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11 Nov 2005

Too Deep Zone: Goal-Line Gambles

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.

The Plunge

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.

A Different Approach

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.

The Goal is to Go

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.

Not So Simple

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.

Gut Checks

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.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 11 Nov 2005

37 comments, Last at 17 Nov 2005, 2:07pm by Nelphonious of Pennefielde


by DavidH (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 12:02pm

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.

Yes, but the problem is that there are going to be some opponents that are also very good, whom you can't overwhelm. I think it's in these instances that the play-it-safe decisions at the one-yard line really matter. Which is why Marty's knock is not that he can't put together winning seasons (by dominating lesser opponents) but that he can't win big games (because he makes the wrong decisions at these crucial times in close games).

Now, I'm not sure if I actually agree with this characterization, but it is what I think is the main criticism of him.

by DavidH (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 12:07pm

Oh, and I really enjoyed the article. Especially since I'm a Chiefs fan living in New York. Which means 2 things:

A) I actually care a lot about the coaches and teams you're writing about, and
B) I got to see the Chargers-Jets game, yell at Marty to go for it, watch them almost collapse, then smile as the local station switched over to the end of the KC-Oakland game, letting me watch the LJ plunge.

I suppose I should have been rooting for Marty to make the wrong call, since SD losses are good for KC, but I just wanted to see smart football at that point.

Oh, plus I took SD -6.5. :) Aargh.

Anyway, again, really enjoyed the article.

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 12:27pm

That was an 18-yard FG, right? If it were a 28-yard FG, the line of scrimmage would have been the 11, which would mean fourth-and-goal would be anything but a sure thing ...

by Mike Tanier :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 12:30pm

Yep, Lions fan, an 18-yarder. And I teach math for a living ...

by Tim (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 12:43pm

Their fourth-quarter woes stem from turnovers (an interception against the Cowboys, a fumble against the Eagles)

Wasn't the 4th quarter turnover against the Eagles Trotter's interception after Simoneau hit Brees as he threw?

by Michael David Smith :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 12:44pm

"So Mister Play it Safe doesn’t make a habit of leaving points on the board."

Mister Play it Safe also was afraid to fly, but after he packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye to take a flight for which he had waited his whole damn life, when the plane crashed down he thought, Well, isn't this nice. Isn't it ironic?

I think this is one of those areas of strategy where the statistical researchers are ahead of the coaches, and the coaches are ahead of the announcers. I hear the TV announcers discuss decisions like this all the time, and I don't think I've ever heard one make the point that Belichick makes, which is that even if you don't convert a fourth down deep in the opposing territory, you're still winning the field position battle, which wouldn't be the case if you try the field goal.

by MJK (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:03pm

Great article.

Michael, that's a good point about field position. But one thing that most statistical researchers don't take into account is that the importance of field position depends quite a bit on the strength of the opposing offense and on your defense. For two defensive teams in a low scoring game, I would go for the TD every time facing 4th and goal at the 1, because I don't think their offense is going to be able to get out of the shadow of their goal line if I fail. But in a case like the KC-Indy playoff game a couple of years ago, where both offenses were marching up and down the field at will, I would probably take the field goal, since the ~30 yards of field position aren't as important in that game, but an extra score might be crucial.

Ironically, the conditions imply the opposite when deciding to go for 4th and short near midfield--in a low scoring defensive struggle, I would be more inclined to punt, but in a high scoring shootout I would be more inclined to go for it, since (in the words of TMQ), it would probably take just three snaps or so for the other team to make up the yards I would gain by punting.

by BlueStarDude - When I feel heavy metal (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:14pm

MDS: In the Cowboys-Eagles game earlier this season, I'm pretty sure Troy Aikman brought up the piont about field position when Parcells chose to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1. And as it turned out, the Boys didn't make it (Jules lost a yard), but the Eagles went 3-and-out and Bledsoe & Co. took over at Philly's 38 yardline. The route ensued.

by BlueStarDude - When I feel heavy metal (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:16pm

ugh, s/b "rout"

by James Gibson (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:17pm

The field position thing seems obvious to me, but I think MDS is right about the announcers. I was watching the Dallas - Philadelphia game earlier this year and Dallas went for it on 4th and goal and failed. Joe Buck railed them for it, but then the Eagles went nowhere and Dallas scored a TD on the next drive when they didn't have far to go. Yet, later, Buck is talking about how they gave up the 3 points when they went for it on 4th down earlier. Had they not done that, who says they would have gotten the 7 from the TD?

by James Gibson (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 1:18pm

I guess Blue Star Dude posts faster than me. Same game and same play the we were talking about.

by Falco (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 3:46pm

Lifelong Chiefs fan, so I have seen virtually every game of the Vermeil era and Schottenheimer era.

