Mike Vrabel

Risky Business: Wild-Card Round

The EdjSports Coach rankings are unique with respect to the considerable amount of weight that is placed on fourth-down decisions. The reason, as we often proclaim, is that they affect outcomes more than most people realize. The opening week of the NFL playoffs was defined by several controversial fourth-down choices and revealed that, when it comes to the adoption of analytics in the NFL, we still have a long way to go.

Cumulative Game-Winning Chance (GWC) Lost on Fourth Down Decisions:

While the table identifies just how much these decisions matter, there can be an opportunistic element to how many difficult fourth downs are encountered. For instance, close games can often create more highly-leveraged opportunities that warrant aggression, and lopsided affairs may do just the opposite. Also, despite the benefits of superior fourth-down decision making, it will likely not overcompensate for a team that is strongly disadvantaged in talent, such as the Bears against the Saints. That being said, the most notably poor performances were attributed to Seattle (3-point favorite), Pittsburgh (5-point favorite), and Tennessee (3.5-point underdog), all teams that had high hopes in the postseason.

Here is a deeper look at a few of the most talked about fourth-down decisions of this past weekend.

  • Indianapolis Colts, fourth-and-goal at the Buffalo 4-yard line, 1:52 2nd Quarter, leading 10-7.
    • The television analysts couldn’t get enough of this one at halftime. The Colts took a shot at the end zone and failed. Moments later, the Bills marched down the field for a touchdown. Was Frank Reich too aggressive here? We don’t think so. Our analysis shows the decision to be a close one but prefers the touchdown attempt by +0.5% GWC. Interestingly, a terrible offside penalty by Colts’ defensive end Kemoko Turay seemingly went unnoticed during the halftime commentary. On a critical fourth-and-3 for the Bills on the subsequent touchdown drive, this cost the Colts -7.5% GWC.
  • Seattle Seahawks, fourth-and-1, own 34-yard line, 1:29 2nd Quarter, trailing 20-10
    • This was one of two poor choices on fourth down, with another one by Carroll during the second quarter. He previously cost his team -2.0% GWC by kicking a field goal at 10:34. In this instance he leaves 2.6% GWC on the table by punting. Attempting to retain possession as a favorite to convert the first down and close out the half with a score is essential here. Carroll again confirms why he was rated so poorly in the EdjSports’ Coach Rankings (No. 18 overall; 28 in CCI and 8 in EPI).
  • Pittsburgh Steelers, fourth-and-1 on their own 46-yard line, 15:00 4th Quarter, trailing 35-23
    • The Steelers couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start in this game. But here, with 15 minutes remaining in the game, they had managed to claw their way back. Tomlin should have gone for this without hesitation. His attempt to entice the Browns to jump offside is inexcusable, especially at this moment when the Steelers were finally showing some life. The punt drops the Steelers’ GWC from 12.8% to 9.8% and squanders nearly 25% of his available equity!
  • Tennessee Titans, fourth-and-2 on the Ravens’ 40-yard line, 10:06 4th Quarter, trailing 17-13
    • As noted in the table, Vrabel’s performance against the Ravens was atrocious. This was the worst fourth-down decision of the weekend and one of the worst of the year. It was also one of the most talked about. ‘Expert’ commentator Tony Dungy defended Vrabel’s strategy, without any substantive criteria of course. The punt costs the Titans -13.7% GWC. To illustrate just how clear this blunder is, consider the following example which allows for the most favorable assumptions to back Vrabel’s choice.

These assumptions attempt to create the strongest, although very unrealistic, argument in support of Vrabel’s decision. The hypothetical analysis drives home the point of how misguided and costly this was. Under these circumstances, the Titans would be risking (25% - 17%) = 8% GWC and standing to gain (42% - 25%) = 17% GWC. This creates a required conversion rate of 8/(8+17) = 32%. Even if the Titans knew they would execute a perfect punt and they would not get any excess yardage on the first down, they would still only need to convert this less than one-third of the time. An average NFL team might be expected to convert 56% of the time in this situation. Oh, and the Titans happen to have a guy named Derrick Henry who was inexplicably left without the ball on this play and the two preceding downs.


2 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2021, 12:49am

1 Why Vrabel Why

You can't imagine how angry that decision made me as a Titans fan. Especially since he refused not to run Derrick against a 9-man box every 1st down.

2 Any study on coaches being more conservative in playoffs?

EDJ sports only found 3 decisions of 1% or better increase of game winning chance by going for it.

Conversely, EDJ sports bottom 5 decisions totaled -30% vs the +3.7 percent for the 3 good decisions.  Pete Carroll had 4 decisions to punt/kick FG's on fourth and short and could not even make the bottom 5 list.   I am counting the bad decision to punt in the fourth quarter on 4th and 6 after his offense was on the field for 4th and 1 and committed a false start.  Twice he tried a 50+ yard field goal, once on 4th and 1, once on 4th and 3.

The Rams, Cleveland, and the Ravens should have awarded a game ball to Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin and Mike Vrabel respectively. 

This weekend was a horror show for analytic coaching as indicated by your chart above.  Pete Carroll thanks you for only including 4th quarter decisions in your chart above.