Should the Cowboys have kicked a field goal when down 18 against New York?
The Field Goal
Midway through the fourth quarter of Monday night’s Cowboys-Giants matchup, Dallas had a 4th and Goal from the six-yard line, down 18. Once the Cowboys failed on their 3rd down conversion, I said “Gotta go for it.” The Cowboys agreed, but ESPN’s Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski did not. They went into a tirade about how awful the Cowboys’ decision was and how you “just want to keep yourself in the game.”
Like many ill-informed announcers who have little statistical background, they’re just dead wrong. Down 18 points, the Cowboys obviously needed to score three times. Two touchdowns, an extra point, a two-point conversion, and a field goal would obviously tie up the game, but let’s not forget that would only be the case if the Cowboys held the Giants to no more points. Sure, you could argue they’d have to do that to win the game anyway, but it was certainly possible to allow just a field goal and still have a shot at victory.
If the Cowboys kicked the field goal and then subsequently allowed one themselves, they’d be right back where they started (down 18), but with less time left. If they scored a touchdown, though, they’d be down either 10, 11, or 12 (depending if they went for two and if they made it). A Giants’ field goal in that scenario still leaves them within two scores.
Plus, the math of the situation supports my opinion. The graph above shows that, in regular game situations, kicking a field goal would yield slightly more expected points than going for a touchdown. But this wasn’t a regular game situation, for the reasons mentioned above (and because New York was moving the ball up and down the field).
Let’s also not forget that the Cowboys gave the Giants the ball at their own six-yard line. I don’t know if Dallas would have kicked the ball deep or tried an onside kick following a touchdown, but either way, New York would have winded up with much better field position than their own six-yard line. That alone negates the slight statistical advantage of kicking a field goal in “normal” game situations.
The Two-Point Conversion
Later, the Cowboys did score a touchdown to close within 12 points. They decided to go for a two-point conversion, and Tirico immediately went off about “awful” the decision was. I normally like Tirico, but he needs to stick to play-by-play and keep his nose out of matters of football theory. On this topic, he was again as wrong as could be.
You’ll often hear announcers say it’s “too early to go for two.” But what does that even mean? How is it ever “too early?” The decision to go for a two-point conversion should be based on a variety of factors, including the score, a coach’s confidence in his two-point play, and so on. Actually, if the probability of Team X converting on a two-point attempt is 50.1 percent, they should almost always go for two. The expected points of 1.002 is greater than that of an extra point (which can obviously only be as high as 1, even with 100 percent accuracy).
Thus, you’d only want to go for an extra point in non-normal game situations. Suppose Team X scores a late touchdown to tie the game. They’d clearly want to attempt the extra point to secure the win. Going for two points would be quite disadvantageous in that scenario. If football commentators knew the statistics and theory behind two-point attempts, perhaps they’d be saying “It’s too early to try the extra point.”
There are more reasons that Tirico was unjustified in his stance. Down 12, the decision of whether or not to attempt a two-point try is indeed a “no-brainer,” but Tirico is on the wrong side of the debate. If you go for two points and succeed, you’re down 10 points and now know that a touchdown and field goal will tie the game. If you go for two and fail, you now know that you need two touchdowns to win. If you kick the extra point, however, you might later kick a field goal that will turn out to be meaningless.
The idea that you want to “keep yourself in the game” by kicking an extra point is preposterous. You actually want to determine what scores you’ll need as early as possible. If you kick the extra point, then a field goal, you’re down eight points. If you then score a touchdown and fail on the two-point attempt, you’re still another score away from winning the game. The field goal attempt in between touchdowns becomes all but meaningless, and this is due solely to the fact that you didn’t attempt the two-point conversion as early as possible. Failing the two-point try earlier, as I said above, provides you with the knowledge that you need two touchdowns to win.
Tirico and Jaws used the outcome of the game as justification for their view, but that’s wrong as well. If you roll a six-sided die and bet even money on a specific number coming up, your bet is a dumb one regardless of the outcome of the roll. The fact that you will win money one time out of six doesn’t justify the decision ex post facto. When I listen to the Monday Night Football crew, I feel like I am betting that an even number will come up on my roll of the die–but all the commentators, I mean numbers, are odd.