I find it amusing that Vermeil is being lauded for making the "gutsy call" on what to me was a no-brainer given the distance situation and alternative. To me, its like applauding the driver who stopped at the red light and calling him a good driver, because others may have ran it. But hey, baby steps. Maybe this will cause other coaches to do the same thing.

"Vermeil takes risks. Schottenheimer plays it safe. It’s an oversimplification, but not a gross one."

Based on watching the Chiefs, I would disagree with that statement as to Vermeil. That's why this call was so exciting, it was both the proper call and was the aggressive play. I like Vermeil overall as a coach. As you say, ebullient, he is a motivator, and players generally like to play for him. He is also a good manager and allows the assistants to have room to operate.

However, if there were one area he has been consistently below average, it is clock management and in game strategy decisions. One of the unmentioned things that was big at the end of the KC-OAK game was that the Chiefs actually had a timeout left to call when LJ was tackled at the 1/2 yard line with about 10 seconds. Without it, game over. This was unusual, as the Chiefs seem to me to waste timeouts more often than not (See SD game, below).

The actual decision to go for it was a no-brainer. Ball was actually inside the 1, as Johnson almost scored on the previous reception and run. I dont have stats, but I am going to guess that the Chiefs have been pretty good over the last several years in power runs. I think the odds of scoring on that play were about 80% if not higher from that distance, as Waters, Wiegmann, and Shields were playing, and Roaf's absence was less important on that play. So, 80% chance of victory, versus a 50/50 coin flip. Gee, where can I sign up. In a hypothetical world, if all 16 games came down to that same scenario, I'd take the chances every time and go about 12-4 or 13-3.

Faced with more of a "gutsy" call in 2002, Vermeil went conservative. At NE, neither team could stop the other. Chiefs scored to make it 37-38 at the end of the game. An extra point sends it to overtime. A 2 pt conversion attempt wins or loses it there, with your best unit (by far) on the field. Given how the offense was playing that day, and how poor the KC defense was (is? has been?) I think the call was to go for two and not kick the XP. KC kicked the XP, NE won the toss, offense never saw the ball.

Last year, in Denver, trailing by a score, and with the defense having been shredded by Quentin Griffin, Chiefs punted ball to Denver from Denver's side of the field in a very manageable 4th down situation, with (from memory) about 10 minutes. Touchback, Denver went on to go on an 8 minute drive to seal the victory.

Last year in Jacksonville, 4th and 1 from about the 30, inside 2 minute warning, Chiefs up by 1 or 2 at the time. Aggressive call is to win the game with your best unit, your offense, by converting first down, and not putting the game on your Defense's shoulders. Chiefs kick (and miss) field goal, Jacksonville marches and scores to win.

Against Colts in playoffs, Chiefs never once "surprise" onside kicked to a) get ball back without Colts having possession, or b) shorten field so Manning could not eat as much clock on each drive. They had plenty of opportunities, with 6 kickoffs total. It was painfully obvious to any neutral observer (or KC fan) that the Chiefs D was incapable of stopping Manning. Of course, the Colts did not stop the Chiefs either, after one early stop on a missed FG. A surprise onside kick (or more than one) to try to get back "on serve" would have been gutsy but justified in that game. In fact, I cannot recall a time the Chiefs have surprise onside kicked in the Vermeil era, but maybe someone else can think of one. A powerful offense and a swiss cheese defense is when you should be more likely to risk the surprise onside kick.

