HE: Fourth and a long shot

The Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers ended on a controversial note. Down 24–20 with just three seconds left on the clock, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted in the end zone on a pass that fell short of Rob Gronkowski, his intended target.

There was just one problem: Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly bear hugged Gronkowski as the pass sailed through the air, preventing the 6 foot 6 tight end from making a play. The referee immediately threw a flag, seemingly giving the Patriots another chance.

Then something strange happened. The flag was picked up, the head referee declared there was no penalty, and just like that, the Panthers won. For the last few days, sports writers and pundits have debated whether the refs blew the call. But I want to talk about something different. I think the Patriots lost the game long before Brady’s end zone interception, and I think that before the Bulldogs take the field against Harvard on Saturday, head coach Tony Reno and his players should take note of the lesson that New England learned the hard way on Monday.

Let’s rewind. With six and half minutes left in the game and the score tied 17–17, the Patriots faced fourth-and-one on the Panthers’ eight-yard line. Here, head coach Bill Belichick faced a dilemma: kick the field goal and hope that his defense could stop the Panthers or go for it and keep the drive alive. Belichick chose the former option, which backfired on him when the Panthers scored the go-ahead touchdown with under a minute to go.

In hindsight, I wonder if the Patriots should have gone for it. Conventional wisdom argues that in a close game, taking the sure points from a field goal is preferable to risking a turnover on downs.

But this logic is flawed in many ways. In a close game, a touchdown increases the probability of winning more than a field goal. Even if the Patriots had failed to gain a first, the Panthers would have had terrible field position to start their drive. Moreover, when an offense settles for a chip-shot field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, it often has to try and convert a more difficult play later on in the game. This is exactly what happened on Monday night. Needing a touchdown to win the game, Brady drove to the Panthers’ 18-yard line, but could get no further.

Some people argue that in fourth-and-short situations, the defense can expect that the offense will most likely run the ball. In response, the defending team can stack the box and prevent the rush. While this may be true, it depends on the offense’s personnel. Some teams excel in short-yardage situations, while others don’t. The Patriots possess two excellent running backs, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, but they are not the Patriots’ biggest threats on short-yard plays. During his regular season career, Tom Brady has converted 88 of 91 short-yardage plays (third or fourth downs, 1-2 yards to go) for an astounding conversion rate of 96.7 percent.

Still not convinced? Take a look at what advanced statistics tell us. The website “Advanced NFL Stats” uses the win probability (WP) model to estimate the likelihood that a team will win a game based on score, time, down, distance, and field position. The WP model shows that the Patriots should go for it if they could convert the fourth down 64 percent of the times. Given what we know about Brady’s prowess in short-yardage situations, the likelihood of a Patriots’ conversion was probably above 64 percent.

The WP model also reveals that, had the Patriots converted the fourth down, they would have had an 81 percent probability of winning the game. Had they failed, the win probability takes a significant drop to only 50 percent. But this doesn’t give us the complete picture. Even with a field goal, the Patriots’ win probability is only at 68 percent. Thus, the drop in win probability from a failed conversion is much smaller than it would appear.

Even advanced statistics can only take us so far. We have no way of knowing what would have happened if the Patriots went for it. But we do know that by not going for it, Belichick put the Patriots in an unfavorable position.

Strange as it may seem, the Patriots were actually the underdogs heading into the game (Las Vegas had the Panthers as a three-point favorite), and the Panthers showed us why. Throughout the night, the Patriots failed to make plays on offense in critical situations and struggled to contain Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who proved far too elusive for an injury-depleted Patriots defense. Though the referees made a bad call on that last play, the Panthers were simply the better team. Underdogs can’t afford to take the conventional path and go for the “sure points.”

This Saturday, Yale will take on Harvard in the 130th edition of The Game. And once again, the Crimson are the favorite. If the Patriots–Panthers game has taught us anything, Yale can ill afford to be conservative on game day and hope not to lose. The Bulldogs have already shown on multiple occasions this season that they are not afraid of going for trick plays and high-risk gambles. Saturday is the time to pull out any tricks we have left in the bag and try to surprise the Crimson.

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