Risky Business
EdjSports examines critical decisions and their impact on GWC (Game-Winning Chance).
Aaron Rodgers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

The stage was perfectly set for Aaron Rodgers on Sunday in Indianapolis. Trailing by three points with just one timeout and 1:25 remaining in the game, the Packers began their final drive in regulation with their backs to the goal line. Facing a desperate 3rd and 6 from his own 6-yard line, Rodgers connected with Marquez Valdes-Scantling at midfield. After using their final timeout, the Packers now found themselves on 1st and 10 at the Colts’ 47-yard line with 1:10 of game clock. A subsequent strike to Davante Adams for another first down put the Packers in a very advantageous position at the Colts’ 33-yard line with 57 seconds remaining. This is where things get interesting.

Typically defined as a right and not necessarily an obligation, an option is a valuable resource to have when used properly. For instance, imagine you have the right to purchase Apple stock at 5% above the current price any time between now and July of 2021. This would be a valuable asset because the price could increase greatly during that time and the option could be ‘struck’ for profit. If the advantageous circumstance does not occur, then the option simply goes unexercised. As experienced financial traders know well, exercising an option too early is a suboptimal strategy as it squanders value. What does all of this have to do with an NFL game between the Packers and the Colts? Quite a bit, actually.

 

As Aaron Rodgers and the Packers were orchestrating the final minute of their game-winning drive, they were in possession of two important types of options.

  1. Although they were already within field goal range, with the ability to tie the game and send it into overtime, they were exercising their option to score a touchdown and win outright.
  2. The Packers also had the option to sacrifice a down in exchange for preserving clock by spiking the ball. This could be exercised on any down at their discretion.

 

The first option presents a pretty straightforward strategy.The Packers will use as much clock as possible to score a touchdown while retaining the option to kick a high percentage field goal if necessary. When the Packers finally arrived at 4th and 3 on the Colts’ 8-yard line, it was time to correctly exercise their right to kick the field goal.

The option to spike the ball is much more complicated. Twice during the final minute of regulation, the Packers chose to spike the ball on first down. There are two main considerations with this strategy. Not only does it stop the clock, but it also allows the Packers to be more prepared for the next play. It is difficult to assess the value of having more time to choose a play as it also affords the Colts’ defense more time to respond. We can, however, look at the respective value of preserving clock vs. sacrificing a down by simulating the relevant game states.

 

With 57 seconds remaining at the Colts’ 33-yard line:

 

With 42 seconds remaining at the Colts’ 15-yard line:

 

 

At face value, it looks like the Packers may have unnecessarily lost nearly 10% of GWC in the final crucial moments of regulation. As already mentioned, the value of setting the offense also must be considered. Additionally, the two scenarios of spiking the ball are not necessarily independent, as the first decision may directly affect the circumstances of the second decision. What is clear is that the Packers prematurely exercised their options in both scenarios. By spiking the ball on first down, they guarantee only getting two opportunities for a first down or touchdown before they face a field goal decision. If they run a play on first down, they may have as many as three total opportunities before facing a field goal decision and can always retain the option of spiking the ball on 2nd or 3rd down if necessary.

While we can’t justifiably say the Packers tossed away a full 9.7% of GWC by spiking the ball twice, it is very likely they reduced their winning prospects by a significant margin with these two hasty decisions.

 

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 EdjSports

Comments

5 comments, Last at 24 Nov 2020, 9:04am

1 This Analysis Seems Incomplete

This analysis seems to be working from the assumption that the Packers spiked the ball when they could have chosen to run a play starting from the same time on the game clock.  I don't believe that's true.  To run a first down play would require time to call the play, get everyone in position, assign protections, etc.  I believe the proper comparison would be 2nd and 10 after the spike versus 1st and 10 some time later (5-10 secs, maybe?).  It still may be sub-optimal, but the comparison would be more meaningful.

2 It would be interesting to…

It would be interesting to look at the "break even" estimate for number of seconds saved. Giving up a down is worth if if it saves at least n seconds on the clock, and not worth it if it saves fewer than n seconds (assuming that you are able to run equally good plays in both cases). A little GWC math lets you solve for n.

3 Totally agree. This is…

Totally agree. This is nonsensical analysis without some sort of time penalty for setting up and running an actual play. Especially with all the motion and such that is a staple these days, it's probably at least 10 secs and not 5. It's certainly not zero, that just reeks of bad analysis. They kicked the FG with 7 seconds left. There's no way you can convince me that they don't have to kick _at least_ one play earlier without the spikes, if not 2. They ran out of time the same time they ran out of downs. Seems like great clock management to me.

4 The first spike made sense

In particular, the first spike I thought was logical because (as I was counting off the time out loud) they had to run everybody up to the line (14 yards), get set, and spike.  That alone burned about 6-7 seconds.  With the benefit of that time stoppage, they should have set some strategy or called multiple plays to prepare for what comes next.  They WERE successful in general on the next play(s) which got them to the second spike, so it seems the first spike worked as planned.

The alternative was to audible to some play after reading the Indy D (4-5 seconds) and execute that play (8 seconds?) on top of the same amount of time it took them to run to the LOS and get set for a play.  If it had worked, they'd be in about the same situation, but with one more down and 12 fewer seconds.  The downs you can manipulate (by earning a new set of downs) but the time you cannot (you can only stop it, not get more). But they would not have had any strategic plan implemented or follow-up play already called.  If it HAD NOT worked (assume an incomplete pass, or maybe just a 3-yard gain on a bubble screen with a tackle in the field of play), they'd have burned the same amount of time (12 seconds) and been at 2nd and long anyway.

To me, the first one made sense.  The second one....

I did look at the edj sports pre-game prediction and that makes them look super smart:  Indy by 2. (of course they were 33% off the winning margin!)

5 Thanks for the comments. …

Thanks for the comments.  The point of the article and analysis was to explore whether the common practice of immediately spiking the ball on first down is suboptimal.  The graphic shows  the maximum possible cost if a normal play could have been snapped on first down.  I did address much of the same concern the readers have mentioned:

"At face value, it looks like the Packers may have unnecessarily lost nearly 10% of GWC in the final crucial moments of regulation. As already mentioned, the value of setting the offense also must be considered. Additionally, the two scenarios of spiking the ball are not necessarily independent, as the first decision may directly affect the circumstances of the second decision."

 This does beg the question as to why teams aren't better prepared for these types of scenarios.  In theory, if you can spike the ball you could have snapped a pre-set play.  Someone as experienced as Rodgers could throw the ball away if no better options exist, and the downside would be hardly worse than the spike (by a few seconds).