Great plays + bad decision = season over

Benjamin Morris explains why after Aaron Rodgers’ latest miracle …

… the Packers made the wrong call:

In the wake of Green Bay’s loss to Arizona — in which the Packers conceded a relatively routine winning touchdown on the first drive of overtime after spectacularly driving the length of the field (and then some) to tie the game in regulation — debate rages about whether the NFL needs to guarantee that both teams get a possession in OT. Whatever you think of the overtime rules, they are what they are, and under those rules, the Packers abandoned their best chance of winning by kicking the game-tying extra point at the end of regulation instead of going for it. …

Aaron Rodgers got utterly jobbed. To recap — not because you aren’t familiar, but because it’s not possible to relive this too much or too soon — at one point, the Packers’ last drive looked like this:

Just 54 seconds of game time later — after Rodgers pulled the requisite pair of canonizing miracles out of his backside — all the Packers needed to win the game and knock off the second-seeded Cardinals was 2 more yards.

As the game went to commercial, I hoped against hope that Mike McCarthy would do the right thing and let that game live or die on Rodgers’s ability rather than try to send the game to overtime, on the road, against a superior opponent.

Was I being emotional about what I’d just witnessed? Sure. Even if the Packers ended up winning, it was depriving Rodgers — my sometimes muse— of the opportunity to complete what would have been probably the greatest drive in NFL history. But I also felt the passion of conviction — that this was the right choice — and the desperate hope that the professional NFL decision-maker would have arrived at the same conclusion. …

The opportunity for the Packers to cap off that already legendary drive with a counterintuitive but mathematically sound two-point attempt — whether successful or not — had the potential to be another such reason-affirming moment for me. But alas:

Now, don’t get me wrong: That the Packers should have gone for two wasn’t obvious. But just because it wasn’t obvious doesn’t mean the call was difficult. This requires no advanced math and could literally be on a middle school homework assignment.

The question is: Which is greater, the chances of (1) Aaron Rodgers converting that 2-point conversion, or the chances that the Packers (2) make the extra point and (3) win in overtime? To make this comparison, we need to know or estimate three numbers.

Let’s start by looking at league averages:

  1. Two-point conversion success rate: Since 2001,3 teams have converted47.2 percent of their 2-point tries from the 2-yard line (431 of 913).
  2. Extra point success rate: Since the inception of the longer extra point this season, NFL kickers have made 94.3 percent of their attempts from the 15-yard line (1,131 of 1,199).
  3. Expected winning percentage in overtime: Since 2001, the away team has won in overtime 45.5 percent of the time (110 of 242 overtimes that produced a winner).

With these numbers (which used only division), we can find our chances of winning for each option using — wait for it — multiplication.

  • Go for two: With no time left, this is exactly equal to the estimated 2-point success rate: 47.2 percent.
  • Send to overtime: Chances of making extra point multiplied by chances of winning in overtime. 94.3 percent * 45.5 percent = 42.9 percent.

There, we already have a baseline 4.3 percentage point advantage to going for two for a typical road team in the Packers’ position, using nothing but grade-school mathematics.

But those are just baselines, right? Everyone from coaches to media to fans will tell you that averages miss the hundreds of situation-specific factors at play. This is a technically true but often misleading rejoinder — and one that’s almost always used only to defend the status quo.

But in the spirit of accuracy and transparency, I’ve tried to refine the assumptions that go into that calculation above.

  1. Two-point conversion success rate: Adjusting for team strength and refining the data to the most comparable situations boosts our estimate to 48.8 percent.
  2. Extra point success rate: Adjusting for league trends and kicker Mason Crosby’s skill raises our estimate to 95.9 percent.
  3. Expected winning percentage in overtime: Adjusting for the overtime rules changes and playoff dynamics lowers our estimate to 42.6 percent.

If you would like a little more detail about how I arrived at those estimates, here is a longish footnote.4

So here’s where we stand under our revised assumptions:

  • Go for two: Equals estimated 2-point success rate: 48.8 percent.
  • Send to overtime: Chances of making extra point multiplied by chances of winning in overtime. 95.9 percent * 42.6 percent = 40.9 percent.

Naturally, these educated guess assumptions could be off in various respects, but that 8 percentage point gap is hard to overcome. When people who argue that there’s too much uncertainty to buck the status quo actually list the variables they have in mind (unfortunately, they often don’t), they tend to overestimate the amount that situation-specific variables affect the balance of probabilities. And the variables cited often don’t even cut the way they think they do. For example: In this case, an oft-cited factor is that the Packers’ receiving corps was weakened by injuries, including the loss of Randall Cobb earlier in the game. But, as I discussed in the footnotes, anything that makes the Packers weaker relative to the Cardinals is likely to hurt their chances in overtime more than their chances of converting the 2-point try.

Thus, our best (and perhaps slightly conservative) estimate is that the Packers cost themselves about 7.9 percent of a win by kicking rather than going for two, and this whole thing could have been avoided if NFL coaches took the time to sit down and learn some basic percentages.

McCarthy’s rationale obviously was that he felt the Cardinals would only kick a field goal, thus giving the Packers at least one overtime possession. This is despite the fact that the exact same thing happened in last year’s NFC championship game. McCarthy clearly wasn’t counting on his defense’s failure to tackle Larry Fitzgerald on a 75-yard broken play pass, for that matter. Crosby didn’t miss an extra point all season, even from the longer distance of this season, but the question isn’t as much about whether Crosby can tie the game as your choice of winning or losing on a two-point attempt vs. winning or losing in overtime, when you either have to mount a scoring drive …

… or make a defensive play.

I have covered games with similar decisions to be made. The college game I covered this past season featured a late touchdown where the coach decided on the game-tying extra point. However, there were still about three minutes remaining, and the team that had just tied the game even got the ball back after a fumble. They didn’t score, but won in overtime.

One year earlier, that team’s final game went to triple overtime, where a win would probably get them a playoff berth. They were tied after the first overtime, the opponent got a touchdown and extra point in (to borrow a baseball team) the top of the second overtime, countered by a touchdown in the second overtime. I though they should have gone for two and the win. They kicked the extra point to go to a third overtime, where the home team didn’t score and the visitor did, ending the home team’s season.

A decade ago, I got to cover almost the exact same situation as Saturday’s when a Hail Mary pass with seven seconds left (apparently the only play that works on second-and-goal from the 35) brought the Cinderella team to within one point. Their kicker had missed a game-winning field goal from slightly longer distance than an extra point earlier in the year, so had we had to discuss the point I would have argued for going for two because high school kicking is usually an adventure. (The extra point tied the game, and the Hail Mary team ended up winning because, ironically, the opponent missed its overtime extra point and the winner did not.)

You can argue I’m cherry-picking my examples here. Football is about momentum and emotion more than arguably any other sport. Consider logic instead of percentages.

If you kick the extra point and go to overtime, you have to make enough offensive plays to score without your best remaining receiver, Randall Cobb. And then you have to make enough defensive plays to stop the Cardinals from outscoring you. (Unless you do those things in reverse order, when your offense doesn’t even get the ball.) If you go for two, you have two yards to gain, which means you have the entire short-yardage playbook at your disposal — everything from a three-tight-end pass …

… to a spread-formation run …

… to something else.

(I prefer a rollout run-pass option myself.)

The point is that losing on a failed two-point attempt and losing in overtime have the important thing in common. The offense has two yards to gain on a two-point attempt; the defense has 12 yards (two yards plus the entire end zone) to defend. And the Packers had just left the Cardinals’ reeling with Hail Mary II of the 2015 season. Go for the win.


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