Zorn Is My Hero 2

Jim Zorn may have his hands full managing the Redskins, but I'll give him credit for his courage. Last week, I made the case that his two daring 4th down decisions on the final drive were the right calls. This week, before the sun had even set on the day his team couldn't beat the lowly Lions, he was excoriated for two more controversial decisions.  In this post, I'll examine if he made the right calls in Detroit.

4th and Goal on the 1

Midway through a scoreless first quarter, the Redskins were faced with a 4th and goal from the Lion's 1 yard line. The best way to analyze this decision is not with Win Probability(WP) but with Expected Points (EP). EP--which is the average point advantage a team can expect given its field position, down and to go distance--provides a  clear and precise measure of decisions when time is not a factor and neither team has a large lead. This is a useful method compared to WP because the goal of each team should simply be maximizing its lead at this stage of the game.

Going for it on 4th down in this situation would be successful 68% of the time. A touchdown is worth 6.4 EP, not 7, because any TD or field goal requires a kickoff, worth 0.6 EP to the receiving team. A failed conversion attempt leaves the ball at the 1, worth -1.0 EP to the Lions and +1.0 EP to the Redskins. A 99-yard TD drive by a rookie QB was improbable in the extreme. Overall, the math says the 4th down attempt is worth 4.6 EP.

A FG would be worth 2.6 EP considering the ensuing kickoff. FG attempts from that distance are 99% successful--virtually automatic. But that pails in comparison to the 4.6 EP of the conversion attempt. Despite Portis' failed plunge, this was a slam-dunk good decision by Zorn and the Redskins.

Accept or Decline? 

Following the stop, the Lions marched down to the Redskins' 33 yard line. On 3rd and 4, the Lions were flagged for offensive pass interference for a 9 yd penalty. Against convention, Zorn accepted the penalty, moving the Lions out of field goal range but giving them an opportunity to convert a 3rd and 13.

First, a few stats for you. 3rd and 13s are converted 26% of the time. FG attempts from the 33 are successful 57% of the time. But this doesn't tell us much. Again, because time is not yet a factor, we turn to Expected Points for the analysis.

All things considered, based on recent NFL history, a 3rd and 13 situation from the 42 is worth 1.2 EP. A successful FG attempt is worth 2.6, but a missed attempt gives the ball to the Redskins at their own 40, worth 1.4 EP to them. In total, the FG attempt is worth a net of 0.9 EP. On balance, the better decision would be to decline the penalty and allow the FG attempt--with one caveat.

Declining the penalty gives the Lions a 4th down in No Man's Land, the region of the field where both field goals and punts are relatively worthless. FGs are anything but automatic, and the likelihood of a touchback makes a punt an unappealing option. This is the region of the field where 4th down conversion attempts make the most sense, and where coaches actually show a tendency to go for it.

Had the Lions decided to go for it on 4th and 4 from the 33, they would have bargained for a 1.4 EP proposition. This would have been the right call for the Lions in this situation, and it would have been wrong to assume they would have tried a distant FG attempt. So while the the numbers say that, assuming the Lions kick the FG, the better decision would have been to decline the penalty, that's not a safe assumption. To me, it's pretty much a wash.

As it turned out, Matthew Stafford was able to scramble for 21 yards and gain a first down. On the next play, he hit a receiver for another 21 yards and a touchdown to take the lead for good.

The reason the Lions won the game isn't because of Zorn's tactical decisions. The reason is that the Lions outplayed the Redskins when it mattered. Portis was held to negative yards for the entire first half. The Redskins didn't convert a 3rd down until the second half, and totaled only 2 of 10 for the entire game. In contrast, the Lions converted 10 of 18. Additionally, the Lions played relatively mistake-free football without a turnover all day.

Washington was beat by timely plays, pure and simple. Stafford's 21-yard scramble is a perfect example. Replay that situation 100 times, and the Lions would convert fewer than 25 of them. Zorn's decisions did not cost them the game, and in fact, he gave them their best chance of winning. I realize a lot of Redskins fans won't understand this, and I have no delusions of convincing all of them. I agree that many criticisms of Zorn as a head coach are valid, but his unconventional decision making isn't one of them.

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14 Responses to “Zorn Is My Hero 2”

  1. Ian says:

    Great point. Is it Zorn's fault that his players let Stafford go 21 yards on 3rd and 13?

    The most telling point of that game was how Washington's players didn't seem to understand that they had 8 seconds at the end of the game. When the hook and lateral went off I was shotuing at the screen for the receiver of the second lateral to run out of bounds. That would have converted the 4th down and left them with time for one final play.

    The Lions were all pumped up for the 8 second play and could well have been put off if the Redskins had managed two plays at the end of the game.

    Overall, not the coach's fault. The Redskins lost because his players couldn't make a single yard on 4th down against a team that had lost 19 straight.

  2. mrparker says:

    This posts brings me to a question I've been trying to find a concrete answer to for a while. First, I don't have a problem with Zorn's decision making considering down and risk.

    Second, I've been "studying" the realtionship between first downs and points. There seems to be a clear disadvantage to trying to methodically move the ball down the field. I.E teams with a lot of first downs compared to their points don't seem to be able generate points going forward. I haven't done anything concrete and found it interesting enough to suggest it as something you might want to look into as well.

