When Should You Stop Playing For Field Goals, Like Marvin Lewis and Romeo Crennel, When Down By One Score?

I have been critical of both Marvin Lewis and Romeo Crennel for kicking field goals late in games when a touchdown would have given them the lead, but field goals still kept them behind. I’m kind of on an island here, because they will not get local criticism for these prudent decisions. So while I’ve already discussed why those were bad, an interesting question came up was when coaches should stop taking a field goal in these situations.

So let’s talk about what point in the game the coaches need to stop kicking a field goal that still leaves them behind because it doesn’t gain nearly as much as going for the conversion and the lead.

The short answer is coaches should go more frequently anyway, but we’ll focus on this specifically.

Three factors should drive these decisions. (1) the relative score is the most important. When you look at old games and records, you realize having the lead, and the larger the lead (or smaller the deficit) is better. But that divide between leading and trailing is the biggest. (2) next, who has the ball after the decision? Possession rates behind score, but in some situations, having the ball almost makes up for being slightly down. (3) third, time remaining and number of possessions left.

I could go through the sausage making and talk about the specifics of the numbers I looked at, but I’d rather just talk in this case about what the evidence shows. I looked through the various game probabilities given time remaining and score in the fourth quarter to come up with these statements.

The Point in Question: Midway through the fourth quarter. At the 10 minute mark, the 9 minute mark, the 8 minute mark, and the 7 minute mark, the difference in choice is pretty similar, and teams should go when they have about a 33% of converting the first down. That would equate to about a 4th and 9 for the average team against the average opponent.

Starting at the 7 minute mark, the tolerance for going should continue to climb, and at a linear rate for every minute. For every additional minute, a coach should take off just under 7% from the needed conversion rate. By the three minute mark, a team only needs a 7% chance of converting to justify the benefit of taking the lead, because there is little benefit to still trailing and giving up possession. By the two minute warning, there should be no circumstance under which a coach would not go for the touchdown.

That makes intuitive sense, but it’s cool to see it worked out that way.

By the way, being down 6, and kicking it to make it a 3 point game, is way worse than being down 5 or 4. So, even though both were awful, Romeo’s decision to kick down 6, still needing to win in overtime after a 2nd field goal, may have been worse despite the extra minute and a half on the game clock.

So where were we? Oh yeah. Seven minute mark, that’s when coaches should become less tolerant of settling for a field goal when a conversion could get them the lead (or a tie). Each minute after that, the tolerance should grow less and less, until they never do anything like what happened on Sunday when trailing by between 4 and 6 points, with that little time remaining and manageable fourth downs.

[photo via US Presswire]

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