Running the Numbers: Two Critical Fourth-Down Decisions
Guess what? The Cowboys faced a fourth-down play in opponent territory on which I thought they should punt. No, for real! At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down two late fourth-down decisions for Jason Garrett.
With two minutes remaining in regulation in the Cowboys’ thrilling overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, head coach Jason Garrett had to make what I considered to be one of his most difficult decisions all year. In a tie game, the ’Boys faced fourth-and-1 at their own 21-yard line. Nearly all NFL coaches would punt in normal game situations, but Dallas wasn’t in a “normal” situation; they surely figured that if they let go of the ball, the next time they’d see it would be overtime, if at all.
If we assume Brian Moorman would normally punt the ball 45 yards in that situation, Pittsburgh would be set up with a first-and-10 at their own 34-yard line, needing around 25 or so yards to attempt a game-winning field goal. Moorman ended up getting a good bounce for a 59-yard punt that really benefited Dallas, but Garrett could have never expected that. At least it certainly wouldn’t have been a component of his decision.
With three timeouts and just under two minutes remaining, the Cowboys’ chances of stopping Pittsburgh from driving to get into field goal range, based on historical league data, was around 72 percent. The decision to punt gave the Cowboys just around a 30 percent chance to win the game.
Had the Cowboys gone for it and failed, they would have left Pittsburgh with a surefire field goal, at least. However, NFL offenses have converted on fourth-and-1 on 64.4 percent of plays since 2009, and Dallas actually has been surprisingly efficient in short-yardage this year. Based on their field position and the game situation, the break-even expected conversion rate to make going for it the right call was only 33 percent – the ’Boys surely could be expected to rush for a first down on fourth-and-1 on greater than 1-in-3 plays. Even with the risks of failing, the Cowboys’ win probability if they went for it would have been 49 percent, just around their expected win probability if they headed straight to overtime.
Intuitively, this should make sense because if Dallas went for it and made it, they’d pretty much guarantee overtime (at worst) with a shot to win it in regulation. If they had failed, they’d still be left with time to at least try to send the game into overtime. The fact that Moorman reeled off a ridiculous punt doesn’t change the merits of Garrett’s decisions (good or bad).