A game of numbers

The use of analytics has taken over coaching in the NFL. Despite this, the 2020-21 NFL Playoffs saw some baffling coaching decisions be made.

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Packers coach Matt LaFleur faced a lot of heat for his late field goal decision in the NFC Championship game.

Alex Kajda

In the past few seasons of NFL football, we’ve seen many young head coaches get hired, ushering in a new generation of analytics heavy decision makers. Guys like Sean McVay, Kliff Kingsbury, Mike Vrabel, and Kyle Shanahan often have analytics crews help make decisions for them based on their odds of winning the game. Many of these choices come on fourth down plays that older generations of coaches would quickly turn down for a punt or field goal. However, this new generation is meant to be risk-takers, guys who have guts to turn the tide of the game, whether their choice fails or succeeds.

This means, that come playoff time, these coaches should be giving it their all; they should be throwing the kitchen sink to win their playoff games. For example, Colts coach Frank Reich passed up a field goal on 4th down and goal from the Bills’ four yard when leading 10-7 late in the 2nd quarter. They failed and subsequently passed up on three points, but the decision to go for it actually gave them a 0.5% better chance of winning the game. Even though the Bills ended up winning the game, aggressive moves like these are appreciated by NFL fans who want to see teams be riskier and have some guts, but some moves this postseason were incredibly cowardly.

The Titans and Ravens faced off in a pivotal Wild Card matchup, the day after the previously mentioned Colts-Bills game. The game was expected to be a shootout but became an offensive struggle throughout most of the game. With the Titans down 17-13 with ten minutes left in the game, they found themselves at the Baltimore 40-yard line facing a 4th and 2.

And they punted it.

Listen, I’m not an NFL-caliber coach by any means (my flag football team does have a 1-0 record though) but that was by far the worst coaching decision I’ve ever seen in my time watching football. According to EdjSports, a company focused on analytics, the punt decision lowered the Titans’ win probability by 14%. Even worse, the punt was a touchback, so the Titans only netted 20 yards of field position through the choice. The Ravens also ended up scoring a field goal on the drive, so punting the ball had no impact other than allowing the Ravens to waste more time off the clock. This decision is so odd since Mike Vrabel is one of the more forward-thinking and gutsier coaches in the NFL. However, with this decision, it seems like he was trying to lose.

The Steelers-Browns wild card game later that night was a shock to many, as the Browns jumped out to a 28-0 first quarter lead. However, the Steelers were gaining momentum a bit into the 3rd quarter and had the ball down 35-23. They had 4th and 1 at around midfield and shockingly decided to punt. Once again, EdjSports disagreed with the choice as punting gave the Steelers a 9.8% chance to win, as opposed to going for it, which would give them a 12.8% chance of winning. Even worse, the Steelers had all the momentum at that point in the game and decided to kill it all with one single choice. The Browns scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, so the punt meant absolutely nothing, and the Browns unsurprisingly went on to win that game.

Now picture yourself being Matt LaFleur this past Sunday. You have the likely MVP of this season, Aaron Rodgers as your QB. The opposing QB is Tom Brady, who almost never gives the enemy team another shot when time is running out. You’re down 31-23, 4th and goal from the 8-yard line, just over two minutes left. For one reason or another, they decided to kick the field goal. I mean, the Packers might as well have waved the white flag. I’m not sure I’ve seen one person online agree with the call. You can say all you want about “well they’re not an NFL coach for a reason” but the bottom line is, taking the ball out of the hands of your MVP QB in that situation is basically another way of saying “I don’t trust you” and even worse, you’re giving the ball back to the greatest to ever play the game. Lafleur defended his choice by claiming that “the way our defense was playing, it felt like it was the right decision to do. It just didn’t work out.” Yeah, Matt, I’m sure Kevin Cash felt the same way pulling Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series and that didn’t quite work out either, did it. Even as a Bucs fan, I felt angry about the call too. It felt like Lafleur gave us the win and surrendered. It just didn’t feel right.

Needless to say, Aaron Rodgers didn’t say much about the decision after the game, stating “It wasn’t my choice” and not saying much more than that. You could tell he was visibly upset about it, though, and I’m sure most fans of the NFL were too.

Despite a constant need for analytics in today’s game, some coaches still decide to be cowards when it matters most. At the very least, we have our Andy Reids and Frank Reichs to make gutsy calls that can entertain us all.