Mike McCarthy punted on 4th and 2 with the Packers on their own side of the field, with only 4:20 left and the Packers having only one timeout remaining. They did not get the ball back as Seattle picked up two first downs.
Nevertheless, McCarthy says he was playing “the numbers.”
I’m trying to search where these numbers are. I think the only numbers in his favor is safety in numbers, as other coaches will also punt in situations like that. I looked at all the 4th and short situations (1 to 3 yards) where a team was down by a score in the final five minutes, with the ball between their own 25 and 40.
Only 22% of the coaches went for it with between 4 and 5 minutes left, but that jumped to 75% with 3 to 4 minutes left, and going for it was near universal after that in manageable fourth down situations. So yes, McCarthy was just before the 4 minute mark, though if he was properly valuing his lack of timeouts, he should have treated it as if there were only 3:00 left on the clock.
But numbers are just facts, coming from other NFL games. And the facts are that with that time and lack of timeouts remaining, trying to retain possession, in a completely manageable situation, was paramount. Want some proof?
It’s a very small sample size, but I pulled all teams that had a 1st-and-10 in the following situations, up by 1 or 2 points:
- Between their own 20 and 30 yard line with 3:00 to 4:30 left on the clock (this would be like the situation for Seattle after a punt)
- Between the opponent’s 25 and 40 with 3:00 to 4:30 left on the clock (this would be the situation for Seattle taking over if fourth down failed)
You might be surprised to learn, but there’s very little difference in how frequently teams won in those situations. In fact, the teams with possession further back with worse field position went 16-5 over the last decade, while those with a 1st-and-10 right on the edge of scoring range went 10-4-1. Maybe this is randomness, but it might also reflect that teams get more conservative on the edge of field goal range.
Sure, Green Bay was down by a point but even a field goal doesn’t end it there. But what would have a huge impact on their chances of winning would be picking up two yards.
And now, 4-5-1. Those are the numbers that McCarthy should be thinking about.