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What ‘numbers’ were Mike McCarthy playing when he punted on fourth down?

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The Packers head coach used a statistical defense of his decision not to go for it on fourth-and-2, but the math doesn’t add up.

Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks
There’s no data to support the decision Mike McCarthy made to punt on fourth down late in the game Thursday night.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

By punting on fourth-and-2 with 4:30 left in the fourth quarter and his team trailing by three, Mike McCarthy played not to lose. He would say after the game the team was “playing the numbers” but that simply doesn’t track. Not only is the math in Green Bay’s favor in that situation, simple game theory suggests the move was to go for it. Whatever “numbers” McCarthy went with, they would likely have been better used to play the lottery.

Unfortunately for McCarthy — and by extension for a Packers team that now falls to 4-5-1 — the stats tell the story. So far this season, teams have converted 20/35 fourth-and-2 situations this season, including seven of nine running the ball. On a per carry basis, Green Bay has the best running game in football. Even on a night when Aaron Jones and the run game never quite got on track, he averaged over 3.6 yards per carry. Hard to fathom Jones, one of the best after contact backs in the league, couldn’t have willed his way to two yards.

Oh, also the Packers have Aaron Rodgers. Now, this was the same Aaron Rodgers who had just skipped a pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on third-and-2 for what would have been an easy first down, but according to Football Outsiders, Rodgers converts just under 60% of the time on third or fourth-and-2.

The league numbers say the Packers would have a better than 50/50 chance to convert (the league is converting 4th-and-2 at a 57% clip this season), and the team specific numbers say with Rodgers, Green Bay is more than 60% to convert. On the other side of the scale, McCarthy had to weigh the ability for his team to get a stop. On a day when Green Bay allowed 173 yards on 35 attempts, lost Mike Daniels earlier in the game and was playing with a hobbled Kenny Clark, what numbers could possibly make it more likely the team can stop Seattle on three straight runs rather than give their future Hall of Fame quarterback another bite at the apple?

There must also be a calculation of what he loses if he doesn’t convert. If the Packers kick on fourth down and get a stop, they get the ball down a field goal. One score. If McCarthy decides to go for it and doesn’t make it, the same rules apply. From the 33, it’s a 50-yard field goal on a chilly night in Seattle. If the Packers do what McCarthy wants them to do and get a stop, even in the worst case scenario it’s a Sebastian Janikowski field goal try. If he makes it, the Packers are down six and a touchdown still wins it.

Banking on the defense to make a stop isn’t a terrible call, but give the offense the chance to do its thing first. That defensive stop, if McCarthy has faith in his team to get it, can still give them a chance to win the game. It’s not as if a field goal would have put the game out of reach. A touchdown certainly would have, but if the defense gave up the 33 yards needed to score, it would have lost the game no matter where it took place on the field.

It’s likely that the amount of time left, still over four minutes, played a major factor in the decision. Even if the Packers couldn’t get a stop on the initial possession, there would be time to get the ball back if the defense could hold with a timeout and the two-minute warning. Had the fourth down come with just two minutes left or 1:50, somewhere in that range, McCarthy likely has no choice but to go for it with one timeout.

But the numbers, even there, aren’t in McCarthy’s favor. Less than 15% of teams who punted down one score in the final five minutes have won their game going back to 2001. There’s no empirical argument for McCarthy’s decision on fourth down, no numbers to support him. He made a judgment call and it was the wrong one. It wasn’t the only bad decision in the game, or the only factor to decide the outcome, but it was the back-breaking one for the Packers.