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When playing it safe backfires

Posted by Andrew Mooney  September 17, 2012 02:03 AM

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Here’s a look inside the final sequence of Sunday’s wild 20-18 loss to the Cardinals. For my numbers, I’m making use of the Win Probability Calculator made available by advancednflstats.com. Specifically, I’ll be investigating the Patriots’ decision to settle for a 42-yard field goal at the end of regulation rather than attempting to improve their field position.

Game situation: 1st-and-15 at the Cardinals’ 23-yard line, 00:46 remaining in the 4th quarter

At this point, things are looking awfully fortunate for the Patriots. They just recovered a miracle fumble, and though a couple of Gronk malfunctions (a holding penalty that nullified a touchdown and a false start) may have cost them a sure victory, they still hold a 76 percent chance of winning the game. Their expected points value here is +3.56, meaning that teams score touchdowns more often than field goals in this scenario. However, the Pats elect to take the conservative route, with Tom Brady centering the ball in the middle of the field, sustaining a one-yard loss on the play. The clock winds down to seven seconds before Brady spikes the ball to stop it.

Game situation: 3rd-and-16 at the Cardinals’ 24-yard line, 00:07 remaining in the 4th quarter

The game will be decided by a Steven Gostkowski field goal attempt. According to a separate bit of research from Advanced NFL Stats, kickers convert from this distance just under 80 percent of the time. The Win Probability Calculator concurs with this figure, giving the Patriots a 78 percent chance of victory—still comfortably in their favor and slightly higher than before, but not significantly so. Gostkowski misses the ensuing field goal try, and the Patriots lose a shocker.

Now let’s imagine a scenario in which the Pats continue their drive toward the end zone. Forty-six seconds is enough time within which to run two plays, and taking the Patriots’ average yards per play for the game (5.0), let’s assume they gained an additional ten yards before spiking the ball with seven seconds left.

Hypothetical game situation: 4th-and-5 at the Cardinals’ 13-yard line, 00:07 remaining in the 4th quarter

This is chip shot distance. From this range, kickers successfully make field goals about 90 percent of the time, again coinciding with the Win Probability Calculator’s figures, which give the Patriots an 86 percent chance of winning—a better outcome than the scenario in which they ultimately placed themselves.

The main takeaway here is not that the Patriots sacrificed exactly 0.08 points of Win Probability by playing it safe, but rather that a 42-yard field goal is far from a sure thing. Why settle for it when you have an incredibly competent quarterback—one with a miniscule 2.1 percent career interception rate, I might add—who’s more than capable of pushing the result closer to “sure thing”? A slide into the middle of the field is hardly the optimal use of Brady’s talents.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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