Marvin Lewis Gets Bold In Overtime

The Wall Street Journal's 'Numbers Guy' Carl Bialik asked me the other night about the Bengals' 4th and 11 conversion attempt late in overtime against the Browns. With a just over a minute left in OT, the Bengals faced a 4th and 11 from the Cleveland 41. Quarterback Carson Palmer was able to scramble for 15 yards and a first down, and Cincinnati went on to kick a field goal to pull out the win. At the risk of sounding like a broken record on the topic of 4th down decisions, here's a summary of what I told Carl.

This is a tough question because it was so deep into overtime, and a tie was a very real possibility. Here is a breakdown of the decision according to the Win Probability model. The table below lists the probability of winning, losing, and tying based on the 3 possible outcomes from that 4th and 11 situations. They could go for it and succeed, go for it and fail, or punt. If you consider a tie as half a win, the total value reflects the sum of the win probability plus half of the tie probability.

Outcome Probabilities of 4th Down Decision
Tot Value

4th and 11s are converted about 30% of the time in that region of the field as a league-wide average (using 3rd and 11s as statistical support). Therefore the total expected value of the conversion attempt would be:

0.30 * 0.945 + (1-0.3) * 0.40 = 0.56

Punts are punts, so the value is a static 0.46. So it's 0.56 vs. 0.46 in favor of going for it. But that's only if you value a tie as half a win, which isn't necessarily the case. Also, these estimates are rough because we are literally in uncharted territory. Rarely do overtime games go that deep, so there isn't a lot of data to work with. Some of my numbers were estimated based on drive scoring rates in close games in the 4th quarter.

I can't imagine Marvin Lewis could have made an estimate like this. He must have been very confident in Carson Palmer and made a gutsy call. Plus, the memory of last year's tie against Philadelphia must have weighed heavily on Lewis' mind. Imagine the outcry in Cincinnati if they didn't make it, and the Browns were able to get into FG range. Bold call.

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4 Responses to “Marvin Lewis Gets Bold In Overtime”

  1. Jeff Clarke says:

    Can you look at the Mangini call at the end of regulation?

    I did a really long post on it at the end of the 'Touching the Passer' comment section.

    I think this might qualify as one of the worst fourth down decisions ever but I'm curious what you think.

    Its funny because the circumstances are close to exactly the same as the Bengals circumstances. It was almost exactly the same spot on the field.

  2. Rob says:

    Just found this site a couple of days ago and I'm already addicted. I've been looking for better NFL stats than the typical ones for a long time and this site is it. It looks like I've got a lot of background reading to do to catch up though.

  3. Bjorn says:

    The trickiest bit here is (in my mind) counting a tie as half a win. The fact of the matter is that unless you tie again the same season (very unlikely) a tie will end up beeing either worth allmost as much as a win or barely more than a loss.

    This early in the season it might be impossible to predict so you'll basicly might have to throw up your hands and split the difference but for later OT games (such as last years Eagles-Bengals) where many of the tie-braking scenarios are more know this can heavily influence the decisionmaking proccess.

  4. Tim says:

    On "Inside the NFL", Carson Palmer said he lobbied Marvin to go for it on 4th down because the last thing he wanted was another tie.

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