The Conservative Mind

There was a lot of talk here in Charlotte that if the Carolina Panthers lost to the New York Giants Sunday, head coach Ron Rivera would get canned. As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot of drama about that -- Carolina beat the Giants 38-0. It was the gnarliest shutout loss for the Giants in 40 years going way back to when they lost to Oakland 42-0 in November of 1973. Norm Snead and Randy Johnson were quarterbacks for the Giants that day. They went a combined 11 for 36 with four interceptions.

But enough reminiscing, the point here is that Ron Rivera was on the hottest of hot seats going into the game. The Charlotte Observer had a whole sports front page about it. Well, such is life as an NFL coach. Rivera took over a spectacularly bad Panthers team that had the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. They took Cam Newton with that pick, they improved by four games and got a lot of people excited about the 2012 season. That turned out to be false hope. In 2012, they got off to a terrible start -- a start that cost general manager Marty Hurney his job. They did win four straight to end the season, offering some promise for this season and, presumably, saving Rivera’s job for the time being.

Then the Panthers lost their first two games this year, making Rivera again a marked man.

From what I can tell, just about everyone:

1. Likes and admires Ron Rivera as a person.

2. Believes he’s way too conservative and unimaginative.

In sports, especially the NFL, the second part tends to overshadow the first. Fans do not like sports conservatism. Well, they like it as long as it is working. But when it doesn’t work, man will they turn. This year year began with Carolina losing heartbreaking games to Seattle and Buffalo. It was a decision in the Buffalo game that put Rivera back in the crosshairs. Late in the fourth quarter, Carolina led Buffalo 20-17 and there was 1:48 left. The Panthers faced third and five from the Buffalo 25 yard line. The Bills had one timeout left.

Rather than try and throw for the first down that would put the game away -- or at least call a moderately interesting play that put Newton in space and gave him some kind of pass-run option -- the Panthers blunted fullback Mike Tolbert up the middle, the William F. Buckley of conservative plays. But that wasn’t the decision we’re talking about here. Tolbert ran for four yards, leaving Carolina fourth and 1 on the Bills 21. Buffalo called its last timeout.

And now it was time for the Ron Rivera decision. The Panthers could:

1. Go for it on fourth down.

2. Kick a 39-yard field goal.

The fascinating thing about football is that, essentially, coaches can choose their own percentages. This isn’t as true in baseball because you have SO MUCH MORE data to use. A baseball manager might want to believe sacrifice bunts always help a team’s chance of scoring, but we have spreadsheets and spreadsheets of data that shows it just isn’t so. Football is different. There aren’t nearly as many games, so there aren’t nearly as many situations to draw from. Smart NFL people use the data available, but in the end they know the data’s many limitation. And coaches are expected to fall back on their own beliefs.

So let’s run through Rivera’s two options here.

If you go for it on fourth down, you have two basic outcomes: You make it or you get stopped. If you make it, you win the game. The Bills are out of timeouts, so you just have to kneel three times and the game is over. But if you don’t make it, the Bills have the ball on the 21-yard line with about 1:40 left, no timeouts, and a chance to tie the game with a field goal or win it with a touchdown.

So, rummage those possibilities in your mind for a moment.

If you kick the field goal, again, there are two basic outcomes again. You make the field goal* and take a six-point lead. That obviously means the Bills would have to drive 80 yards and score a touchdown in about 1:40 to beat you. Or you miss the field goal, meaning the Bills get the ball on the 29 with the same amount of time and have a chance to drive for game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown.

*A bonus: Here’s the percentage of NFL field goal kickers last year:

0-19 yards: 100%

20-29 yards: 96.4%

30-39 yards: 89.1%

40-49 yards: 80.2%

50-plus yards: 60.1%

So, what’s the better decision? Well, it largely depends on your answer to this question: What percentage chance do you think the Panthers have of making it on fourth-down and one. Once you’ve got that number in your mind, it’s fairly easy to come up with a percent chance of winning the game. I figure it like so:

If you make the first down, you will win 100% of the time.

If you miss it, the team will kick the game tying field goal 50% of the time.

If you miss it, the team will score the game-winning touchdown 3% of the time.

Again, you can play around with those numbers, but as long as we stay consistent with them we can come up with some raw win-percentages based on what you think the Panthers success rate would be on fourth-and-one with the game on the line:

50% success rate = 73.5% chance of winning.

60% success rate = 78.5% chance of winning.

70% success rate = 83.5% chance of winning

80% success rate = 88.5% chance of winning

90% success rate = 93.5% chance of winning

So, if you believe the Panthers have an 80% or 90% chance of making the first down, you HAVE to go for it. That absolutely gives your team the best chance of winning the game. But if you believe that your chance of making the first down is much closer to a 50-50 proposition, yeah, you’re probably better off trying the field goal.

I figure trying the field goal -- and again, I’m guessing at some percentages -- should give your team between an 85% and 90% chance of winning the game. But it would also give your team between more of a chance of losing the game in regulation. That’s one more advantage about going for it -- if you miss it, you are ahead three points, which sets up overtime possibilities. If you kick the field goal and lead by six, the game will almost certainly NOT go into overtime. The Bills will have to put everything into trying to score the game-winning touchdown.

Obviously we are just throwing numbers around and this is all sort of meaningless. But the point is not so much the numbers but getting into the workings of a conservative mind. I think it basically comes down to this: Conservative coaches tend to believe things will not happen. That’s at the crux of their football philosophy. Ron Rivera was a linebacker, and a darned good one. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his excellent career at Cal, and he was a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears. His life’s experiences have told him that football is a game of downward pressure, and more often than not stuff doesn’t happen. Teams fail to get fourth-and-one. Teams commit costly penalties and drop key passes and take drive-ending sacks and simply make mistakes. It’s the conservative football coach’s creed: The team that makes the fewest mistakes win. Teams lose games more than they win them.

And so, of course Rivera kicked the field goal. There was never even the slightest doubt he would. For him, forcing the Bills to go 80 yards in less than two minutes without any timeouts was the easiest call … do you know how many things have to GO RIGHT for them to score the game-winning touchdown?

In the end, all those things DID go right for the Bills, and they scored the game-winner with two seconds left, and fans -- remembering that fans are inclined to put that fourth-and-one shot up close to 100%, especially after they saw how the game turned out -- were outraged. They were SURE Rivera had made a terrible decision. All the Panthers needed was to make one measly yard and they would have won!

But I think Ron Rivera believes now, and will always believe, he did the right thing. This is simply how he sees the game.