The Vermeil/Schottenheimer comparison/contrast is particularly interesting given that they just played the week before. Game situation, Chiefs down 21-10 with about 12 minutes left, 4th and goal from the 2. Aggressive play, and I think proper call, is to go for it given the time and score. This is because there is no guarantee you will get this close to a touchdown opportunity at the end of the game, while getting to within a 50 yard field goal is more manageable late. KC kicked FG. Not only that, though, they called timeout with play clock running down and because of confusion on what to do. They called timeout to kick a 19 yard FG!

Later, after SD scored again, KC scored right before the 2 minute warning, onside kicked (no timeouts remaining), and SD punted it into endzone for touchback at 0:22 left. With that same timeout, could have got the ball back with about 1:00 left, and at least had a chance to get to midfield and try a pass to end zone. Hardly the agressive call to both call timeout and kick FG from 2. This may have been in Vermeil's mind when making this week's call.

As for Schottenheimer's call, I think that is a debatable, could go either way kind of call, considering the situation. Those are the uncertain calls coaches get paid the big bucks to make. While I agree with comments on field position being a factor, it is less so in this fourth quarter situation than it would be in the early third quarter. Time remaining and # of scores needed are bigger factors by this time. While a failed rush on 4th and 1 leaves the length of the field, it also leaves the NYJ within 1 fluke play (see Philadelphia blocked field goal) of scoring and being able to tie. The FG puts a Jets team with a backup QB needing 2 scores to win it in the 4th. I can understand that call given the situation. Of course, if I had the best RB in football, that sort of tips the scales in my mind.

I dont think these two are all that dissimiliar. I bet if you checked Vermeil's record in close games, it is actually under .500. I would not confuse explosive offense and top offensive line with aggressive coaching decision making in game (see, also, Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren at end of Washington game).

However, it is sweet that he made the right call against the Raiders. Let's hope it is a sign of things to come. Go Chiefs.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 4:13pm

My impression is that the really great coaches are more prepared to take risks. I know these are isolated examples, but anyway:

Lombardi, often thought of as a conservative coach because he favored pounding the ball, was also known to throw deep in third-and-short situations, and is responsible for a famous gamble when he elected to go with the QB sneak against Dallas late in the Ice Bowl instead of tieing the game with the FG.

In the Giants first Superbowl win against Denver Bill Parcells kickstarted the Giants win in the second half by going for it on 4th and 1. The play game on the first drive of the third quarter, with NY trailing 10-9 and on their own 40 yard line.

And, more recently, Belichick went for it on 4th and 1 on his own 40 on the opening drive of the championship game against the Colts in the 2003 season. The successful attempt kept alive a TD drive, the only TD the Patriots scored in the game.

I admit, isolated examples, but it does seem to me that to go all the way and be a champion the coach has got to be prepared to take the non-conventional option occasionally.

by MJK (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 4:43pm


The converse of that is that a successful coach is more emboldened to make gutsy calls BECAUSE he is successful. If a coach has led a team to two 11+ loss seasons and knows his job is in jeapordy, and finds himself in a risky situation, he's probably not going to call a play that, if it doesn't work, brings the blame back to him. On the other hand, a coach that has won 3 of the last 4 superbowls and has the owner's guarantee that he can do whatever he wants with the team is more likely to take a risk to maximize his chances of winning, even if he looks bad if it doesn't work out (see the Pat's onside kick versus Indy this past week).

Ironically, since we all pretty much seem to agree that statistically, your odds of winning are better taking the high risk alternative, this implies that owners that place too much pressure on their coaches to try to win are actually making the coach, and their team, less likely to win.

by Michael David Smith :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 5:01pm

I think the TV announcers have really shaped the public's perception of this call because they were so wrong about it. They seemed to think that there were two choices: Kick the field goal or throw a quick pass so the clock stops and you can kick the field goal on the next play. It was painfully obvious to me and just about everyone I've talked to that they were going to give it to Johnson up the middle, but the announcers didn't think of it. And because of that, people think of Vermeil's decision as somehow going against the grain when it wasn't.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 6:22pm

As an AFC West fan, I think it's funny that everyone is still harping on Marty Schottenheimer for being so conservative. In Kansas City, sure, he was conservative, but have these guys even WATCHED a San Diego game? You know how everyone keeps going on about how Tomlinson is about to tie the record for TD passes by an RB? Do they think he calls those plays himself? Did Brees earn Comeback Player of the Year last season for being a Trent Dilfer type QB?

