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A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Should the Cowboys have kicked a field goal when down 18 against New York?

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Jonathan Bales

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.

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10 Responses to Should the Cowboys have kicked a field goal when down 18 against New York?

  1. Chris stallcup says:

    Was that a pun I see at the end? Haha nice article and couldn’t agree with you any more.

  2. bW says:

    good post Jonathan…and I saw your reply on the other article.
    I thought you might feel the same way…I just wasn’t sure what the math was going to say.

    I was pissed listening to Tirico and Jaws (although there is rarely a time I’m not annoyed with Jaws) going off about it.

  3. Haha yes it was a pun, albeit a poor one.

    Agree on Jaws bW…I actually don’t mind Tirico most of the time. He generally sticks to what he knows and you can tell he does a nice job preparing for each game. . .he immediately knew Costa was the Cowboys’ third-string guard, which is impressive. For whatever reason, though, he felt strongly about this particular topic and was just wrong.

  4. chris stallcup says:

    to me the call was correct in going for two and the going for it on 4th down. I mean if we only got three points and then gave the ball back to the giants, who remember got touchdowns on every single possession, then we would be down even more than if we didnt go for it.

  5. craig says:

    JB,

    This is one of my favorite posts in a while. I just wish, those commentators could see just one chart. Great job again man.

  6. Thanks guys. And feel free to contact Tirico and Jaws with these numbers haha

  7. Mark Watkins says:

    Hey Jonathan,
    This isn’t really related to this post, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading by the way, but I am interested to get your opinion on just how talented you think this team really is. Coming into this season, I had high hopes, as most fans did. Now I wonder if we overestimated the talent level completely, or whether it’s a case of either bad coaching, lack of motivation or all three. It seems that Olshansky, Brookings and Columbo are certainly showing their age this year, but others aren’t playing nearly as well as I would have expected.

  8. I think it was a combination of all three. I think it is primarily the offensive line that was overrated. The majority of football fans and analysts tend to look at a team’s skill position players before their line. I’m guilty of this too sometimes. Would you be able to find anyone who says Tennessee’s offense is as talented as the Cowboys’ (before the season, anyway). I doubt it. But their offensive line is far superior and that has just as much to do with overall talent (perhaps more) than skill positions.

    Still, I think the other two factors (poor coaching and lack of motivation/mental toughness) are the bigger factors. Every team has its weaknesses, and the Cowboys (in terms of personnel) aren’t as glaring as others.

  9. Mark Watkins says:

    Thanks Jonathan,
    I agree. I was definitely concerned about their ability to make a run in the playoffs after the way the line was manhandled by the Vikings in the playoffs, although I do believe that injuries and crowd noise were a big factor there. I certainly didn’t foresee this kind of season however. But like you mentioned in your other article, I hope that good draft position will enable them to revamp their offensive line for next season.

  10. Pingback: Why the Dallas Cowboys (and all NFL teams) should attempt WAY more two-point conversions in 2011 | Dallas Cowboys Times

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