Risky Business - Week 12

Frank Frigo

November 25th, 2019


It didn’t take long for Twittersphere to explode with condemnation of Jason Garrett after he decided not to go for it on a critical 4th and 7 against the Patriots yesterday. The criticism among fans, commentators and analysts addressed several important points:

  • How could he fail to recognize the score implications of his conservative choice when the Cowboys trailed 13-6 and needed a touchdown?
  • Even if they take the field goal, they STILL need a touchdown.
  • This is the almighty Patriots. You have to take a shot.

At the conclusion of the game, the Patriots walked away with a 13-9 victory which only served to bolster the argument that the four-point difference between the field goal and the touchdown mattered – a lot. In fact, a couple of analytics groups suggested the field goal decision cost the Cowboys between 6% and 8% of GWC. Considering they were still a considerable underdog to win this game at the point of decision, this would indeed be an egregious error if those assessments are true. As Seth Meyers likes to say, “it is time for a closer look”.

At EdjSports, we are often the first ones to call out a head coach for being too conservative on a 4th down at a critical moment. Late game 4th and shorts in the red zone are often the situations that produce the highest magnitude errors. However, each decision is unique, and it is important to break this one down into its key components.

  • Cowboys are facing 4th and 7 at the Patriots 11-yard line
    • This is far from a lay-up for the Cowboys, especially against the best red-zone defense in the NFL
  • Cowboys trail by 7
    • A touchdown would likely tie the game
    • A successful field goal still requires a touchdown by the Cowboys in regulation, but now it can be a game-winning touchdown
  • 6:04 remains in the game
    • There can still be several subsequent possessions (2-3 on average)
  • It is a 28-yard field goal
    • While not a guarantee, this is essentially a high-percentage extra point kick
  • Foxborough weather was windy and wet
    • Not likely to affect the short field goal attempt
    • A factor in the passing game (for this play, and for any subsequent plays by either team)

By simulating this specific situation in the EdjFootball model and adjusting for opposing team strengths it appears the field goal was a small error. A passing play would produce about 0.5% more wins on average. This is well below estimates of 6% - 8% and certainly not worthy of a blunder classification. Additionally, to account for weather conditions we adjusted the Cowboys to a very poor performing NFL offense and still found it to be a very close decision. To gain some greater perspective let’s look at the risk-reward proposition of the resulting game states from the Cowboys’ point of view.

Hypothetical play results include:

The required success rate of the first down attempt is

7.9(7.9+14.7)=35%\frac{7.9} {(7.9 + 14.7)} = \textbf{35}\%

The required success rate of the touchdown attempt is

7.9(7.9+20.8)=27.5%\frac{7.9}{(7.9 + 20.8)} = \textbf{27.5}\%

Considering these required success rates, it is apparent this decision is far closer than most critics realize. Empirical red zone data for similar situations is somewhat sparse but suggests an average NFL team could be expected to convert a 4th and 7 from the 11-yard line somewhere between 25% - 37% of the time. Even smaller relevant samples are available for touchdown attempts from the 11-yard line, but 27.5% appears to land in a reasonable success range.While the Cowboys are currently rated 3rd in DVOA passing the fact that the Patriots are the top passing defense (one of the best in the last five years) certainly does not boost their prospects on this attempt. All considered, we lean slightly toward a first down attempt but would definitely not label this as a blunder. In fact, it doesn’t even qualify as one of the top three 4th down decision errors of the game by the Cowboys. Those are reserved for:

  • 4th and 3 at the Patriots’ 28-yard line, Cowboys kick a field goal trailing 10-0 with 8:40 remaining in the 2nd quarter.– 0.7% GWC
  • 4th and 1 on their own 37-yard line, Cowboys punt trailing 10-6 with 6:29 remaining in the 3rd quarter. -5.8% GWC
  • 4th and 1 on opening drive of the game, Cowboys punt at 13:48 of 1st quarter -3.7% GWC

Jason Garrett may indeed deserve some criticism for his conservative play calling in this game, and throughout his career, but there are far better examples than this 4th and 7.

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