Monday, December 20

Good teams, bad teams

If you'll allow me, I'd like to present to you two pivotal scoring plays from NFL contests this past Sunday.

CLE: 4Q 14:06 Phil Dawson 23 Yd FG
Cleveland 10, Cincinnati 16

NYJ: 4Q 05:14 Mark Sanchez 7 Yd TD Run (Nick Folk Kick)
New York Jets 17, Pittsburgh 17

As far as I'm concerned, these plays are what made the difference in their respective games, resulting ultimately in a defeat for Cleveland and a victory for New York. Both took place on 4th-and-1 situations inside the opponent's 10-yard line, with the offensive team trailing by at least a touchdown near the end of the 3rd quarter. The Jets went for it, scored a touchdown, and went on to beat the Steelers on the road, while the Browns kicked a pathetic field goal and never really had a chance after that. Strategy matters, and this particular strategy chosen by the Browns and coach Eric Mangini was wrong both psychologically and statistically.

I've already pointed FCF's nonexistent readers to the extensive research showing that coaches should try 4th down conversions far more than they do, but rarely have two such game situations provided for such clear analysis of the impact of coaches' collective risk aversion.

Consider first the Jets, a team of considerable talent and also one of perhaps too much ego as well. Regardless, this is a club that expects to win and plays the game that way. I watched this game and was (of course) actively rooting for the Jets to come away with a win. When in Rome. When they were faced with 4th and 1 late in the 3rd deep in Pittsburgh territory, I strongly hoped that they would go for it. It makes sense on so many levels. For one, New York hadn't moved the ball very well all game. Trailing by a touchdown to the Steelers, coach Rex Ryan knew that this could very well be the Jets' best shot to notch seven points. Kick, and you still need a touchdown to avoid a loss, and who knows when you'll find yourself that deep in Steelers' territory again. The Jets' staff called a brilliant bootleg play, executed by quarterback Mark Sanchez with possibly the best play fake I've ever seen, and knotted the game up at 17-17. After a Jet field goal, safety, and some last-minute drama, a 22-17 victory for humanity was secured.

I think it's important to consider both the football percentages and the mental states associated with this call. For one, it simply gives your team the best chance to win. Expected points are much higher, as 4th-and-1 conversions are relatively high percentage and at worst you gain a huge field-position edge. There's no way you can run the numbers that doesn't make this a smart football decision. Pundits will call it a "gamble" or a "risk," but the fact is that attempting the 4th down conversion was the higher-percentage play, assuming your objective is maximizing the points you score and winning the football game.

But beyond that, it sent a message to the Jets players and to their black and yellow opponents: we believe that we can win this game, and we will do whatever it takes to do so. Imagine how fired up the Jets must have been after that play! Think about how you, as a fan, feel about your team when they execute in such a situation and how demoralizing it is to be on the other side, then multiply that by 100 and you get what the players probably feel. Think also from the fan's perspective what you want your team and the other team to do. I wanted the Jets (my team in this case) to go for it. I never want the other team to try 4th and 1 because I know it's a good tactic. I'm pleased as punch when opponents make the wrong move and kick on 4th and inches. The psychology and momentum edge of converting 4th-and-1 is perhaps as important as the expected value and field position advantage it confers.

Now let's get back ot the Browns. Compared to the Jets, Cleveland was behind by more points (9 as opposed to 7), and had six fewer minutes remaining in the contest, making their situation even more urgent than the Jets'. The Cleveland defense had also proven largely unable to stop the Bengals' rushing attack, meaning more Cincy points were likely. Cleveland has Peyton Hillis, a premier short-yardage back even when the coaching staff calls the most obvious, least creative plays possible for him. Cincinnati has lost 10 straight games. They're looking for any reason to fold, any reason to lose confidence, and all you need is a single yard to provide just that.

And the Browns decide to kick a 23-yard field goal on 4th-and-1. You throw away a golden opportunity to close to within two points. You put yourself back into a situation where a Bengal field goal makes it a two-score game once again. And most importantly, you send a message to your team: I didn't think you guys could get one fucking yard against a 2-11 team.

Any wonder that the Browns went on to lose the game by two points? Sure, there was more to it than that, most notably the Browns getting owned on both sides of the ball at the line of scrimmage. But there's no doubt in my mind that this decision dealt a serious blow to Cleveland's chances of leaving Paul Brown Stadium victorious.

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