Sean Payton and The Deceptive 11-Point Deficit

Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 11 - As the famous New Orleans jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, once said, “There’s some folks that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ‘em.”

Sean Payton appears to have trouble dealing with the number 11. Last week we discussed how his decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the game, trailing by 11 points, was a very poor choice.  He squandered 7.5% Game-Winning Chance (a drop from 12.8% GWC to 5.3% GWC) by pursuing the fallacy of the two-score game. Against the Eagles on Sunday, with his team trailing by 14 points and only 7:14 remaining in the game, what did he do? You guessed it!  He chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-7 from the Eagles’ 10-yard line to reduce his deficit to 11 points and turn it in to a simpler ‘two-score game'. Because the Saints were already in such a desperate position, this conservative choice only reduced his GWC from 4.2% to 2.7% (a small absolute cost of 1.5% but more than one third of his available equity).

Against the Titans last week, we speculated that recency bias may have been a big factor that clouded his judgement. The Saints had failed to get across the goal line on three consecutive attempts beginning with a first-and-goal on the 4-yard line. Although he certainly should factor all available information into his decisions, the fourth down is still an independent choice that is dictated by the current game state. We performed some research on goal-line attempts from the 1-yard line over the past 20 years to see if there was any correlation between prior failures and success rates.  In instances where the team was motivated to score a touchdown, the overall success rate was 54.5% (±0.57%). When adjusted for only attempts that followed a prior failure and didn’t change the field position, the success rate was 54.9% (±1.1%). These figures indicate there is no compelling reason to adjust behavior in such a situation based on the result of the prior play.

It is difficult to tell exactly what was going through Payton’s mind against the Eagles. As we discussed last week, the two-score fallacy also has components of overconfidence bias and postponement of regret. Although the GWC is slim under any strategic path, it is still painful to see a coach squander so much of their available equity on such a misguided approach. Imagine a team trailing by 5 points with one play remaining in the game on the opponent’s 40-yard line.  If the coach took a knee rather than attempting a “Hail Mary,” his job might be in jeopardy. Yet this is a perfectly fair analogy to what Sean Payton did on this fourth-and-7.

Through week 11, Payton has accumulated approximately 40% GWC, or four tenths of a game, in cumulative fourth-down errors.  While this places him 17th among his coaching peers on fourth-down play calling, we expect to see him drop further without some adjustment in his reasoning.


15 comments, Last at 23 Nov 2021, 10:25am

#1 by Pat // Nov 22, 2021 - 2:39pm

I think part of the problem with Payton's decision is that I can totally understand Payton thinking they've got no chance to convert the 1st or get the TD - but that's not the only reason to go for it. If they had gained 4-5 yards and pinned the Eagles deep in their own territory, that's a much better "down two scores" situation than Philly having the ball after a kickoff. You gain a lot from those few yards inside the 10.

So if you imagine someone saying into Payton's ear "well, if you think you've got a 10% chance" and him thinking "I don't have a 1% chance of this" - that's the mistake. He might not be able to convert, but a few yards there's got a lot of value.

Points: 0

#3 by BigRichie // Nov 22, 2021 - 3:19pm

Those few yards there have near no value, in that situation. The clock is the mortal enemy, not field position. Certainly not some 20 yards of it.

Points: 0

#6 by Pat // Nov 22, 2021 - 3:30pm

Nope. Disagree. Think about the whole thing just in terms of the clock. Needing a field goal vs touchdown has clock value because you don't need to get all the way to the goal line to tie. But forcing the other team to start at the 5 versus the 25 is almost the same because it increases the likelihood you'll get the ball back quickly.

Yardage inside the 10 is worth something like 2-3x as much as elsewhere on the field.

Points: 0

#7 by DGL // Nov 22, 2021 - 3:33pm

Things that go wrong when you're on your 5 generally have a lot worse outcomes than if they go wrong when you're on your 25, so teams (especially those protecting a lead) tend to be way more conservative.  Which means that even if the defense doesn't get a splash play, the opponent is less likely to pick up a first down, which means you're more likely to get the ball back sooner and with better field position.

