The Seattle-San Francisco matchup was fantastic for many reasons, as these two hard hitting, physical teams have moved into the void recently handed over by those Baltimore-Pittsburgh brawls of the last decade. One of the compelling things about the game was the end of game situation.
Let’s start with Frank Gore breaking out on a 51 yard run to the Seattle 18 with just over four minutes left in the game. San Francisco trailed 17-16 at the time, and Seattle had two timeouts remaining. Gore was caught and could not break for the touchdown, so he approached the sideline, he made a very veteran move. He went down right before he went out of bounds, understanding the clock was now his friend.
San Francisco took their time, taking the first down snap with 3:37 left. Seattle called timeout. After another short run, they called their final timeout, setting up a key third down. The play began with 3:24 left, and Colin Kaepernick took the ball and swept left, with blockers in front, reminiscent of the Alex Smith run against the Saints in the 2011 playoffs. He picked up the first down, tackled just past the line to gain at the Seattle 7.
It would, of course, be unrealistic to expect Seattle’s defenders to realize in the heat of the moment that they should let San Francisco score once they were out of timeouts and the first down was gained. It was a close play. After the first down, though, Seattle should have strongly considered allowing San Francisco to score a touchdown on the next play. I wrote about another case where a coach should have allowed a score, involving Minnesota and Denver two years ago. That was different: tie game, and once Denver got the first down near the goal, they were absolutely going to be able to run the rest of the clock out and kick a last second field goal.
So, this one is a little different and would be unconventional. Seattle would be conceding the lead if they allowed the score, in exchange for time. They wouldn’t be completely out of time, though, it would just be severely limited. As Kaepernick was climbing up and the officials were moving the chains, I asked if it would be better to allow the touchdown and have 2:30 left, or be down by 2 points with 30 seconds remaining. The responses were all in favor of getting more time in exchange for the points.
Part of this is the specifics of how this worked out. Because of the timing, San Francisco only had to run the one play, and the two minute warning was not much help. If there had been fifteen more seconds on the clock, Seattle could have used the two minute warning, and had the 49ers run their 3rd down play coming out of it. It was a certainty that, so long as San Francisco did not pass, they would be giving the ball back with less than thirty seconds.
Yes, you could hope for a block or missed field goal, and win the game that way. So far this year, on kicks where the line of scrimmage is the 8 or closer, kickers are 143 of 145 (98.6%). That’s not something I would hang my hat on. San Francisco could also fumble, though that would be less than 1% per play as well, and probably less than a typical running play as the 49ers would be on alert. On the flip side, you might play defense straight up and still allow a touchdown on a run after time has run down, at probably a higher rate than 5%.
Let’s focus on the two scenarios, and the success rate in scoring. In the first, traditional way, we get the ball back with 20 to 30 seconds left (Seattle got it at 21 seconds after a kickoff return by Golden Tate). Using the pro football reference drive finder, there have been 31 drives that have started inside a team’s 30 yard line, with 20 to 30 seconds left, needing a field goal to tie or win. Teams have scored twice. Once on a hail mary (Tim Couch vs. the Saints) and once on a made field goal.
That equates out to 6.5% of the time in the last 15 years.
Next, teams that start a drive inside their own 30 with between 2:20 and 2:30 remaining in the game, needing a touchdown to tie or win. That has happened 23 times, and teams have scored a touchdown 9 times (39.1%).
San Francisco would have gone for two, and might have been up 5, or 7. Obviously, in the latter scenario, the touchdown only ties. Looking at this, though, that extra two minutes makes the chances of scoring a touchdown much greater than the chances of getting a field goal in desperation mode with very little time left. It would have been very much a case of a step back to try to get two forward. San Francisco’s defense is very good, and Seattle has a mobile quarterback who can make plays. Those factors are constant, though. The time remaining and score are the variables.
Finally, we can also discuss Jim Harbaugh playing it conservatively and handing the ball three times before the winning field goal, knowing that Seattle would get the ball back with a little time remaining. I am fine with that form of conservative play calling. In that case, I think the difference between giving a quarterback like Russell Wilson a minute left (if you miss) versus less than 30 seconds is dramatic. It is larger than the gain by scoring a touchdown versus a field goal. A Hail Mary beats you either way, and it is highly unlikely that Seattle is able to get off a decent field goal.
To test that, I also looked at the times a team needed a field goal on drives that started with between 50 and 60 seconds remaining, starting in their own end. Teams scored 6 out of 25 times (24%) in that situation, so that shows just how big those thirty seconds are. Harbaugh did the right thing.