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Going for it on 4th down is about more than just numbers

Going for it on 4th down isn’t just good strategy. It’s good for your mental health.

NFC Divisional Playoffs: Packers v Eagles

Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is pretty great. I think we’re all in agreement at this point, and even if he still makes the occasional mistake, he seems like he learns from those mistakes. And boy, does he like analytics. I mean, he really likes them.

I think that we sometime run into an issue in the analytics community of not communicating well about the consequences of risk and good versus bad decisions. When we advocate going for it on 4th down, it’s usually couched as “having gained X WP (winning percentage), and that number often isn’t that big. I recently wrote about a decision LaFleur made against the Jaguars that was called the worst decision of the week by EdjSports. That decision cost the Packers about 18 points of Win Percentage, but if you don’t deal with numbers all the time that doesn’t really sound that bad.

We may be better served to use real life examples to demonstrate just how much these things matter, and what better way to do so, given that it’s Eagles Week, than bringing back the infamous “4th and 26” game of the 2003 season. You may not want to think about the 4th and 26 game and would prefer to put it out of your mind, but instead of doing that, I urge you to grab and hold onto that hate. Let it burn in you and think about every time over the past 16 years it’s been mentioned on a broadcast or by some insensitive git on twitter, and it caused you physical pain.

I watched the entire game again the other day because I wanted to revisit everything else that led up to and followed that play, and because I enjoy pain, apparently. That play never should have happened, and it never should have happened because of the punt that followed this play.

Brett Favre was so very close. He got kind of a bad spot, and the Packers were faced with a 4th and 1 decision in Eagle territory. If they go for it and pick up the first down, they almost certainly win the game. (Converting would have forced the Eagles to either use their final timeout or taken the clock to the 2-minute warning.) The Packers offensive line was excellent, as per usual, and featured Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton at tackle, Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle at guard, and Mike Flanagan at center, with Bubba Franks at tighteEnd. Packer running backs were only stuffed for no gain or a loss 3 times in this game, though one of those was a 4th-and-1 carry at the Eagles 1-yard line near the end of the first half.

According to the Pro Football Reference Win Probability calclator, if the Packers go for it and make it, they have a 96% chance to win the game. If they fail, they still have a 73.4% chance to win the game. Punting from the 41 (which became the 45 with an intentional delay of game penalty) is very likely to gain you only 20 yards, and that is what happened here when Josh Bidwell couldn’t keep his punt out of of the end zone. The 20 yards of additional field position moved the Packers’ WP from 73.4% all the way to 80.76%.

We often see punting as the “safe” choice, but in this case it was almost certainly the risky one, and definitely the stupid one. On the very next play from scrimmage Duce Staley scampered 22 yards, getting back all of the yardage lost from the punt in a matter of seconds.

Mike Sherman was a bad coach who made bad decisions. I understand that we all know this and we get that it matters on a high level, but this particular decision mattered a lot. It’s very possible that it cost the Packers a Super Bowl appearance, as the Eagles would go on to lose to a lackluster Carolina team in the NFC Championship Game. More importantly, it caused a ton of people immense pain for decades.

The modern Packers have learned their lesson. On 4th and short they go for it more than than any other team. Be glad they do, so we don’t have to go through this again. Smart coaching matters.