I'd say that Vermeil is no more aggressive than Schottenheimer at this stage of their careers. I think the only coach in the West who actually IS more aggressive/gutsy than the average coach is Mike Shanahan.

In fact, most of the time when I hear coaches getting praised for gutsy calls, I feel like they're just getting a pat on the head for making the EASY call. Like when Tice went for two with the vikings a couple of years back. They were guaranteed a losing season. They had nothing to lose. Might as well roll the dice and go for two.

A great illustration is the Florida/Vanderbuilt game last week. Vandy manages to drive down the field and score a TD to pull the score within one with less than a minute remaining. This is Vanderbuilt, against the University of Florida. Vandy hasn't beaten UF in about 100 years. They're outmatched, outclassed. The ONLY decision that makes any sense is going for two to win outright (until, that is, a celebration penalty pushed them back 15 yards).

The only coaches in the NFL that I've seen make TRULY gutsy calls are Shanahan (opted to kick it away after winning the toss in OT), Morninwheg (same deal. Didn't work, but gutsy call), Bellichick (intentional safety, and the early onsides against Indy), and Reid (who used to onside kick the opening kickoff once a year). Oh, and Spurrier, throwing deep on fourth and semi-long on his side of the field while trailing by a score. I can't recall seeing a single other coach take a calculated risk when it wasn't staring him in the face that it was the right decision.

by Ray (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 6:47pm

From an article on philly.com (linked):

"Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil has been roundly praised for his gutsy decision to go for it from the 1 with 5 seconds left Sunday against the Raiders rather than kick a gimme field goal and send the game into overtime. He acutally was the only one on the sideline who didn't want to go for it. He was inclined to kick the field goal before offensive coordinator Al Saunders talked him into going for the game-winning touchdown."


by rk (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 7:03pm

Re: 16
Bill Cowher called for a sneak onside kick in the 3rd quarter in Super Bowl 30.

by Cowboy fan since 1966 (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 8:40pm

Andy Reid tried an onside kick to open the game against the Cowboys in consecutive years. The second time, Dallas returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown to set the NFL record for the quickest score in a game; they were licking their chops waiting for it, and Andy obliged them! Sometimes you can get too cute and end up just out-thinking yourself...

by BlueStarDude (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 11:35pm

But I don't think it was two years in a row - it was more like 3 or 4 years apart. And the big difference was that Parcells, that master of preparation, was now head coach (as opposed to, I believe it was, Dave Campo)

by Matt (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 12:01am

Re 19 - They actually came four seasons apart - The first was in 2000, the first kickoff of the year, in what is known as the 'Pickle Juice' game. The second came in 2003, and you may be confusing 'licking their chops waiting for it' with 'kick went nine yards and landed right in the hands of the one Cowboy on that side of the field'. Eagles had the numbers on that play, but the kick was poor.

by B (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 12:04am

There was a few years in a row where the Eagles tried a surise onsides kick in the opening kickoff of thier season. I think the streak ended with that 2003 game where the Cowboys returned it for a TD.

by Meat Lockyard (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 4:08am

Gary Wiegmann? Don't you mean Casey?

by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 5:00am

Although it pains me to agree with a Broncos fan, Kibbles is actually right. This year's Chargers have actually been pretty bad at doing what are supposed to be the tenets of Martyball.

No turnovers? I'm not sure about their overall differential, but it seems like many of the games were either lost due to turnovers or made far more interesting because of them. However, when NFL teams are as competitive as they are these days, you can probably say that quite a large percentage of games are determined by turnovers.

How about limiting penalties? The Chargers defense has shown a knack for costly third down penalties this year.

How about winning the field position battle? Nate Kaeding's kickoffs have been short this year (again), and the coverage units have not been exemplary. In the Jets game, Justin Miller seemed on the verge of breaking almost every kickoff for a touchdown.

How about running the ball to grind the clock out? This is where the Chargers are at their absolute WORST. It's either the one deficient aspect of LT's game, or it's a function of the offensive line. Anyway, the Chargers have been horrible at actually getting a first down when trying to grind the clock out with running plays. Some teams have the ability to run even if the defense anticipates it, but not the Chargers.

