Week 1 of the NFL is in the books, and while the film junkies are still clamoring for Gamepass to release the all-22, we at Sports Info Solutions have elected to pass the time by using our Win Probability Calculator to evaluate some interesting coaching decisions made in the opening action of the season. The knee-jerk reactions to go-for-it decisions are always entertaining live, but perhaps we can look at some of these situations more objectively now that the dust has settled.
Who framed Vic Fangio?
Every Monday Night Football game has a villain. And for much of the after-hours primetime ordeal that was Titans-Broncos, that villain was Stephen Gostkowski. Three missed field goals and a missed extra point were more than enough to draw the collective ire of Titans fans and innocent bystanders alike, but the veteran kicker was spared from being tarred and feathered when he kicked the game-winner with 20 seconds to go. Some would contend that he has Vic Fangio to thank for that.
During the Titans’ 83-yard final drive march, the Broncos head coach held three timeouts and declined to use any of them, a curious strategy that was heavily scrutinized both in the heat of the moment and after the game. Fangio addressed the criticism in his post-game presser, admitting that he made a mistake by not calling a timeout after a Derrick Henry run that set up 1st & 10 at the Denver 16-yard line. But, Fangio might be too hard on himself.
Had he called timeout as soon as the play was dead, there would have been 1:28 to go and he would have had two timeouts remaining – good for a meager win probability (WP) of 12.7%. But, that’s not what happened. Fangio let the clock wind and the Titans ultimately ran the next play with just 49 seconds to go. At the snap of the ball, the Broncos, still armed with all three timeouts, had a 12.9% chance to win.
When you think about it, this makes sense because the Broncos taking their first timeout after a play that set up a first down still would have left the Titans with one more down than the Broncos had timeouts, so the Titans would have been able to get those seconds back if they had kept the clock moving. However, the only way for them to guarantee that would have been to run three times, which would also inherently lower their probability to score a touchdown.
So, while Fangio expressed regret at declining to call a timeout after the aforementioned Henry run, he actually increased the team’s chances of winning, albeit negligibly. Fangio also knew something the model doesn’t — that Gostkowski had struggled mightily to that point. His attempt to limit the Titans’ chances of scoring a touchdown and force the kicker to win the game was wise by both the numbers and the flow of the game.
If you don’t believe me, ask a Titans fan how they were feeling at this time.
McCarthy’s decision to go for it
Mike McCarthy raised a lot of eyebrows this past offseason when he insisted that he was a born-again analytic who had learned from years of squandering Total Points darling Aaron Rodgers. This was, of course, met with skepticism, but McCarthy did something on Sunday Night Football that might suggest he wasn’t totally full of it.
On 4th & 3 from the Los Angeles 11-yard line with 11:46 to go in the fourth, McCarthy elected to go for it in lieu of a field goal attempt that potentially would have tied the game 20-20. Dak Prescott’s pass to rookie wideout Ceedee Lamb came up a yard short, however, and the score would remain 20-17, Rams.
Once armed with hindsight, many onlookers were quick to criticize this decision, and it’s hard to blame them in the heat of the moment, but the decision to try for a new set of downs was slightly preferable (41.6% WP) to booting it (41.3% WP). Unfortunately, fourth down decisions are still widely evaluated by fourth down outcomes, but McCarthy played the numbers as well as you could ask.
Elsewhere around the league…
- Andy Reid shocked a lot of people when he decided to go for it on 4th & 1 from his own 34-yard line in the first quarter down a touchdown. SIS’s win probability model strongly favored going for it (51.8% win probability) over punting (46.2%).
- Matt Patricia has now blown 11 fourth-quarter leads in 33 games as head coach of the Detroit Lions and his team’s offenses have hemorrhaged 191 percentage points of WPA since he took over in Detroit—that figure is dead last in the NFL and a little over 2.5 times worse than the next-worst team. His decision to attempt a 55-yard field goal up 10 with 4:08 to go in the fourth, rather than punt, decreased the Lions’ win probability by 2.4%. They had over a 90% chance to win at the time.
- Sean McVay has come under fire for being conservative in go-for-it situations before. Up by a field goal with 2:28 to go in the fourth, McVay elected to punt on 4th & 1 from his own 49-yard line. Our win probability model strongly favored going for it (77.8%) over punting (73.3%).
It’s obviously early, but the NFL’s Michael Lopez pointed out that teams are going for it on 4th & Short at a much higher rate this year. Go-for-it situations are being brought to the forefront of people’s minds, but clock management is also a topic of interest, as evidenced by the uproar over Fangio’s supposed malpractice on MNF. Regardless of the types of decisions made, analytical tools like expected points added (EPA) and win probability added (WPA), while not the end-all-be-all, are useful for doing what we football fans perhaps do the best: judge the men in the arena.