2, NYG 30-yard line
trailing 14-10, 3:33 third quarter
Fourth-and-8, Saints 47-yard line
If a total of -6.8% GWC doesn't seem like much, consider that at this rate per game the Giants would squander 1.16 expected games this season. Their total cost through four weeks now stands at -26.3% GWC.
Prior to the fourth-and-1 at 13:20 of the first quarter, the Giants complicated matters by attempting a low-percentage shot at the end zone. This is a tactic that seems to be biased by the perceived guarantee of three points on a fourth-down field goal attempt. In practice, it often squanders two opportunities to convert the first down. To illustrate the fallacy of this strategy we can look at a hypothetical comparison of two-play parlays.
Strategy 1: Assume a 10% touchdown rate on the third-down pass with a fourth-down field goal attempt if necessary.
Strategy 2: Short run on third down with assumption of 70% conversion rate and only 1-yard gain. Repeat on fourth down if necessary.
Using model-generated corresponding GWCs we get:
Strategy 1: (.10 x 51.6% GWC) + (.90 x 37.7% GWC) = 39.1% GWC
Strategy 2: (.70 x 44.8% GWC) + (.30 x .70 x 44.8% GWC) + (.30 x .30 x 31.4% GWC) = 43.5% GWC
In this simplified example, the Giants would require an 18.5% touchdown rate on third down (without risk of turnover) to compensate for the field goal attempt on fourth-and-1. Of course, they do better in all scenarios by going for it on fourth-and-1.
The fourth-and-goal decision at the 5-yard line is a difficult one. The residual value of having the Saints begin their subsequent drive backed up to the goal line when the fourth down attempt fails is the key factor.
Going for it on fourth-and-2 from your own 30-yard line is counterintuitive for most coaches, and Judge likely didn't even consider the option. It is the GWC leverage of the successful conversion with respect to score and clock that tips this in favor of a more aggressive action.
Finally, the decision to punt on fourth-and-8 at midfield when trailing by 11 points is a more significant error than it might seem. The Giants only relinquished 1.3% GWC in absolute terms but it was the difference between 4.8% and 3.5% in the game. In relative terms, the Giants gave up more than 25% of their available equity.
The Giants victory was surely a temporary reprieve for Joe Judge, but it can also be a deceptive curse. By chalking up a rare win, he is not likely to reassess his short-sighted game management techniques any time soon. Poor decisions add up over time. Just check the "Stat Sheet" at the end of the season.
Buccaneers at Patriots: Should Nick Folk Have Kicked a 56-Yard Field Goal?
There has been quite a bit of discussion around Bill Belichick's decision to have Nick Folk attempt a field goal with 59 seconds remaining on a wet field in Foxboro at the end of New England's game against Tampa Bay on Sunday night. A custom EdjSports simulation came down in favor of going for the first down attempt by +10.1% GWC. But because of the unique circumstances it is helpful to look at some assumptions. There are several key considerations:
- Folk's success rate from 56 yards.
- Tom Brady's ability to orchestrate a game-winning drive with about 54 seconds and two timeouts.
- The Patriots' ability to convert a fourth-and-3 at the Bucs' 37-yard line.
- How much Folk's field goal success rate improves if the Patriots can convert the fourth-and-3.
It should also be noted the Patriots would have very likely been able to attempt a game-winning field goal with no time remaining on the clock if they convert the fourth-and-3. Similarly, if Folk's kick had been good, the Bucs should have been able to use all remaining time if Brady could successfully get into field goal range.
The formula that must hold true to justify the Patriots' going for it on fourth-and-3 is as follows:
((Success rate fourth-and-3) x (improved field goal success rate)) > ((55-yard field goal success rate) x (1 - Brady game-winning drive success rate))
Dividing both sides by field goal success rate we get:
((Success rate fourth-and-3) x (1+ relative field goal improvement)) > (1 - Brady game-winning drive success rate)
The weather is certainly a dampening factor on all assumptions (field goal success, fourth down-conversion, and Brady's game-winning drive). In a similar situation in Week 1 against Dallas, betting markets, EdjSports, and other analysts had Brady's chances of a successful drive with 1:24 and no timeouts around 56%. While the two timeouts for Tampa Bay create some equivalence, we should certainly discount for the rain. Since Folk will most likely be required to kick the field goal under all circumstances, it is the relative improvement of success rate based on field position that matters. The fourth-and-3 attempt is probably the least affected by the weather.
To get some perspective, a 50% conversion rate and a 1.4x improvement on the field goal success rate make Brady's required game-winning drive rate just 30% to justify the Patriots' going for it on fourth-and-3. We can't be sure of the exact assumptions, of course, but this benchmark seems to suggest Belichick erred in this situation.