The Jets game actually illustrated most of these deficiencies. The Chargers offense was tough to spot, and the Chargers defense actually did a fairly decent job, but the Jets won out when it came to penalties, special teams (field position on kickoffs mostly), and turnovers. Amazingly, 2 turnovers and bunch of ill-timed penalties was enough t o keep them in the game.

by substantial (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 5:37am

I just wanted to say 'thank you' for a marvelous article. The "gutsy call" nonsense reduces a game not merely to play-calling, but to one call only. And perhaps a truly gutsy call can do that.

Then again, there are all those other elements that go into making a competitive football team. Coaching isn't just play-calling; it's player management, team management, clock management, assistant coach management, keeping-the-owner-happy management, etc. Amazing that any coach has anything left when game time comes to be able to actually focus on what happens on the field.

Honestly, I'm shocked that there are coaches in the NFL that are having such hard luck. Why is Dom Capers having so much trouble in Houston? His Carolina team that went to the NFC playoffs in its second year of existence (I think. I'm getting old, so I might have forgotten) was very good, and more importantly, fun to watch.

by Israel (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 4:21pm

I seem to recall that in 2002 KC scored a last second touchdown against the Patriots to pull within one point. Although they had been running all over the Patriots all day, KC kicked the extra point and lost in overtime rather than taking a better than average chance for two points and an outright win.

by tim (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 8:28pm

just a general question about goaline situations.

is a counter or trap running call more or less effective than a straight ahead power run? specifically on 3rd or 4th down?

by michael (not verified) :: Sun, 11/13/2005 - 12:03am

Re #17

NFL Network featured Chiefs/Raiders on Game of the Week. Camera is on Vermeil as Johnson is tackled at the 1. Vermeil says, "We got one play. We got one timeout. No, we got no timeouts. Let's go for the score. Let's go for it right here."

I don't think Saunders had jack to do with the decision.

by Flagstaff (not verified) :: Sun, 11/13/2005 - 2:00am

One proposition of the article:
"Vermeil takes risks." Not necessarily or very often. He said after the game that if it had been outside the ONE-YARD-LINE he would've kicked the FG. As stated in #12 above, it was a gutsy call primarily because it went AGAINST Vermeil's usual MO.

Also, Falco in #12 mentions the 2002 New England game. Vermeil said after the Oakland game that he was well aware of what happened in '02, and he didn't want to make the same mistake. He said he considered that (a) the Chiefs' offense was at its peak, (b) the Chiefs' defense hadn't stopped Oakland on the last two drives and wasn't likely to stop them before SeaBass could kick a field goal (if Oakland won the toss), and (c) he thought his chance of getting the TD now was better than his chance (50/50) of winning in OT.

This implies that Vermeil was at least aware of a fact that has been left unstated above--going for it was not the "gutsy" play, but it was the higher percentage play. But contrary to what Kibbles implies in #16, it just wasn't the EASY call; that is, it wasn't the call that would be least likely to leave the coach open to criticism.

Finally, that brings me to comment #14 from MJK, with which I mostly agree. Vermeil sort of falls into the category of a coach with the employment situation that allows him to not make the 'easy' call. But to say,
"Ironically, since we all pretty much seem to agree that statistically, your odds of winning are better taking the high risk alternative," is sort of oxymoronic. If the odds of winning are better, that makes it the LOWer-risk alternative. It's only higher-risk if you consider avoiding criticism more important than winning--as some coaches no doubt do. I'm sorry this is one long run-on paragraph. I don't know how to make it create new paragraphs.

by Flagstaff (not verified) :: Sun, 11/13/2005 - 2:02am

Ignore my last two sentences...It was just that way in the preview.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/14/2005 - 3:54am

Do we now talk about how gutsy John Gruden is for playing for the win, despite the fact that he initially kicked the extra point and played for the tie?

by Andrew (not verified) :: Mon, 11/14/2005 - 1:18pm

Since surprise Eagles onsides kicks are being discussed, they did one last year to open the second half against Carolina, there is the infamous Pickle Juice game in 2000 and the not so famous loss to Quincy Carter in 2003. They also successfully onsides kicked the opening kickoff at KC in 2001.

