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Ron went by the book against the Chargers...and ignored analytics.

He shouldn’t have.

Los Angeles Chargers v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Washington was outplayed in several (most?) aspects of the game yesterday by the Los Angeles Chargers, but despite that, it still had a legitimate chance to win the game going into the middle of the 4th quarter. Driving into Chargers’ territory, Washington’s offense began to stall.

On Los Angeles’ 40-yard line, with a 4th and 7, and down by 4 points, Rivera was faced with a critical decision: Punt the ball away and try to count on a defense that would eventually allow the Chargers to convert 14 of its 19 third down conversions for the game, or go for it on 4th down in an attempt to continue driving for the touchdown his team would need to win the game.

Ron went with his gut, hoping he could pin the Chargers back against their goal line. Instead, though Tress Way’s punt was adequate, rookie long snapper Camaron Cheeseman committed a holding penalty on the return, giving Los Angeles ample room to operate in front of their endzone.

The Chargers proceeded to drive, fairly easily, down the field, and burn off over 6 minutes of clock and wrap up the game. Up by 4, Los Angeles didn’t need any additional points, but it certainly appeared they wouldn’t have had any trouble adding at least a field goal, if it had been required.

What Did the Numbers Say?

Asked about the decision after the game, Rivera offered the following:

“We ended up with a third-and-[16]. You’d like to think [the defense] could’ve converted that,” Rivera said. ”Unfortunately, we didn’t. We’ll have to take a look at that. But if we had converted it, it might’ve been a different story.”

Having just sat through 3.5 quarters of that game, Ron should have recognized that the odds were against his defense halting that conversion. In fact, his team ultimately stopped the Chargers on less than 25% of similar conversions on Sunday. And, while we all “would like to think the defense” could make that stop, very few who had watched the game had any confidence they could stop Herbert, Allen, and company during crunch time.

But let’s back up to that critical decision to give the ball back to the Chargers in the first place. Several years ago, I wrote a piece, “Why We Should Go for It More on 4th Down” as a FanPost. Its core message remains as pertinent as ever this morning.

The article was based around an analysis in Advanced Football Analytics, and the core takeaway, relevant to this instance, is below:

Statisticians have been banging the “go for it on 4th” drum for at least a decade. The mathematicians have been calling for both less punts and less field goals, finding that their models show “on average, teams that went for it had a change in win probability 2.6 percent greater than teams that did not go for it.” Brian Burke, now of ESPN, formerly of Advanced Football Analytics, boils his analysis down to an easy-to-understand graph (see below), essentially finding that, with less than 2 yards to go, it almost always makes sense to go for it on 4th. Near the 50 yard line, it makes sense to go for it even on 4th and 10 or so. What some might find surprising is even within traditional “field goal range” (at or past the opponent’s 30 yard line), with 5 yards or less to go, it makes sense to go for it, sacrificing the relatively likely 3 points for an improved shot at 7.

So, Washington found itself in the position of 4th and 7 at the Chargers 40 yard line. That situation is squarely in the “Go For It” zone of the figure above, and its not really even close. Essentially, even at 4th and 10 it would have been a break-even decision. The fact that the game was nearing an end made the “risk” of the move even lower.

So why didn’t Ron go for it there? Ostensibly, it was because he trusted his defense, but it was probably also for another reason: He thought losing in a conventional way was likely to be less objectionable than losing in an unconventional one:

So the math says more coaches should go for it on 4th, but many of them still don’t. Why? Economist David Romer, in his 2005 paper, “Do Firms Maximize, Evidence from Professional Football,” offered that, “coaches don’t try to maximize their team’s chances of winning games as much as they maximize their job security.” This basically holds that the conventional wisdom, which most NFL coaches follow, that it is best to punt on “4th and out of field goal range” is safest, and that if they lose, ala Jason Garrett last night, by failing to go for it on 4th, they will be judged less harshly than losing after bucking convention and going for it on 4th. Essentially, the notion is that it is better to lose in a risk averse way than to increase your chances of winning in a way that is perceived to be “riskier.”

And, for the most part, he’s probably right. The post-game focus will largely be on the porous defense, I suspect, and they certainly deserve a sizeable share of the blame. My hope with this piece, however, is that we can begin to highlight these analytics failures more regularly as well.

Earlier this year, I was hopeful that some ambiguous comments by Coach Rivera about analytics hinted at a closet belief in their utility, under certain circumstances. He’ll surely take a closer look at his third down defense after this letdown. Whether or not he puts a similar level of reflection on his late game play calling will tell us about his commitment to deploying analytics to foster his team’s success.

Additional Reading Material:

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