Friday, October 02, 2015

Getting It Wrong

Watched that Thursday Night Football clash last night to the bitter end. Was a pretty poorly played game, with a lot of endgame weirdness to create an unexpected outcome and thus enough extra drama to keep me watching to the last.

A couple of weeks pack I shared a pleasure-pain ranking system for evaluating my Pigskin Pick’em picks. Last night’s game -- which I got wrong -- ended up way over on the extreme pain side of the spectrum.

I picked the Steelers, who thanks to an unreliable field goal kicker and some especially bone-headed coaching decisions allowed the Ravens to complete a 13-point comeback to win in overtime. Making things worse, many in the pool (including the leader) had taken Baltimore, making it doubly unpleasant to lose after having with a couple of minutes left prematurely congratulated myself for having picked a winner. (Amateur move.)

I mentioned how the Steelers’ field goal kicker, Josh Scobee, had a rough night, missing two in the fourth quarter. Both were very late, and both happened with Pittsburgh ahead 20-17. The first miss was a 49-yarder with 2:29 to go, and the second a 41-yarder with 1:06 left.

As I had a rooting interest, I wasn’t happy to see Pittsburgh missing field goals. I was less happy, though, to see the Steelers even attempt them. Why? Because I was convinced each time that trying a field goal lessened rather than increased their chances of winning the game.

If Pitt. had made either FG, they’d have gone up by six, thereby forcing Baltimore to drive the length of the field in the hopes of scoring what would be a winning TD. Down just three, Baltimore instead played for the tie and overtime, and after being unsuccessful on the first try did manage to do so when given a second opportunity.

Because Pittsburgh missed their FG attempts, Baltimore played for the tie and overtime. They failed the first time, but given a second opportunity the Ravens were able to get close enough to kick a long tying field goal at the end of regulation.

When Pittsburgh missed the first FG attempt, then, it more or less assured they would not lose the game in regulation, as the Ravens then went for the tie (they still could lose in OT, of course). If Pittsburgh had hit the FG, however, there would have been a non-zero chance they could lose in regulation. Weighing the chances of losing in overtime (after Balt. hit a game-tying FG following a Pitts. miss) versus losing in regulation (after Balt. scored a game-winning TD after a Pitts. make), I suppose hitting that first FG would have been marginally better than punting, although not by much.

But when the Steelers held Baltimore on downs, then faced a similar decision with less time on the clock (and Baltimore having used their timeouts), trying the FG again was surely a poor decision (especially considering the inconsistent Scobee had just missed one). Punting and pinning the Ravens inside the 20 would have been a much, much better choice. Doing so would have further reduced the chance of Baltimore driving for a winning TD (because of a longer field), although that likely wouldn’t have been the Ravens’ aim, anyway, since the tying FG would’ve been a primary goal for them.

A Twitter exchange at the time involving Grantland’s NFL guru Bill Barnwell succinctly summed up the situation. A follower asked him “why did Pitt go for FG?” adding “Wouldn’t you rather be up by 3 than 6 there? Have Balt play for FG and OT instead of TD and win?” (This is the point I’m making.)

Barnwell’s response delivered the same observation in a different way: “NFL coaches optimize decisions to put off losing for as long as possible, not to win.” This was a point he made in greater detail a couple of weeks ago in a column where he was describing almost exactly the same scenario in a different game:

“Trailing by three in a two-minute drill, coaches will almost [always] settle for a field goal to try to push the game into overtime,” explained Barnwell. “They optimize their decision-making to tie, which only improves their chances of winning to 50 percent (or whatever the implied odds were from the pregame spread), because they still have to win in overtime. Down six and without any other choice, they get aggressive and optimize their play calling to try to score a game-winning touchdown.”

I’m trying to think of a decent poker analogy here (and struggling a little). Looking at it from the perspective of the team that is behind, being down a FG and playing for a tie would be like being short-stacked enough to fold your way into the money. Meanwhile being down six forces a team’s hand (so to speak), kind of like being too short to take the passive line of folding into the money and instead having to go into shove-or-fold mode.

That’s not really describing the perspective of the team that is ahead here, though, who makes a choice that seemingly provides a temporary benefit but isn’t the best decision long-term. That would be a little like risking too much to win a single tourney hand when doing so doesn’t really improve your chance at realizing the more substantial goal of winning the event.

All of which is to say, Pittsburgh’s choice to try a long field goal to go up six with less than two minutes to go -- a decision they ended making twice -- was at the very least questionable even if they’d had a more reliable kicker. And in fact, I tend to think it was just plain wrong (especially in the second instance).

I’m remembering as I write this a game from two years ago in which Pittsburgh similarly decided to try a long field goal with less than two minutes to go in a close contest. In that case the game was tied and the FG was 54 yards, i.e., a would-be career long for their then-kicker Shaun Suisham. Things went similarly badly for the Steelers there, too, and in a post here I surmised their chances of winning were decreased merely by the decision to kick a FG instead of punt.

Pittsburgh made some other bad choices, too, most glaringly with regards to a couple of fourth down calls in overtime. Indeed, I think last night it was obvious the team I’d picked had hurt their own chances of winning because of in-game decisions -- i.e., because of things they could control -- which definitely added to the pain of getting it wrong.

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