Mike Vrabel made the right call in going for two against the Chargers in London, to try to win a game in regulation, rather than tie it and hope for overtime. Nevertheless, he has been under immediate scrutiny from talking heads and a large portion of the public, because this is what happens. Great decisions are “successful gambles,” horrible decisions that cost teams lots of win probability are ignored, and those that are close to being toss-ups are skewered as the worst thing ever when they fell.
To show we are not a hive mind here at The Big Lead, and we often disagree about sports things just like you might when sitting with your friends, here is Henry McKenna strongly disagreeing with Vrabel’s decision to go for two.
I’m going to present the case for going today.
To weigh the wisdom of going, we need to work through some realistic chances of what happens when teams make the different choices. It means considering the chances of making the two-pointer. It includes the chances of the Chargers scoring, both if trailing and if tied when getting the ball back with about 30 seconds and two timeouts remaining. It includes assessing the chances in overtime. It also includes some of those kicking things that people tend to pass over, like the chances of missing the extra point, and getting an onside kick.
Teams convert two-pointers about half the time. I know the Titans got closer on a second attempt because of a Chargers’ penalty, but I’m just assessing the wisdom of the decision from when it is made and not what happens after.
Teams miss an extra point about 6% of the time. Does that matter? You bet it does, but it seems like something people want to ignore. The Titans could recover the onside kick (about a 10% chance of that), which would leave them about 20 yards shy of field goal range.
The Chargers could score when they get the ball back, but I think the error is assuming that they will score if they are trailing but will not try when they are leading. The info is a little thin, but 4 out of 25 teams over the last five seasons scored when trailing by 1-3 points and getting the ball with 30 to 50 seconds left (those two timeouts probably represent another 10-15 seconds of value to the Chargers). When the game was tied, same time remaining, teams scored 5 out of 27 times. I see no strong reason to think the Chargers would not try to win the game in regulation. The chances to do so were somewhere in that 20% or less range. (And for what it’s worth, more teams missed field goals than made them in these type of drives).
And then, I think a huge factor is that THE CHARGERS ARE THE BETTER TEAM. If I am the Chargers, and the situations are reversed, I probably play for overtime with the kick, make Mariota go 40+ yards in 30 seconds, and beat me. The Chargers were the favorite by 6.5 points entering this game. Yes, the Titans had done a good job of keep away, but Philip Rivers averaged almost 12 yards a pass in this game. I know people like to think of overtime as coin flips, but that’s not actually true. The better team wins more than they lose. Going back over the last 20 years, teams favored by 3.5 to 9.5 points pre-game ended up winning in OT 56% of the time.
If you are the underdog, you want to push your chips all-in before you get blinded to death. You want to go when you have a relatively good situation.
So when I put in those various factors, I get the following:
The Titans’ chances of winning the game were 41% of they go for two.
Yes, this is because the Chargers could still score in regulation to win it on a late FG.
Ah-a you say, why would they do that when it doesn’t seal the game and when they are an underdog by doing so?
Well, The Titans’ chances of winning the game by kicking the extra point, and assuming they are underdogs in OT, is 33%.
If we assume that OT is a coin flip, but the Chargers could still win in regulation, the chances are 38%.
And if we, for some reason, assume the Titans are better than a coin flip to win (as the CBS studio guys seemed to think) in overtime, then the chances are 42%, virtually identical with the odds by choosing to go for two.
That, though, requires you to assume a lot that I think makes little sense. Vrabel made the right call to go for the two pointer there, even if they could lose in regulation. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
But heaven forbid you don’t do the conventional thing. As we know, all kicks are always made, all teams with momentum win in overtime, and teams that are trailing go on to win with little time left, while tied teams do not.