If PHI starts the drive on their own 5 with 7:00 on the clock, just holding a more conservative PHI offense to a three and out would have resulted in NO getting the ball back around midfield with about 5:00 left, still down 14.  Instead, by the time the clock struck 5:00, PHI had picked up 30 yards and they had the ball around midfield.

Points: 0

#9 by IlluminatusUIUC // Nov 22, 2021 - 5:12pm

Obviously the chance to score the TD is the biggest consideration, but pinning Philly against their own goal line is not as relevant here. Philly can just try to run their way out of the end zone and eat clock. If they fail to convert? They can just take an intentional safety, keep a 12 point/2 touchdown lead, and punt safely rather than risk a block. 

Points: 0

#12 by NYChem // Nov 23, 2021 - 8:37am

But 14 vs 12 is way too much enhanced risk with 5 mins. With 2 mins, I could see it. I seriously doubt any coach would make that move, and if I were an eagles fan in that situation I would be tearing my hair out in angst over the prospects of giving up a couple of scores, just takes a kick return for TD (Harris is too good) or a blown coverage, and then not even getting to OT!

Points: 0

#13 by Pat // Nov 23, 2021 - 8:47am

Yeah, I agree. In some sense, you might think the safety's a clever play, but your opponent having the ball down 12 with 5 minutes to go in good field position isn't nearly as safe as the typical outcome from having the ball with 7+ minutes on the 25 yard line.

Down 14 in the 4th, if you can't get a touchdown, the most valuable thing is getting the ball back quickly. Giving up a drive intentionally (plus points!) is just handing the opponent exactly what they want.

Points: 0

#2 by Pottsville Mar… // Nov 22, 2021 - 3:08pm

There's also the matter that if your offense can't gain 7 yards in a given situation, your odds of putting together two more scoring drives in the short time remaining are pretty slim anyway. You may as well try to gain that 7 yards now, so that success or failure, you know what you need later.

Points: 0

#4 by BigRichie // Nov 22, 2021 - 3:22pm

At 0% chance of conversion, you obviously do kick the field goal. So what is the break-even conversion % in that situation?

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#5 by DGL // Nov 22, 2021 - 3:24pm

I really hope that your comment about "turn it in to a ‘two-score game’" was projection, not something Payton actually said.  Deciding to kick a FG down 14 is, as you have said, a bad decision; thinking that a 14-point deficit isn't a "two-score game" causes one to question his basic knowledge of the game of football...

Relatedly - is there any way to analyze the relative probability of scoring two TDs plus extra points vs scoring one FG and one TD plus a 2PC (assuming the same starting points, etc.)?  One TD cancels out, so you're trading off an XP instead of a 2PC (call it 95% vs about 50%) against a TD+XP instead of a FG (and obviously getting a TD+XP is harder since it requires ~30 more yards of offense, but is it so much harder as to balance how much easier it is to get the XP instead of the 2PC for the other TD you need?)

Points: 0

#8 by jheidelberg // Nov 22, 2021 - 3:35pm

In steady decline going from prime Brees to older Brees to Winston to Siemian.  I am shocked that such a great analytical coach has let his poor QB play dictate decisions that are clearly not correct.

When trailing by 11 or 14 you need to make plays regardless of the name and talent of the QB.

Points: 0

#10 by slacksterest // Nov 22, 2021 - 10:19pm

Tasting Hill was just signed to a 4 year extension 40-95 million dollar contract before starting a game this year. Who does Payton think he is bidding against for Hill’s services?

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#11 by Bobman // Nov 23, 2021 - 12:02am

I need somebody to rake my leaves, and my son could use a personal coach for his senior year of HS.  I mean, if there are no other bidders....

He is a super athlete, and he was a valuable cog for the Saints, but I'm not so sure that value holds in the post-Brees world, and I agree that nobody else out there is lining up to spend that much on a Swiss Army Knife backup QB.

I dunno, maybe $10 M is reasonable for a guy who has a suite of varied skills and knows your system as a backup QB/goal line weapon, RB/WR/returner and whatnot. It's definitely on the high end for a second-stringer, though, right?

Points: 0

#14 by andrew // Nov 23, 2021 - 10:24am

This one goes to 11

Points: 0

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