Bringing Them to Their Knees
With only 1:47 remaining in the game, the Los Angeles Chargers found themselves trailing the Browns by one point with a third-and-2 at the Cleveland 11-yard line. Just when Austin Ekeler appeared to have a clear path to the end zone, he slid to his knees 3 yards short of the goal line. It is not easy to coach an NFL running back to show such restraint when he has been programmed to reach the end zone for his entire career. However, Ekeler did the prudent thing. The Browns had just burned their final timeout prior to the snap and the Chargers could now ensure themselves of kicking a game-winning field goal with no time remaining on the clock. Now all the Chargers needed to do was safely take a couple of knees and run down the clock while the Browns defense watched helplessly.
Surprisingly, Ekeler ran into the center of the Browns' defensive line on the subsequent play with apparently no intent on crossing the goal line. The Browns defenders would have no part of this clever strategy as they provided a personal concierge service for Ekeler by literally carrying him forward for a touchdown. This was a brilliant maneuver by the Browns that could have snatched an almost certain victory from the Chargers.
Why the Chargers didn't simply take a knee behind the line of scrimmage is inexplicable. They were assured of kicking a field goal that was closer than an extra point for the win with very little risk. Their pre-snap Game-Winning Chance (GWC) was 97.5% with this conservative approach. After Ekeler was forced into the end zone and prior to the two-point conversion attempt, the Chargers managed to drop their GWC by a whopping 13.0% all the way down to 84.5%. To complicate matters, the two-point attempt failed, and now a custom simulation showed the Chargers' GWC to slip even further to 79.2% GWC. Independent betting market data showed even greater confidence in a Baker Mayfield game-winning drive with an implied GWC for the Chargers as low as 73.0% after the kickoff.
Although it surely was not the intent of Ekeler to score a touchdown, this was a completely avoidable blunder. In fact, it was one of the most egregious and costly errors of the 2021 NFL season to date. Unfortunately for the Browns, they were unable to capitalize on this very poor decision.
Big Risk vs. Big Reward
At a time when analytics is dominating the conversation in the NFL more than ever, it is easy to lose sight of just how far we still have to go. The largest error of the week, according to a custom simulation from the EdjSports model, is a punt the Browns chose to attempt on a fourth-and-6 from their own 18-yard line late in the game with a 42-41 lead. This is going to seem crazy, but a passing attempt would have improved their GWC by approximately 18% on average. It is highly doubtful Kevin Stefanski and his staff seriously considered such an aggressive action. However, this situation is highly leveraged and, while a failure to convert looks horrible, the upside of a successful first down is enormous. Let’s examine the possible winning paths of both choices.
Browns punt (actual play):
- With an average punt, Jamie Gillan forces the Chargers to begin their drive between the 40- and 50-yard lines.
- Chargers have two timeouts and the likely benefit of the two-minute warning to orchestrate a game-winning drive. If the Chargers execute properly (see analysis above), a single first down with an advancement of 20+ yards will ensure they can attempt a game-winning field goal and leave no time on the clock for the Browns.
Browns attempt first down (optimal play):
- In midfield situations, an average NFL offense can be expected to convert this fourth-and-6 approximately 40% of the time.
- A successful conversion does not completely seal the victory, but the Browns’ GWC will jump to about 90%.
- It seems counterintuitive to attempt something at which you are a favorite to fail (about 60% of the time), but it is all about GWC leverage. If the Browns come up short on the fourth-and-6, the game is far from over. They still have three timeouts, and if they can force the Chargers to kick a field goal without gaining a first down, they will still hold onto significant GWC. Assuming proper clock management by both sides, the Browns would retain about 31% GWC after a failed first down attempt.
We are probably still a long way from any NFL coach following this recommendation, but the analysis reveals just how much value is still attainable for those willing to buck conventional wisdom.