Wednesday, January 14, 2004

I Would Have Double-Bagged It

How ironic that Brett Favre's newest TV commercial, for Master Card, is all about Monday Morning Quarterbacks. There certainly has been enough Monday Morning Quarterbacking going on in the wake of the Phenomenal Phlop in Philly.

Generally, I hate to indulge in this particular sport. I try to remember that from what I see (and understand) on TV, it is difficult to pass judgment on whether a player should have zigged, instead of zagged. But this time, with a whole off-season to think about it, I feel compelled to throw in my 2 cents worth.

There are 4 plays in the game that people have been talking about. I don't take serious issue with two of them, so I will set them off to the side. Going for it on 4th and goal in the second quarter seemed like a good idea to me at the time, and I refuse to criticize it now just because it was unsuccessful. Yes, in hindsight it would have been nice to have the 3 points, but 7 points at that time would have been pretty devastating to the Eagles' chances for a comeback, and the Packers have a very powerful short yardage rushing game.

And, at the end of the game, many people have complained about the pass on 1st down in overtime, which was intercepted and led very shortly to the win by Philadelphia. As to that play, I would have run the ball, but there is something to be said for surprising the other side, and if the play call had not been met by a heavy blitz, and accompanied by a horrible decision as to where to throw the ball by Favre, none of us would be complaining about the play. In short, I believe that Brett Favre deserves the criticism he is getting for the throw he made, but I think that much of the criticism directed to the play call is misdirected.

When the game is lost (especially a playoff game), the play-caller is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, which the coaches fully understand. In his season-ending press conference on Wednesday, Mike Sherman even noted the fact that he has been criticized both for going for it on 4th and 1 in the first half, and for not going for it on 4th and 1 in the second half. Which does show how unfair Monday Morning Quarterbacking can be. What would be nice, though, is if we could get some sense that lessons can be taken away from the inevitable agony of Monday Morning Quarterbacking - something that can be applied in seeking a different result in the future.

With that background out of the way, the plays I would like to subject to scrutiny are the 4th and 1 play late in the 4th quarter, and the defensive play call on the 4th and 26.

4th and 1, Fourth Quarter

On the 4th and 1 at the Eagles' 41, I thought the Packers should have gone for it instead of punting. Many have criticized the punt, but others have said it was the right decision, so there is no unanimity on this call. Here is my thinking. If the Packers got the first down there, with about 2 minutes and 30 seconds left, the game was over, barring some miracle for the Eagles. If the Packers punted, the Eagles would have plenty of time to try to drive for the tying field goal or winning touchdown. So in evaluating the 4th down call, getting a first down was pretty close to winning the game. Plus, would you rather keep the ball on offense if you could, or hope the Packers' defense could stop a drive to tie or win the game? All hindsight aside, the Packers have not done a good job of stopping those drives all year, including the prior week's Seahawks game at the end of the 4th quarter, and including the Monday night game against the Eagles. So, I would rather put my trust in the ability of the offense to get a yard, especially considering how well they were playing, and how they had been wearing down the Eagles' defense.

Even though the Packers had failed on 4th down and 1 in the second quarter, my sense (without having statistics in front of me) was that the Packers had a high likelihood of getting the first down. They have a great offensive line, and a great running back, and my recollection of similar situations throughout the year was that they were almost always successful. Plus, Mike Sherman had made the point the prior week that he had asked the players to play aggressively, and that in turn the coaching staff would make calls aggressively. All of these factors suggested going for it.

Since the game, the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on has pointed me to the Football Outsiders web site, where they have collected statistics on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 calls throughout the season. The statistics show that when a team runs on 3rd or 4th and 1, they make the first down 72% of the time. They also have statistics on a slightly larger category of plays, what they call "power" plays, defined as 3rd or 4th and 1 or 2 yards to go, or 1st or 2nd and goal from the 1 or 2 yard line. Interestingly, the Packers have 79% success on rushes on "power" plays, which should not be surprising if you believe, as I do, that the Packers have a better than average short yardage running game. Since "power" plays are a somewhat wider category, the Packers'success on 3rd or 4th and 1 is almost certainly greater than 79%.

