Pooch punt

Pooch punt is a superb phrase. Well it is ...

Great response from Brilliant Reader Drunyon to the Ron Rivera post. That post was all about Rivera’s decision to kick a field goal on fourth and one with less that two minutes left and his Panthers up three points. He kicked the field goal rather than go for it and try to put away the Bears. I intended for the post to be more about the thought process of a conservative coach like Rivera than the decision itself. But Drunyon pointed to a great tool -- Advanced NFL Stats’ 4th Down Calculator -- that uses NFL data to give you win probability data.

And, in this case, it gives some surprising results:

OK, let’s remember the situation again. Panthers led Bills by three. They facde a fourth and one. There was 1:40 left. The Bills were out of timeouts. The last thing -- how many timeouts the Bills had -- is not figured into the calculator, so these calculations might be adjusted just slightly. But the adjustments do not change the overall point.

The Panthers decided to kick the field goal. According to the calculator, if you make the field goal in this exactly situation, your chance of winning the game is at 82%. If you MISS the field goal, your chance does not change much at all -- it’s down 81%. So total chance for winning the game when you kick the field goal is 82%.

That, I will admit, is a little bit lower than I expected -- I intuitively had the chances between 85-90%. Maybe the Bills having zero timeouts left does increase that 82% win probability a little bit. Either way, let’s mark it down for the record.

Kick the field goal: 82% chance of winning.

Now, what about if the Panthers went for it, like the fans wanted? According to the calculator, the Panthers chances of making it on fourth and 1 was 74% -- about three out of four. And if they had gone for it and made it, the calculator figures they would has won the game 97% of the time.

Once again, I actually think timeouts are a factor here. The Bills had zero timeouts, so I actually think that the Panthers chance of winning was 100%. I guess there’s always the chance for a Miracle at the Meadowlands. And now here comes the crazy part. What if the Panthers had gone for it and failed to get the first down? The calculator figures they would still win 84% of the time.

Huh? Eighty-four percent? Take a minute and look back up at the field goal winning percentage. Yep, you’re seeing that right. The calculator says the Panthers actually had a better chance of winning by FAILING ON FOURTH DOWN than by KICKING THE FIELD GOAL.

How is this mathematically possible? I’m not sure, but I’ll take a guess. One, if they miss the field goal, they give up eight yards of field position. Those yards are pretty important, so I think that’s figured into the percentage. Two, if the Panthers make the field goal, they have to kick off. These days most kickoffs lead to touchbacks, but kickoffs are still a bit of a wildcard. A returner can make it all the way back to midfield. A returner could go all the way.

Anyway, we total it up.

Go for it: 94% chance of winning.

So the calculator says that Rivera cost his team roughly 12% of a winning chance by kicking that field goal.

But here’s the craziest part of all. There is a third option. It’s so ridiculous an option, I never even considered it. But it’s absolutely an option. The pooch punt. Yes, I know, ridiculous, pointless, stupid. But -- and I suspect you know this -- it turns out the pooch punt is actually the second-best option. Punting is actually a better option than kicking the field goal. The key, again, is field position. Every yard is valuable. A pooch punt could gain your defense 10 or 15 or even 20 yards if done just right. And, even if the ball goes in the end zone, you gain a yard.

You will say: Punting would be insane.

So what does that tell you about kicking the field goal?

Punt: 89% chance of winning.

Obviously Ron Rivera had different percentages running through his head which is why he kicked the field goal. And like I said earlier, there is no way you could show him numbers that would convince him he made the worst choice. He believes in the power of field position, the power of defense, the power of Murphy’s law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The Bills and their fans will be forever grateful.