They've also done regular onsides kicks, like in 2000 against Pittsburgh.

by Falco (not verified) :: Mon, 11/14/2005 - 5:39pm

Re: 31. I think Gruden should be commended more for quick thinking and adaptability to the game situation. From the 2, the conversion rate on 2-point attempts is somewhere below 50% but greater than 40%. The Skins had already taken a delay of game penalty that was to be enforced on the kickoff. After the half the distance penalty, from the 2 to the 1, the percentages go up dramatically, and above 50% for short yardage situations of 1 yard. He immediately sent the offense on the field after the penalty.

I think this was a strong correct choice after the penalty. The difference--the game was not over regardless of the result, and the alternative outcomes were relatively better going for it. TB's chances of winning if they kicked the extra point were somewhat less than 50%, because the chance of WAS scoring a FG in the last minute with 2 timeouts is greater than TB's chance of scoring after a defensive turnover in the last minute. On the other hand, a failed attempt still left an onside kick possibility 5 yards further, where if recovered, it would be near midfield needing a FG to win. And a successful attempt left the scenario that actually played out. Arguably, Gruden would have been justified in going for two to begin with, but his quick change is noteworthy, many coaches would not have changed their approach so quickly.

Re: 32 and the onside kicks. There is another factor with surprise onside kicks that may be worth something, even if the particular attempt fails. If the blockers on the other team are sprinting back to set up the wedge faster, they increase the chances of a good return. If a team has a reputation, or they fear the surprise onside kick, they will be less likely to do so, thus assisting kick coverages.

It's sort of like throwing inside in baseball. You take the risk of hitting a batter and putting him on base, to increase overall pitching effectiveness.

I wouldn't be surprised if Andy Reid, one of the best coaches in the league, took this into account. When better to achieve this effect than with the first kick of the year, so every other opponent sees that on game film? And if you recover to start the season, and jump all over the aging Cowboys and kickstart the beginning of a modern NFL powerhouse, so be it.

by Ashley Tate (not verified) :: Tue, 11/15/2005 - 2:32pm

Gruden Goes For Two: Foolish Folly or Genius Gamble?

(A probabilistic "analysis")

Washington's painful one-point loss to Tampa Bay yesterday was about as gut-wrenching a seesaw battle as I've seen in a while, with huge momentum-changing plays every few minutes, four critical instant-replay reviews, and one unreviewable blown call.*


by Patrick Corn (not verified) :: Wed, 11/16/2005 - 3:21pm

Here's another going-for-two situation that no one does right: Suppose Team X is down by 14 points to Team Y with 4 minutes left in the game, and scores a TD. No-brainer, right? Kick the PAT? Wrong.

Suppose there's a 40% chance of converting any 2-pointer (this is conservative, I think). Suppose there's a 100% chance of converting any PAT (this is close enough). And suppose that Team Y doesn't score and Team X scores another TD at the end of the game (might as well, since this has to happen for Team X to have any chance).

What are the possible outcomes if you go for 2 on the first TD?

Make the first one, kick the PAT on the second one and win by 1: 40%

Miss the first one, go for 2 at the end of the game and make it, for overtime: 24%

Miss the first 2-pointer, miss the second 2-pointer, lose by 2, get fired on Monday: 36%

This would seem to compare favorably with the standard option of kicking the PAT. I guess one way to look at this is that margin of victory doesn't matter, since in the last outcome you lose by two whereas in the first outcome you win by one. So the expected point differential from the going-for-two strategy is negative (as it should be whenever going for two is less than 50%), but the expected winning percentage is nevertheless better than what you get by kicking two PATs.


by B (not verified) :: Wed, 11/16/2005 - 6:45pm

The chance of winning by going for two in this situation would be:
.4 + [Chance of making first 2PC]
(1-.4)*.4*.5 [50/50 chance of winning in OT]
Comes to .52 So you're increasing your chances of winning by 2% and increasing your chance of getting fired by 36%. Not really very good odds if you want to stay a head coach for long.

by Nelphonious of Pennefielde (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 2:07pm

....add late in season extreme outdoor field conditions (esp. wind + cold )4th Q score difference,where after Td combo of 2 pt.PAT+ wind @ back or wind in face + Randle Elesque player indeed creates odds not even considered in a dome game.