  3. Anonymous says:

    No thoughts on Belichick going for it on 4th and 1 from his own 26 with a 6-pt lead?

    Looks like he has your 4th down cheat sheet.

  4. Kiran says:

    Hi Brian, love the blog. I am a die hard Skins fan, and even with the pain of yesterday's loss, I only have one complaint about this post - the EP measure used to justify Zorn's call doesn't take into account the probability of the Redskins' specific personnel converting the TD on a run play, and instead generalizes to the league average of about a 68% chance of making a TD in a similar situation.

    Any Skins fan can tell you that the run offense has been particularly anemic this year, to the point that even positive yardage against the Lions defense is never a certainty. At the time of Zorn's 4th and 1 call, he had a gimpy running back (Portis was listed as Questionable on the injury report with ankle issues), and an offensive line that could not support runs to the right hand side and was weak at the most critical position in the Bugel/Gibbs run attack, RG (Randy Thomas, the stellar starter, was injured last week and replaced by a significantly less talented and experienced 2nd-year man). Considering these weaknesses, the Lions stacked the left side of the Redskins line and held Portis. I would say that the weaknesses in personnel meant that, for a run play, the chance of success for the Skins there was significantly lower than 68%, and probably lower than 50% considering how the run game had played out to that point.

    If I were Zorn, I would have still went for it, but called a play action pass or lined up Campbell in the shotgun.


  5. Phil Birnbaum says:

    Have fourth-down gambles been happening more in the past year or two, since it's been more a topic of debate?

  6. Brian Burke says:

    Good point, Kiran.

    Phil-It could be. As of halfway through last year they were significantly up. It's worth a fresh update.

  7. Anonymous says:

    This is interesting because last year Zorn was among the most conservative coaches in terms of going for it on 4th down, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac.

  8. Ian says:


    The break even point would be 4th-and-1 conversion percentage of 30%. At that level there would be no difference between kicking or going-for-it, in terms of expected points.

    I don't know the team specifics, but if you can't gain a single yard at least 3 times out of 10 then you're probably playing the wrong sport.

    As it turned out they failed, but presumably Zorn thought his team had at least a 30% chance of converting.

  9. Anonymous says:

    This analysis is fine for the computer, but makes no football sense. Take the 3 points and kick off. Zorn is making decisions based on last weeks game which has no baring on the Detroit game. So what if he has problems scoring TDs inside the 20. Take the points and the early lead and then see what happens. If you do go for it, don't run wide left to the side you always run. How about play action or a rollout option? And why run where Cooley is blocking -- good receiver, adequate blocker, especially in short-yardage.

    As for taking the penalty to stop a 50 yard FG. Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! The 99 yard drive may be improbable -- because it was! They did stop them! Get your tired team off the field and see if Hansen makes the FG. Is a 3 point deficit so bad in the first qtr? There is also the possibility that the kick could have been blocked, or perhaps a miss and the Skins get the ball on the 40. Even if they did stop them chances are they would have ended up kicking the FG anyway assuming they gain 6 - 9 yards. Two bad decisions on the first two drives set the tone in a tight ball game.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hey Brian. I love the blog and I usually like defending going for it on 4th down but I've got a couple questions:

    why is a FG worth 2.6 instead of 2.4 if, as you stated, the kickoff is worth .6 points?

    Why no consideration of removing the variance involved in the 68% chance of scoring a TD? If you believe your team is superior, there is a correct argument that guaranteeing some points is more important than maximizing Expected Points.
    I think I read an article here on this very websiteabout superior teams minimizing variance and inferior teams should maximize it. If it wasn't from here the statement is still a pretty obvious one.

  11. Brian Burke says:

    Yup. If I said 2.6 I meant 2.4. Sorry. That might reduce the FG option value a bit.

    True about the variance. If the Redskins were confident they were a significantly stronger team that might point more toward taking the 3 points.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I know football but I am horrible at math. Football is about momentum and emotion more than mathematical probability.
    In football you take the three and the lead. You don't know if this might end up a 3-0 ballgame.
    You make them kick a long field goal they might miss or mishandle the snap give them every chance to screw up.
    Here is some simple math. He passed on a FG 3 points he gave up a TD instead of a FG plus 4 points. They lost by 6 and the team was in field goal range when they time ran out.
    The safe calls are safe calls for a reason. In what would have been a defensive struggle at worst he turned into a come from behind victory at best.
    You don't go for it or go for two until late in the game when the risk vs reward becomes clearer.

  13. John Candido says:

    Being a Baltimore Ravens fan, you probably couldn't help but notice that fourth down call at the goal line by New England in the second quarter. How good of a call was that by Belichick statistically speaking?

  14. Ryan says:

    Your "math vs. football knowledge" argument confounds me.
    This is like saying "I know how to run an offense but I don't know anything about defense. Football is about offense, scoring a ton of points... just look at the Saints this year or the Pats a couple years ago. That's how you win."
    As with anything, there's a balance... the "football" people will continue to reinforce the same old conventional wisdom, even if the pure numbers don't support it. The math people will try to get people to think about things a different way.
    You may be correct that in this specific situation, with all of its many variables, the conventional wisdom should win out. But just because it worked out that way this time doesn't mean it's the correct call. Nobody says you "should have taken the points" on 4th and 1 when the team scores a touchdown. Sometimes you need to take calculated risks earlier in the game so you don't have to take more desparate risks later on.

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