Raheem Morris Is A Really Optimistic Guy

Trailing by 6 points with 4:30 left in the game, the Buccaneers faced a 4th and goal from Washington’s 4-yard line. The Bucs kicked the FG to make the score 16-13 and went on to lose. Columnist Gary Shelton of the St. Petersburg Times wants to know why head coach Raheem Morris didn’t go for the touchdown. That makes at least two of us.

I’ll spare everyone the math, but all things being equal the better decision would have been to go for it. Kicking the field goal gave the Bucs a 0.19 Win Probability (WP). Attempting the TD would net a 0.29 WP on balance. Morris’ decision basically cut his chances of winning by a third.  Sure, the particular "flow" and match-ups of the game are factors, but those considerations are usually overblown. Besides, if the game is close enough for it to matter, then the two teams are probably fairly equal, at least for that day.

But that’s not the point of this post. The more interesting thing is the glimpse inside the mind of an NFL coach. Here’s what Morris said when asked about the decision:

“We wanted to stop them, get the ball back, have an opportunity to go down there and put this thing into overtime. Or to win it. I felt really good about that. It worked out in our favor.”

Notice that actually winning the game was almost an afterthought. Overtime was the goal. Here’s the chain of events Morris was counting on:

1. Make the FG
2. Make a stop (on the first or second series, so that there is time left)
3. Drive into FG range
4. Make a second FG
5. Score first in overtime, which requires:
a. (Half the time) Make another stop
b. Drive into FG range again, and
c. Make a third FG, or score a TD

And here’s the ‘go for it’ path to winning:

1. Get 4 yards on a play
2. Make a stop

Which alternative is more plausible? What does this say about the mentality of some NFL coaches? An 0-3 team is 4 yards and a stop away from their first win, and they decide to play the long odds for shot at overtime.

19 Responses to “Raheem Morris Is A Really Optimistic Guy”

1. Jason says:

He's even more optimistic if he thinks he'll still be employed by the end of the season.

2. Anonymous says:

I love your posts but wish you had a way to print them cleanly w/o all the extra stuff

3. Matt says:

So its pretty obvious he was going with what is considered the 'safe' and less controversial choice... but what is often forgot about is that the consequences of not converting on 4th and 4 aren't even that bad. If they miss, they hand the ball over at the 4 yard line. 4:30 is plenty of time left to make a stop and get the ball back in good position, all of which they would have to do if they kick the FG in the first place. The only difference is on this second drive they need a TD not a FG. I'm sure all of this is accounted for in the 0.29WP number.

4. Anonymous says:

Isn't this just another edition of the oft-published work "make it the players' fault instead of the coach's by preferring slow, painful failure to sudden, decisive failure"?

5. Anonymous says:

I think anyone who believes all these posts on 4th down strategy will convince coaches to go for it more often is being really optimistic.

No offense to Brian because he's preaching to the choir here, but his research isn't much different than what we've read from David Romer or Drinen at p-f-r or the FO guys or Krasker at footballcommentary.com or Frigo/Bower's Zeus model or Protrade or The Hidden Game of Football or Virgil Carter 30 years ago. At some point it gets so tiring to see coaches make the same mistakes over and over again that it becomes boring to even read about it, perhaps even a complete waste of bandwidth. I suggest we start spending more brain cycles on football analysis topics that haven't already been solved 12 times over.

Every coach believes that the particular flow and match-ups and game-specific conditions are large enough factors to go against the averages, and it's pretty hard to devise a formula to prove otherwise. So unless someone can come up with something new and creative on 4th down decisions, I don't anticipate these discussions to be very fruitful.

6. Anonymous says:

I think Brian's model is a step or two beyond those others. I don't even think FO or p-f-r really has anything close to this. It's explained a lot better here too. It's one thing to do the math and another to actually explain it convincingly. Keep it up.

7. James says:

I agree that Brian presents the data and analysis much better than other locations have.

But I would like to contend that coaches ARE going for it more often on 4th down. Last night, the Vikings went for it on 4th and 1 on the Packers 10 with the score tied 0-0 with 4 minutes left in the first quarter. Later, the Packers went for it on 4th and 3 on the Minnesota 36 with the score tied 7-7 at the beginning of the 2nd quarter. Those are both situations in which it was early in a close game and conventional football wisdom says kick the field goal. Both converted. (GB failed later in the 3rd quarter on 4th and 1 on the Minn 1, but the score was 28-14 and that seemed out of desperation).