Bear with my math. Let's take, conservatively, a 75% chance of success if the Packers had gone for it on 4th and 1. If they went for it, they had a 75% chance of essentially winning the game right there. And if they failed (the other 25%), the game was not lost -the question was whether they could prevent the Eagles from scoring from about their own 41 yard line with 2.5 minutes to go and only one time out left. Let's say the Packers had a 50% chance of preventing a score in the situation where the Packers turned the ball over. So, overall, if thePackers went for it, they would have around an 87.5% chance of winning (75%plus 12.5%). Pretty good odds.

Now, take a punt. Obviously, you put the ball in McNabb's hands, but you assume that they will have to start much closer to their own goal line.Therefore, they will have to go 20 or 30 yards farther in order to score the field goal for a tie, or the touchdown for the win. What are the chances the Eagles will score if they start from the 10 or 20 yard line? Plug in your own number, but I would suggest they have around a 30% chance of scoring, meaning that the Packers have a 70% chance to prevent a score and therefore win the game. So, accepting my non-scientific percentages, the Packers REDUCED their chances to win from 87.5% to 70% by punting the ball. If you differ with me on the percentages, plug in your own numbers and see what you come up with. But I think these stats help to prove that the right choice in that situation was to go for it, not to mention that it was consistent with Sherman's pledge to call the game aggressively, and it has a greater chance of keeping the ball out of McNabb's hands altogether.

4th and 26, Fourth Quarter

Now let's consider the next possession, as the Eagles were driving for the field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. In this and the previous two possessions, the Packers had been applying relentless pressure to McNabb, causing a game's-worth of sacks and lots of incompletions. On the decisive drive, that pressure had put the Eagles exactly where the Packers wanted them, 4th and 26. So, do they continue to apply significant pressure on that key play? No. They drop back into soft zone coverage, McNabb has all day to throw the ball, Freddie Mitchell finds the seam in the zone, and the rest is history.

Why? Why not keep applying the same pressure that put the Eagles into 4th and 26? Oh, I know, the theory of it is that all you have to do is keep the receivers in front of you, and that way, even if you give up 25 yards on theplay, the ball still is turned over on downs. If you put pressure on and some receiver gets free in single coverage, you can LOSE the game right there. But how many times have we seen conservative play-calling kill a team? In fact, even though it was before Ed Donatell's time, his predecessor called exactly the same soft zone coverage on the decisive play in the "Terrell Owens" playoff game in January, 1999 (Mike Holmgren's last game as coach of the Packers), with similar results.

These two 4th down plays in the Eagles game have something in common. Both represent situations where the coaches could have called the game aggressively (as they had pledged to do the week before), but where they went conservative instead. They also are situations where the coaches opted not to continue doing what was working well, and opted for more conservative, but ultimately disastrous, different choices. Long time reader Thomas Sattler works in the computer field, and plays golf, and he offers a rule that fits perfectly in this situation. He calls it Sattler's Law of Golf and Systems Development: "Go with what works."

Now, in the wake of the game, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has been fired, although allegedly not because of the 4th and 26 failure. Let's hope that this makes a difference. Certainly, Donatell's successor will come in with a mandate to be aggressive on defense, and that is a good thing. Repeatedly, this year, the Packers' defense has given up drives at the ends of games to either tie or lose the game, or to let the opponent turn small leads into larger leads. Take a look at the 4th quarter drives given up against Arizona, Kansas City, Philadelphia (regular season), Detroit (2d game), Seattle (playoffs) and Philadelphia (playoffs). That simply can't be allowed to happen as often as it did.

It would be nice to think that the Packers (and Mike Sherman in particular) learned something from the Eagles game. Maybe it is too much to expect, butI would have loved to hear him say "It seemed like a good idea to punt at the time, but if I had it to do again, I would run the ball" or "A soft zone seemed like a safe play call, but since it burned us I would probably put some pressure on in a similar situation if it came up again." Instead, Sherman, in his press conference, defended the 4th and 1 punt, and talked about how the Packers had the Eagles where they wanted them at 4th and 26,rather than really addressing the unbelievable failure on that play. Maybe this was just a defense mechanism on Sherman's part, and he really has taken something away from this game that he will put to better use in the future, even if he won't admit it publicly. That is what I hope, anyway, because the window of opportunity for this team grows shorter every year.

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