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NYT: Worst 4th-Down Decisions In SuperBowl History

Posted By: Paul Weaver
Date: Sunday, 1 February 2015, at 3:08 p.m.

I hope and Stick and others do not mind this non-BG post on SuperBowl Sunday, from the New York Times a couple of days ago. To avoid being charged with plagiarism, I hereby declare that all paragraphs below (except the last) were written by David Leonhardt and not by me.


Bad things can happen when you punt, even when it may be the right choice. The Steelers' Reggie Harrison, left, blocked a punt by the Cowboys' Mitch Hoopes in the 1976 Super Bowl. The ball went into end zone, resulting in a safety.

Tom Landry made the mistake in two different Super Bowls. Marv Levy, the longtime Bills coach, made it in an excruciating loss to the Giants in 1991. Mike Tomlin, Mike Martz and Lovie Smith have all done it, too. Perhaps most surprisingly, Bill Belichick has done it multiple times in his Super Bowl appearances.

Each of these coaches has hurt his team’s chance of winning an N.F.L. title by being too eager to punt in the biggest football game of all.

All season, with help from an imaginary friend that we call the 4th Down Bot, we have been tracking every fourth-down decision in the N.F.L. We have focused on the excessive caution among coaches that causes them to turn the ball over voluntarily — or settle for a field goal — instead of trusting their players to convert a fourth-and-short. Were it not for such caution by Packers Coach Mike McCarthy in the N.F.C. championship game this year, fans might now be preparing for a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl itself is no different. We have analyzed every fourth-down decision in the Super Bowl since 2000 — to rank the most damaging ones. We have also looked back at the decades before 2000 (when the game was somewhat different, with less offense) for other mistakes.

The analysis suggests that about 30 percent of all fourth-down decisions in the last 15 Super Bowls have been problematic. Despite Belichick’s reputation for being aggressive on fourth down, his error rate is nearly identical to the average. On five occasions in the Patriots’ last five Super Bowls, he has ordered a dubious punt on fourth-and-3 or shorter.

How can we be so confident that coaches — highly paid experts, after all, performing on a public stage with big incentives to win — are making mistakes?

The shortest explanation revolves around a football cliché: Turnovers can kill a team. A punt is a voluntary turnover. Coaches punt nonetheless because they think the change in field position is more valuable than the chance to keep the ball. They also know they are more likely to face postgame criticism for a failed risk than for excessive caution, as Belichick did after going for a first down in his own territory late in a 2009 regular-season game against the Colts.

But history and statistics both suggest that caution is often the worse move. N.F.L. offenses convert fourth-and-1 almost 70 percent of the time. Even fourth-and-4 has a success rate of about 55 percent, according to Brian Burke, of the website Advanced Football Analytics, which conducted our analysis. Forgoing those odds of keeping the ball — in exchange for 40 or so yards of field position — is frequently a bad deal.

The three worst punting decisions in the last 15 Super Bowls all came from teams that went on to lose the game. The worst was by the 2006 Bears, coached by Smith, who were trailing the Colts by just 2 points with about four minutes left in the first half when they punted on fourth-and-1 from their own 45. The decision reduced Chicago’s odds of winning to 41 percent, from 45 percent, according to Advanced Football Analytics. The Bears never led in the second half, although they remained within one score of the Colts until the game’s final few minutes.

To read the rest of the article, click on the above link.

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