On Sunday I watched the Raiders convert a 4th and 9 on the Houston 35 when the score was 20-3 with 3:50 left in the 2nd quarter. The Raiders who have the worse completion percentage ever (I am guessing) and one of the best distance field goal kickers in Janikowski (don't forget, he was the 17th overall pick for a reason). This is also the same team that attempted a 76 yard field goal, albeit that was a unique situation.

I also saw the Broncos attempted to convert 4th and 1 on the Cowboys 30 at the end of the 3rd quarter when down 10-7. And these are just examples of games I watched!

8. James says:

A couple others I just looked up:

Bears attempt and convert 4th and 1 on the Detroit 1 when tied 14-14 early in the 2nd quarter.

Bengals attempt and convert 4th and 3 on the Browns 35 in the 1st quarter when tied 0-0. Might have been influenced by blocked kick on previous drive.

Browns attempt and convert 4th and 1 on the Bengals 1 near the end of the 3rd quarter when down 14-7.

Similar to the example in this article, the Bengals were down by 6 with 2 minutes left but attempted and converted 4th and 2 on the Browns 2 to tie the game (with the go-ahead PAT blocked). And then they went for it again at the end of OT.

I'm not looking for any more, but I still think teams are going for it on 4th down in non-desperation situations more than they used to.

9. Dave M says:

The Saints went for it inside the 5 (and didn't convert) on Sunday too.

Jack del Rio goes for more than anyone else, Bill Belichick also goes for it a lot. It's gradual but coaches are catching on.

10. Jeff Clarke says:

There is a name for this and I'm forgetting what it is. I want to say compilation bias. I tried googling that and didn't come up with anything.

Anyway, there is a psychological thing that makes people see the probability of an entire string of events occuring as larger than the product of the probability of each individual event occuring multiplied together. Mathematically speaking, the product is the total probability of the string and there is no arguing with the math.
However, most people don't see it that way. If a bunch of events are each likely to occur, they think the whole group is likely to occur.

Once you know that this bias is out there, you see it very often. 4th down decisions are a very good example of it. None of the individual events that you outlined in Morris' thinking were particularly unlikely. The cumulative probability of all of them was unlikely.

11. BIG Bamboo says:

What a ridiculous premise you make for your article. "I’ll spare everyone the math, but all things being equal the better decision would have been..."
Do you really believe that you can assign a true and usable statistical probability of success to a situation that has an infinite number of variables? And if you do, then why not continue the logic and break down all the things that need to happen to make a 4th and 4 into a successful TD? The snap, the handling of the snap, the handoff/pass, the wind, the defensive position...blah blah...

Go back to baseball and leave the decision making to people who are aware of at least a few of the things that go into the process.

12. Anonymous says:

You don't have to believe the math. Did you even read the article?

13. Brian Burke says:

Think of the infinitely high number of things that could go wrong in the 2 scoring drives required for Morris' scenario to play out. A turnover or bad snap/blocked kick at any point in that chain would be fatal.

14. Ian says:

Brian

You forgot the other path to winning.

1) Go for it and fail
2) Make a stop deep in Was territory
3) Get the ball back at halfway and drive for a TD

Your basic premise is correct though. Morris was 4 yards from the endzone and decided that his best chance to win was 3 consecutive scoring drives, rather than 1 four yard conversion.

15. Brian Burke says:

True! WAS would have had the ball on their own 4. Doubt they'd pass on any down.

Plus, even if TB gives up a drive at the end of regulation, WAS could have missed their FG.

16. Anonymous says:

Instead of post judging professionals who understand BLOCKING & TACKLING you should keep your "compilation bias(he googled it!) & cumulative probabilities" toyour self and just enjoy the show.

17. Brian Burke says:

Great point! Keep ignoring logic and keep losing. How could I ever dream of understanding something like a block or a tackle? Are you even sure Raheem does? I'm not.

18. Borat says:

Perhaps Ms. unanymousse can tellus all what BLINKING & TICKLING have to do with the great game of linear depression?

19. Anonymous says:

You forgot to mention the third path for winning.

-Try to get 4 yards but come up short.
-Make a stop, a relatively easy one since Washington starts a few yards from their own end zone.
-Score a TD while being able to go for it on 4th every time and possibly starting from decent field position considering how bad Washington's field position was on the previous drive.

Sure, it's not the easiest thing in the world, but it can't be much worse than the FG plan for overtime.