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.
- 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.
- 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.