Saints Slip Up, Still Win

Sean Payton is back in the decision-maker chair for the Saints after his one-year sabbatical, and he is typically known as one of the more analytical coaches. The Saints pass more often than other teams, they go for it on fourth down more often, and even try the occasional surprise onside kick.

On Sunday, Payton faced a couple of fourth down decisions, testing his analytical mind. On their second drive, the Saints ran the ball on 4th-and-1 from their own 47-yard line -- a sizable gamble to the traditional football mind. Mark Ingram was stuffed and the Falcons would turn good starting field position into a field goal. This was definitely the right decision, despite the outcome (+0.84 EP going for it vs -0.30 EP with a punt).

The much bigger decision, though, came with 3:30 left in the game up three. The Saints faced a 4th-and-2 from the 4-yard line after a 5-yard completion to Lance Moore. Drew Brees lined up to attempt a 4th-down conversion but Payton ultimately decided to take a timeout to think things over. After the timeout, the Saints came out in field goal formation, made the chip shot and went up 23-17.

So, what do the numbers say?

Going for it is successful 55% of the time resulting in expected win probability of 87%. In fact, according to Brian's win probability model, a failure results in the same 87% win probability due to expected resulting field position. I estimated that the WP success is probably closer to 92%, but either way, compared to the expectation of a field goal (75% win probability), going for it is clearly the better decision. 

Notice that WP Fail on a field goal is significantly higher than a successful field goal. This seems strange, you would think that making the field goal increases your chances of winning. The truth is, win probability here is based on actual historical performance -- rather than optimal NFL play-calling. If a team is down three points, they are much more likely to be conservative and settle for the game-tying field goal. If a team is down between three and eight points, they are forced to be aggressive, going for it on fourth down and passing the ball more. Both of these tendencies lead to more efficient play-calling and performance.

The Falcons drove down field, stayed aggressive (only running the ball one time) and had four chances to win the game from inside the 10-yard line. The Saints should have tried to put the game away themselves or pin the Falcons deep while maintaining the three-point lead. A kickoff after a field goal gives the Falcons significantly better field position. The Saints were able, however, to stop the Falcons on four straight red zone plays, ultimately putting the game away with an interception on 4th-and-goal from the three.

Keith Goldner is the Chief Analyst at - The leading fantasy sports analytics platform - and creator of Drive-By Football.  Follow him on twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook

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8 Responses to “Saints Slip Up, Still Win”

  1. Jeff Clarke says:

    This situation happens so often. I feel like every week at least a game or two ends up in this situation. The math and the logic are so clear. I don't understand how the coaches and analysts never really analyze this in detail. Once again, the commentator said there was no decision they "had to kick".


    Did anyone else notice the absolutely horrible timeout that the Falcons called before 3rd down with 53 seconds left? I was sitting there wondering whether it would be smart or not for the Saints to use their final timeout in that situation and the Falcons went and called one. Once again, the announcers missed what could have been a major mistake.

    It was third and goal. They were only going to get two more plays. 53 seconds was more than enough time to run a full huddle and run the play with about 30 seconds left. I would have let the clock run down even more if the 3rd down play ended in bounds and then called timeout before the fourth down play.

    As it was, if they scored they would be giving the Saints the ball back with 50 seconds and a timeout down by only 1. In those circumstances, New Orleans would have still had an extremely good likelihood of coming back and winning the game. If they scored with less than 20 seconds, it would have almost certainly sealed the victory.

    The timeout did nothing to help Atlanta's likelihood of scoring and might have killed them on the other side.

  2. Unknown says:

    Great post, Keith. This is one of those situations where if you throw in each team's particular capabilities - in this case, Atlanta's offense vs. New Orleans' defense - the case for going for it is even more convincing. It's too early to tell how good the Saints' defense will be this year, but last year it was horrific, while the Falcons' offense was one of the most efficient of 2012 (and we know not much has changed since then, if anything they've improved with the addition of Steven Jackson). They can score in a hurry if needed; they almost pulled it off and Sunday.

  3. George says:

    I'm new to this site, so forgive me if I'm addressing something that's been addressed before.

    Seemed like an obvious decision to go for it at the time, but even I didn't expect it to be this drastic (i.e. that even failing the 4th down would be better than making the FG). Still, any idea why the WP for succeeding on 4th down is the same as the WP for failing? The only possible explanations I can think of for why the WP of succeeding isn't much higher are that 1) the history of games from which the WP is calculated is from all games with this score and time, which means that many of the teams likely kicked if they reached 4th down (which similar to the current situation, is suboptimal), and 2) maybe running additional clock from 3:30 isn't necessarily better for the offense as this likely means that they now wouldn't get the ball back if the other team scores on their possession. Still, it's surprising to me that the added possibility of scoring the touchdown isn't much more significant than any of these other factors.

  4. Walker Sturdivant says:

    One thing I also noticed about that game was the way Sean Payton called for a lot more runs than usual. I believe it was 29 rushing attempts to 35 passes. It'll be interesting to see if this continues throughout the season.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The Vikings did the exact same thing against the Bears. Facing a 4th and goal from the Bears' 4 yard line, they elected to kick the field goal. Doing so increased their lead from 3 to 6.

    On the subsequent kickoff in windy, rainy Chicago, Devin Hester once again had a big return, starting the Bears out at the 34 yard line. In the space of 3 minutes, they drove down the field and scored a touchdown with 10 seconds remaining.

    The Vikings' kicker Blair Walsh, normally a master of the touchback, only manage to boot one kickoff out of the end zone that day, likely due to the weather conditions. Hester set a franchise record 249 return yards on the day, never finding the end zone but bringing two kicks past midfield.

    Now of course the WP calculator says that Minnesota should have gone for it on 4th down - just as in the Saints-Falcons game in week 1. But beyond that, I think the specific game conditions made going for it EVEN MORE favorable than usual - Devin Hester, the Vikings' dismal kickoff coverage, the inability to kick touchbacks in bad weather, and that same bad weather making long field goals that much more difficult.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I've never really understood the point in turning a late 3 point lead into a 6 point lead. (Let alone somethiing even more useless like turning a 9 point lead into a 12 point lead.) It's one thing to be conservative late in the game to turn a 6 point lead into a 9 point lead, but I don't really see the point in turning a 1-3 point lead into a 4-6 point lead or a 9-10 point lead into a 12-13 point lead. (At least late in the game- in the first half it's different.) Just go for the fourth down in those situations.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Sean Payton was recently found by Football Outsiders to actually be the NFL's most aggressive coach on fourth down.It says a lot about NFL coaches' cowardice on fourth down when the most aggressive coach still makes a decision like this

  8. Anonymous says:

    I'm almost wondering if I'd rather have a 3 point lead in the last few minutes than a 6 point lead. A 3 point lead would almost inevitably cause the opponent to play for overtime and not even try for a regulation win. A 6 point lead actually forces the opponent to go for a touchdown.

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