Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

30 Oct 2013

Dumb and Dumber, NFL Edition

Brian Burke makes an interesting point in this piece for Slate: Would Dallas have been better off punting from the Detroit 26 last weekend just because Detroit would have tried to play for a tying field goal?

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 30 Oct 2013

27 comments, Last at 01 Nov 2013, 2:31am by MC2


by Lance :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 3:48pm

I read this earlier and have been thinking about it. Here's a question I haven't really heard addressed well, but that perhaps would have helped in the above discussion: how much to punters practice with accuracy? Like, how likely is it that a punter can stand at, say, the 32 yard line and hit a directional punt that goes out of bounds at the 10? Or the 5?

What about punting from the opponent's 45? How many times have we seen those turn into a touchback-- effectively a 15 yard punt?

by Theo :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 6:52pm

25 yards as a touchback goes to the 20 and 45 - 20 = 25

by Olbermann For President (not verified) :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 3:49pm

A punt looks very difficult as the punt would easily end up in the end zone. Dallas was better off going for it on 4th and 5.

by DEW (not verified) :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 4:11pm

I concur--that kind of punt would require some measure of skill by the punter to avoid keeping it out of the end zone, and the possibility of getting an extra 20-ish yards of field position is not more useful than the possibility of converting on the play and clinching the win. The point that the Lions would likely play for the FG (barring Calvin Johnson hauling in a pass and just breaking it completely) is well-taken, though. On the other hand, Dallas could as easily lose as win if Detroit did get a field goal, and getting the FG is simply easier than getting the TD; the reason the comeback was so amazing is because of how unlikely it was.

All in all, 4th-and-5 on the opponent's 26, I'd probably say that going for it was the best opportunity. Is there a football equivalent of Win Probability Added?

by DEW (not verified) :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 4:12pm

...Burke answered that last question in the article's text. Apparently, I fail at reading.

by c0rrections (not verified) :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 5:45pm

I too think going for it would have been the right choice. Tough to fault Garrett for not making it but I think it makes it easier to defend when a team is trying to get into field goal range than it does when a team is trying to go for the win (specifically when said team has Calvin Johnson against other teams it makes more sense to take the points).

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 3:49pm

Part of his theory is that the punt would likely back the Lions up to around the 10 yard line. Is intentionally punting ~20 yard easy? I feel like that is the easiest part to screw up in this theory, actually pinning the other team deep.

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 4:30pm

I figure the punter can just turn towards the sideline and do a normal punt. Since he's not really trying to get any distance, I wouldn't think it would be that hard to get it somewhere between the 10 yard line and the end zone.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 5:53pm

In that situation, just have Romo punt

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 6:19pm

I doubt Romo has a pooch kick that would reliably roll dead in 15-20 yards, or that he's ever practiced angling a punt out of bounds on a short field like that.

For an exercise like this that essentially demands perfection, I'd want the guy doing it who punts for a living.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 10:35am

Can you imagine the crazy Cowboy fans if Romo had punted and they hadn't pinned them at the half yard line? No doubt some of them are already convinced Romo's somehow to blame for Stafford scoring on the sneak.

And no statistical probabilities could save Jason Garrett if things hadn't worked out. He'd be unemployed today. The Cowboys are the least likely franchise to ever try something unconventional because being wrong even one time would cost everybody their jobs.

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 6:01pm

I've seen punters messing around and hitting targets from long range, so they're very good. Not sure if they ever practice shorter ranges, though.

I like tuluse's idea of just having them punt normally turned facing out-of-bounds. Only question I'd have there is if spotting punts is reviewable. Most of the time, the officials are pinpointing the spot in cases where the ball is on its downward trajectory and landing reasonably close to the field of play. In a case like this the kick could be 30 yards up in the air when it crossed over and it'd land someplace up in the stands. I'd think that would increase the chances of it being spotted wrong and being called a touchback.

by Zach (not verified) :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 5:48pm

I too thought it was strange that Burke took it for granted that the punt would definitely pin the Lions inside the 10.

I tend to be of the mindset that going for it is the right call. You have the chance to gain five yards and win the game, and while the extra yards of field position that Detroit would gain if they stopped the try (and the punt were a good one) matter, I'm not sure that it would make as much difference as it seems. As Burke noted, coaches tend to get insanely conservative when within field goal range, even if said kick is a 50-yarder. As a result, while failing on a 4th down might have made it slightly more likely that Detroit would get a field goal attempt, I'm not sure it would make it more likely that they'd be 15 yards further down the field.

by The Powers That Be :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 6:36pm

On punting: My impression of Chris Jones is that he's (a) not a particularly good punter, and (b) really not good at pinning opponents deep with any accuracy. It's not clear to me at all that he was likely to successfully stick that punt inside the 10.

On the FG: Dan Bailey has been pretty automatic (34-35 inside 50 and 11-11 from 40-49 the last 2 years), plus they were in a dome.

