Tuesday, February 09, 2010

When the Saints Go Marching (All) In

It was an all-in move“It was an all-in move.”

That’s what the fellow on the local sports radio station said yesterday regarding New Orleans Saints’ coach Sean Payton’s decision to go for the onside kick to open the second half of Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV.

A truly remarkable play it was, never tried before in the history of the Super Bowl. That is to say, no team had ever attempted an onside kick prior to the fourth quarter before in the previous 43 title games. And it wasn’t as though the Saints were down by three scores -- it was only 10-6!

By calling it “an all-in move,” the sports radio guy wanted to suggest that the decision to try the play represented a “do-or-die” choice. In other words, had the play failed, he was saying that would’ve been like putting all of one’s chips in the middle and then losing the hand, thereby getting knocked out of the tourney. Meanwhile, a successful onside kick -- like going all in and surviving -- would not have guaranteed ultimate victory, but would have at least kept one alive and with a better chance of winning than if the play had not have been attempted in the first place.

I heard some other commentators yesterday debating the merits of the decision to try the onside kick, as well whether or not it truly represented an “all-in move.” Some noted how onside kicks generally only work around 20% of the time, although most are attempted with the opposing team fully expecting it. One would have to imagine surprise onside kicks work more often, but I heard no percentages for those situations. However one measures it, the Saints went with what we might call a vulnerable hand there -- like shoving with pocket deuces or something, knowing at very best you're not going to be much better than 50-50 to succeed.

Had it failed, the Colts would have started their opening second-half drive on the Saints’ 40-yard line or thereabouts -- a short field. And four passes or so later it likely would have been a 17-6 ball game. As we had already been reminded Sunday, no team has ever come back from more than 10 points to win a Super Bowl before (a record the Saints tied with their win).

Of course, the Saints defense might’ve stiffened up and held Indy to a field goal (or less), so it is hard to say what would have happened next. As in a poker tournament, when considering a particular hand and what would have happened had a different set of community cards come and the hand gone differently than it did, it is hard to say how subsequent hands would have been affected.

As I think about the play -- motivated in large part out of respect for (or fear of) Colts quarterback Peyton Manning -- I can’t help but think of that play from Week 10 near the end of that New England-Indianapolis game. You remember, when the Patriots, up 34-28, decided to go for a fourth-and-two on their own 28-yard-line with 2:08 left in the game (and no timeouts). New England failed to convert, and Manning swiftly led a short drive to give the Colts the winning score with 13 seconds left.

Now that was clearly an “all-in move,” one which New England coach Bill Belichick was derided for loudly afterwards. However, you might say that in that case the decision to go “all in” was made by the chip leader, not the short stack. It was as though the Pats had a small lead -- say 55% of the chips in play -- and shoved with a marginal hand hoping to win the tourney right there. But it didn’t work out and suddenly they were crippled, almost sure to lose.

I’m recalling at the time reading a lot of analyses of Belichick’s decision that tried to suggest it was in fact correct, analyses that resembled the sort of thing you might find in Harrington on Hold’em with regard to judging whether or not it is time to shove or fold. For instance, this guy.

The Saints’ onside kick also made me think of how the Jets opted to take a more conservative route when they grabbed a surprising lead on the Colts two weeks ago in the AFC Championship game, e.g., with a 14-6 lead deciding to run the ball and kick a field goal late in the first half rather than go down the field and build a bigger lead before halftime. New York most certainly chose not to go “all in” there or even be aggressive with the lead, and Indy took advantage.

Perhaps the onside kick wasn’t truly an “all-in move” gamble, as Grange95 persuasively suggests, an example of “calculated aggression.” However one describes it, it was a lot of fun to watch, one of many plays and decisions from Sunday’s game that showed the Saints -- realizing they were up against an especially talented foe -- were more than willing to take risks in order to reap rewards, thus playing to win rather than not to lose.

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Blogger Special K said...

The Advanced NFL Stats computes that a surprise on-side kick has a 60 percent success rate vs. a 20 percent success rate for all on-side kicks. I think we can expect a lot more on-side kicks next season.

2/09/2010 11:22 AM  
Anonymous Dave Robinson said...

I just don't think it was as "all-in" as everyone else. Just like Belichick's 4th and 2 call, he was just trying to keep the ball out of Manning's hands. The only thing he had to lose was about 30 yards. It worked out.

2/10/2010 3:29 AM  

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