Thursday, October 18, 2012

Analyzing Tomlin's Field Goal Decision

In every NFL game, there are individual plays that often determine victory and defeat. In the Steelers loss to the Titans, no play played a bigger role than Mike Tomlin's choice to try a field goal on 4th and 7 from the 36. But was it the right call?

Looking at the last drive of the Fourth Quarter through the scope of Advanced NFL Stats' Win Probability, the Steelers had a 46% probability of winning when they took over with 4:25 to play and the game tied. As they moved down the field, their probability of winning the game increased significantly, all the way up to 84% after Ben hit Heath with 1:54 to play to get the ball to the Tennessee 35. After the failed run on 2nd down, the Win Probability dropped to 67% then down to 49% after the incompletion on third down.

So there we were, with the biggest coaching decision of the game. Tomlin even used a time out to think it over some more. Looking the Advanced NFL Stats 4th Down Metric, here's how the probabilities look:

Just looking at Win Probabilities, punting would have been a status quo choice and kept the Steelers win probability at 49%. Objectively, you have to think that the worst case scenario (aside from a blocked punt) is that Tennessee has to start at their own 20 after a touchback and has to go 55 yards instead of 30. The other two options present a much wider gap in Win Probability. A successful 4th down attempt would give the Steelers a 92% chance of winning the game, while a failed attempt would have left them with only a 37% chance of winning. According to this metric, the chance of success on 4th and 7 is only 42%, which means a 54-yard field goal with a 48% chance of success is the marginally "safer" choice. However, when you look at the gap in win probability, the story changes. A successful field goal yields basically the same Win Probability as a successful 4th down attempt, but a failed field goal attempt leaves you with only a 33% chance of winning. 

When all the factors are calculated, Tomlin did elect to go for the option with the highest overall Win Probability (61% for Field Goal Attempt to 60% for 4th Down Attempt), but also the one that came with the most risk. The Field Goal Attempt option had a 58% swing in Win Probability between success and failure while the 4th Down Attempt option had a 55% swing. There was no swing for punting, but as discussed, that was a status quo option at 49%. The one thing the formula doesn't take into account is the kicker and the defense in play - Suisham had never made a field goal over 52 yards and the Steelers defense hadn't exactly been airtight during the game. 

The truly puzzling thing about this decision is how it stacks up with Tomlin's historical end-game decisions. Last season against Baltimore, Tomlin made a mind-boggling coaching decision facing a 4th and 4 from the 29. The Ravens had only one timeout left, and rather than attempting a 46 yard field goal to go up by 7 or going for it, Tomlin took a delay of game and punted. As we know, Joe Flacco drove the Ravens 92 yards for the game-winning touchdown, which in the long run meant we had to go to Denver as a Wild Card rather than winning the division and getting a bye. This season, when faced with an even longer field goal and the game tied, Tomlin elected to go for the field goal? I know Suisham was having a bad year last year and had been kicking well this year, but on the whole, it's hard for me to understand this decision to try a 54-yard field goal. Tomlin took the risk to try the field goal, and in turn deserves the blame for the failure in strategy.

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