A Football Story: The Brittle Logic of Kicking Away A Scoring Opportunity

Football coaches are notoriously conservative play callers, especially at the professional level. While this behavior can produce sub-optimal game strategies, the precautions are understandable given the precarious nature of the job. A coach’s audience is prone to judge decisions by outcomes instead of the situation and information available at the time of the decision. Coaches can receive too much blame for executional mistakes and the ravages of randomness in cause and effect analysis. Conservative play calling buffers these crosswinds because it conforms to conventional thinking; it is more resilient because it references an orthodox body of work that has withstood prior scrutiny. So there is almost nothing like a sportscaster or analyst to remind me of the unfair punishment coaches can receive from actually taking a chance or stepping outside the bounds of standard expectations.

Such an occasion happened during an NFL game between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football on November 6, 2017 at Lambeau Field. I was listening to the game on the radio during an extremely long drive through heavy traffic. I had no visuals to distract me from the game announcers. They were my entire window onto the game. I had little else to do but reflect critically on the scrutiny the announcers applied to the game. It is possible this audio focus increased my sensitivity.

Sportscaster Boomer Esiason, former quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, caught my attention with a scathing reaction to the decision of Lions coach Jim Caldwell to kick a long-distance 55-yard field goal. Esiason sounded scandalized as he explained why Caldwell should have instead punted the ball back to the Packers. This strategy is conservative because it trades in the immediate opportunity to score for the potential of receiving a better opportunity to score later. Esiason argued that Caldwell’s strategy should focus on pressuring the young Packers quarterback Brett Hundley. A punt would pin the Green Bay offense deep in its own territory. With his back against the wall (near his own endzone), Hundley would presumably execute even more poorly. This strategy includes some key assumptions delivered with no supporting data or references:

  • The punter successfully kicks the ball deep, AND the Packers fail to return the ball down the field.
  • A bad quarterback’s performance significantly varies by field position.

A conservative coach would indeed assume the odds of a great punt and poor return are better than the odds of a long field goal. Yet, the Lions possessed the football at the Packers’ 37-yard line. Such a close-range punt can easily result in a touchback because the room for error is so much smaller. A touchback occurs when the ball goes into the opposing team’s endzone, and it gives the opposing team the ball on its 20-yard line. With the Lions at the Green Bay 37-yard line, a touchback would result in a net 17-yard punt. Esiason ignored these risks in his analysis and said nothing about the skill of the Lions punt team.

Given the poor quarterback play, the Packers coach was very unlikely to allow Hundley to make any risky throws. Notably, Hundley never turned the ball over the entire game. The Packers suffered three sacks but only lost 12 total yards as a result. Packers coach Mike McCarthy seemed prepared to call a game crafted for his inexperienced quarterback. A bad player will force any coach to get and stay conservative. In other words, the Packers coach would likely neutralize pressure by very conservative play calling. Esiason assumed that the Packers coach would be unable to neutralize this pressure.

Overall, Esiason’s strategy has multiple points of failure. It feels and looks brittle compared to the simplicity of attempting a long field goal. I argue that relying on your team’s resilience in the case of a failed kick is the better risk/reward course of action, especially against a much weaker opponent.

Even without these assumptions, Esiason’s analysis fails under the weight of a critical logical flaw. If a legendary high-performer like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady replaced Hundley, Esiason’s strategy implies that the coach should kick the long field goal. However, the skill of the quarterback has NO impact on the odds of making the field goal. So if a coach fears a field goal miss, why would that coach risk giving a highly skilled quarterback a short field (meaning a shorter distance to make a touchdown)? I claim that Esiason should REVERSE his logic. If the opposing offense is weak, then a coach should take MORE risks: the downside costs should be lower. The potential penalty for giving a short field to a bad quarterback is much lower than giving a short field to a good quarterback. If Esiason then objected to the conditional on the skill of the quarterback, then his strategy effectively reduces to a ban on all long field goal kicks unless perhaps to win a game in the final minutes or seconds…an extremely conservative strategy!

Esiason’s error is more glaring considering the record of Matt Prater, the kicker for the Lions. Over his career, Prater has a 79% success rate with field goals of 50+ yards (the other announcer provided this statistic – perhaps in the hopes of assuaging Esiason?). That is, Prater is a good and strong kicker. He is a kicker a coach can trust with riskier kicks. Esiason complained that the weather was cold and not conducive to making long field goals, so perhaps the odds under those circumstances were somewhat lower. I doubt significantly lower given Prater’s overall record. (Note that the Lions are an indoor team, so Prater plays at least half of his games in the relative comfort of room temperature).

So how did things turn out? Prater missed the field goal.

Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater misses a 55-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football (November 6, 2017).
Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater misses a 55-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football (November 6, 2017).

Source: NFL

Esiason essentially lost it after the miss. Without acknowledging that Prater missed the field goal by a small margin – the ball hit the crossbar and would have made it over with a few more inches of lift – Esiason took the miss as proof of the soundness of his strategy. For the next several plays, he found several opportunities to remind the audience of coach Caldwell’s perceived negligence.

After the miss, possession returned to the Packers. They gained all of one yard in three downs before punting the ball right back to the Lions. The result was not surprising given the poor play of the Packers offense. I would not have expected the good field position to somehow enhance Hundley’s play. The Lions ended up with the ball deep in their own territory (on the 9-yard line), and Esiason bitterly pointed out that this positioning was the fault of Caldwell’s poor decision-making. Even as the Lions methodically marched the ball up the field, Esiason continued to complain that Caldwell forced his offense to work harder than needed. The Lions ended this drive with a touchdown and took a 14-0 lead. The success of the Lions suddenly diminished the power of Esiason’s argument which relied so heavily on the post-decision results.

Sportscasters straddle a fine line between descriptive recitals of the moment in real-time and sober consideration of a myriad of decisions emanating from coaches and players. That line can blur enough such that heat of the moment observations appear to prove the claims of the previous moment. I understand the pressures. Yet, a football game unfolds through multiple possibilities, and sportscasters can become overly focused on one particularly compelling path. In THIS game, Esiason made strong claims and did not consider alternative realities or sufficient data points. I think if he went back to review the entire context, he might reconsider.

Fortunately in business and in life we usually have the opportunity to take some time to challenge our gut instincts and consider the full context. We can collect some hard data on key assumptions behind our preferred decision. We can use our playbook as an initial map to the game, but we do not have to lock into a single course of action or commit to a single set of pre-conceived set of probabilities. When our field goal is waiting for the call, we can ask for the odds of success. We can look to the defense and assess the odds of stopping a poorly playing offense. We can inspect the offense and uncover its ability and determination to score from any point on the field.

Try that kick!