The Minnesota Vikings could’ve kicked a field goal against the Seattle Seahawks last week and taken a 29-21 lead. Seattle would’ve been forced into getting a touchdown and a two-point conversion, and I’m sure it’s not lost on Vikings fans that what actually played out was the Seahawks failing to get their 2PC after the eventual game-winning TD.
Instead, Mike Zimmer went for it on 4th and inches with the hope of never letting Russell Wilson see the ball again. It failed. The Vikings defense (from a Minnesota fan’s perspective) failed multiple times over. Their season is effectively over.
Zimmer took a lot of heat for his decision to go for it, and I think it was totally unwarranted. A first down ends the game and the Vikings were jamming the ball down Seattle’s throats. What played out was the absolute worst case scenario of failure + touchdown allowed. Win probability suggested that kicking the field goal (and making it, obviously) would not have been some conservative, horrible decision to make. Consider it a compliment towards Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense that a defensive-minded coach in Zimmer did not want to have his defense out there again, so he put the game in his offense’s hands to close it it out.
I bring up last week’s game because yesterday saw the Houston Texans fall to the undefeated Tennessee Titans in a 42-36 overtime classic that will no doubt focus on Romeo Crennel’s late-game decisions.
Up 30-29 and faced with 4th and goal with under two minutes to go, Crennel eschewed kicking a chipshot field goal to go up 33-29, thereby forcing the Titans to drive down the field for a game-winning touchdown. Instead he went for it and Deshaun Watson threw a touchdown pass to put them up 36-29 with 1:50 left. Great decision by Romeo.
Then the wild part happened.
I had NFL RedZone on this game and CBS analyst Rich Gannon damn near lost his mind and was stunned that Crennel opted to go for two points when the Titans only had one timeout left. A successful conversion puts Houston up by two possessions and the game is effectively over as long as the Texans don’t make like the Atlanta Falcons and make a pig’s ear out an onside kick. If you miss, then you’re still up 7 and there’s a good chance that the opposition won’t be inspired to go for 2 and the win if they score a touchdown.
Watson had a wide open Randall Cobb in the end zone but a Titans defensive lineman made a great play by tipping the pass at the line of scrimmage. The call was right, the play call was going to work, but the pass break-up is what saved the day for Tennessee. Inevitably, the Titans scored the tying touchdown (on a play that surely would’ve not been overturned if it was originally called incomplete) and then won in overtime. Here’s Deshaun Watson pissed off that he lost the coin toss, because it meant that his trash defense would get bulldozed with no resistance.
I think it should be an automatic for coaches up 7 to go for two in late-game situations. If the Texans had kicked, the onus would’ve been on Tennessee to make a two-point conversion. Crennel chose to put the game-deciding two-point play in the hands of his superstar quarterback who finished the afternoon with a higher QBR than Ryan Tannehill. This is a classic case of “good process, bad outcome.”
Forget the analytics, tell yourself that in the context of this game that Deshaun Watson shouldn’t have been trusted over a defense that allowed 601 yards of total offense:
By the way, on the tying touchdown drive the Titans never faced third down. On the game-winning drive the only third down play was Derrick Henry’s touchdown. Forget “bend but don’t break” defense, that was “the dam burst” defense.
If you listen to Jeff Van Gundy occasionally analyze NBA games on ESPN, you often hear him and/or Mark Jackson say “If [player] makes that shot, you live with the result.” Usually that involves a terrible shooter scoring from three-point range. Statistically it is far more likely he misses even an open shot than consistently makes it. You’d rather let Alex Caruso beat you from behind the arc than let LeBron James and Anthony Davis get whatever bucket in the paint their hearts desire.
In this instance, “living with the result” is all about aggressive playcalling that is all about playing to win as opposed to playing not to lose, and I do not see why either Zimmer or Crennel should be getting flak for doing exactly what many coaches have been criticized for avoiding. Analytics and decision making in general is not centered around absolutes. Win probability has an emphasis on probability. Zimmer and Crennel opted for what amounts to win certainty, and even when they failed the win probability was still in their favor. They lost, and they’ll have to live with the result.
I’ll close this out with one very recent example of Pete Carroll actually playing to win by trusting his offense over deliberately sending his defense out there again. Last year the Seahawks were up 28-26 on the Pittsburgh Steelers with two minutes to go. Faced with 4th and 1 at Pittsburgh’s 33, they could’ve taken a delay of game and punted to let the defense deny Rudolph a game-winning field goal. They could’ve kicked their own field goal and left the Steelers no choice but to score a touchdown. What did Carroll do? Hand the damn ball to Chris Carson for the win. He played for the win and won. It’s not always going to work out that way, and that needs to be emphasized every time it doesn’t work like it did last Sunday in Seattle and yesterday in Nashville.