On going for it: the Cowboys were 3-13 on 3rd down in the game, only converting from 1, 3 and 5 yards. They'd failed four times on 3rd-and-5-or-6. Romo's completion percentage on the day was under 50%. The Lions' DL was destroying the Cowboys OL. Brian Waters was out of the game. I don't accept that there was anything close to a 50% probability of converting there.

I don't doubt the math on average, but IMHO, all the specific details about this game and matchup work against those averages and in favor of the FG on that play.

by CBPodge :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 6:46pm

You know what would have been a better strategy? Not holding on 3rd down. Also, covering the long pass down the sidelines. It's not like Garrett's decision was the thing that lost the Cowboys the game.

Punting 20 yards: it seems difficult, especially considering that there's absolutely no incentive for the Lions to put a returner back, or give a care to gunners, so it will likely be an all-out block attempt, which means the Lions would have at least, probably 2 guys (because it's tough for the snapper to block anyone) completely unblocked.

Actually, I would have loved to see the Cowboys play the wily numbers game, and have it backfire with a blocked punt.

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/30/2013 - 7:24pm

I think if the cowboys had lined up for a punt, the Lions would have thought they were crazy and lined up to play defense because they would be sure a trick play is coming.

by CBPodge :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 5:52am

That also would have been great. So in summary, there was no downside for the neutral to the Cowboys punting in that situation. It would either have been interesting, hilarious, or bizarre.

by Peregrine :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 9:09am

Interesting endgame situation. I was wondering whether the 3rd down play call was wrong too. The penalty - which Detroit was able to decline because the 9-yard run didn't result in a first down - was the killer. The Cowboys had 3rd and 14 at the 35, 1:14 on the clock, leading by 3 points, and the Lions with no timeouts.

The priority for the Cowboys in this situation must be to make sure the clock keeps running, right? So why not call a QB kneeldown? I can't really blame Garrett for calling a run play, because maybe he believes his blockers aren't so stupid to hold in that situation. (And this should be a coaching point, for sure.) But if he calls the kneeldown, the Cowboys face 4th and 15 from the 36 with 25-30 seconds on the clock. From there, you punt rather than risk the long FG attempt. Even with a touchback, the Lions would need to go 40 yards in 21 seconds (Burke's number) just for a 57-yard FG attempt. But if they were able to get into Hail Mary range, with Stafford's arm and Megatron at the other end, uh oh.

by Paul R :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 11:28am

Oh my God. If they need a guy who can only kick the ball 10 yards, that's my specialty!
All these years of being an NFL fan, I never dreamed that a team might need someone with my particular skill set: "Short-Range Kicker." This could be a dream come true...


"Looks like the Cowboys need a very short kick here, Chris. Only eight or nine yards."
"That's right, Al. They're sending out their short-range specialist. This will be a tough one."
"Yes. He's got the wind at his back and it's gusting up to 25 miles per hour. Gutsy call by coach Garrett."
"Well, you know this kicker is probably the weakest man in the league, and he's been consistently frail all season. Coach Garrett has confidence in his weakness."
"He'll need all of that weakness and more in this situation...Okay there's the snap. Good snap, and the kick..."
"Oh my!"
"A beautiful kick! End-over-end. Bounces at the two...out of bounds at the one-foot line! Listen to that crowd roar!"
"In all my years I have never seen a kick as weak as that. It couldn't have gone more that three yards in the air. Just amazing! Look at the replay here. See the ball wobble? That's his trademark."
"And it looks like he's shaken up on the play. Still down and...clutching his foot I think."
"Trying to see on the replay...nobody makes contact with him...There it is. When he kicks, the ball hits his shin bone."
"Yes, I see...Ouch. He's definitely going to have a bruise there. Let's hope it's nothing worse."
"Very painful. This could be a big loss for the Cowboys down the road."
"They're bringing the cart out now. Just a safety precaution, I'm sure."
"He's waving to the crowd. Always like to see that. And what a round of applause he's getting!"
"Yes, indeed. And we'll pause here and be back after these messages."

by ChrisS (not verified) :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 12:53pm

Well done, I laughed.

by chemdrj (not verified) :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 2:51pm

My dream of being a short inaccurate passing specialist lives

by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 3:55pm


The man with no sig

by Theo :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 4:19pm

Hahaha. So realistic.

by Jerry :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 6:52pm

Nicely done. Are you the ANTI-ROBO-PUNTER?

by jebmak :: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 11:42pm

Dang Paul, you're on a roll.

by tuluse :: Fri, 11/01/2013 - 2:10am

Very good.

by MC2 :: Fri, 11/01/2013 - 2:31am

That was great. It reminded me of some of the comments people used to post mocking the "Three Stooges" broadcast team, back when the Sunday night game was on ESPN.