Going for it on 4th-and-13: the science

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 07, 2008



By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts apologist for greatness
 
The New England fans have come out of the woodwork over the past few days knocking their future Hall of Fame coach for one specific decision in Super Bowl XLII: to pass on a long field goal attempt to go for it on fourth down in the third quarter.
 
"WE LOST BY THREE POINTS!" they yell, in their irritating Boston accent. "WHAT WAS BELICHICK FAAHCKIN' THINKIN"?"
 
Here's what he was thinkin':
 
THE SITUATION
Fourth down and 13 at the New York 31. Patriots lead, 7-3, 6:50 remaining in the third quarter.
 
THE OPTIONS
1. Kick the 48-yard field goal. A successful field goal gives New England a 10-3 lead. Stephen Gostkowski had only attempted 10 field goals over 40 yards over two full seasons with New England, hitting six of them. His longest field goal this year was 45 yards, and the longest of his career was 52 yards. He had also just shanked a kickoff out of bounds, and had a miss on his resume in the AFC divisional round game vs. Jacksonville. Being charitable with the perfect dome conditions, Gostkowski had a 50 percent chance of making the field goal.
 
So, a field-goal attempt there was worth 50 percent of three points, or 1.5 points.
 
2. Go for a pass and try and get the first down. Over the season, approximately 27 percent of all Patriot dropbacks resulted in passes of 13 yards or more. The average completed pass by Tom Brady went for 12.08 yards. That average is augmented by many long passes, but it's safe to assume that 40 percent of those passes were of 13 yards or more. Multiply that by Brady's 68 percent completion rate (and figure in sacks), and you've got 27 percent. Shave off a couple of percentage points for the excellent Giant defense, and call it 25 percent.
 
A first down would also land them inside the red zone, a place where the Patriots scored touchdowns on 50 of 72 possessions during the regular season. Failing a TD, Gostkowski is 87.5 percent from 39 yards and under for his career.
 
Going for the first gave New England a 25 percent chance at getting into the red zone, where they scored touchdowns 69.4 percent of the time during their prior games. They would also have a field-goal attempt 25 percent of the time, with 5 percent blocked off for a turnover.
 
So, doing the math, a successful first down conversion would lead the Patriots to an average of 5.31 points, Taking 25 percent of that is 1.33 points.
 
THE CONCLUSION
In terms of value, the field-goal attempt was worth slightly more, 1.5 points to 1.33 points. But the other factors were heavily in favor of going for it.
 
Field position: Cited by Belichick after the game, a missed field goal would place the ball back seven yards from the spot, giving the Giants the ball at the 37. Also, there's the threat of a blocked field goal, always more likely when a kicker is at the edge of his range. In addition, a completed pass short of the first down would have driven the Giants deeper in their own end. Also, a long pass – what they ended up attempting – could have been intercepted by New York, effectively acting as a punt. A successful field goal would have been a wash in terms of field position, with the Giants likely to start their next possession around that same 30-yard line.
 
Momentum: If the Patriots score a touchdown, they burn more time off the clock and build an 11-point lead in a game where they had allowed just three points through two-thirds of it. That puts an awful lot of pressure on Eli Manning and the Giants offense, and opens up all kinds of possibilities for the Patriots. And it would have been a boost for an offense that had been a half-second short of where it needed to be all game.
 
Overall, 4th-and-13 at the 31 is a bad place to be. Most coaches would have gone for the field goal, but Belichick surely deserves the benefit of the doubt for understanding all of the factors detailed above and going with his record-setting offense over a field-goal kicker that was untested and had just sent a kickoff careening out of bounds.
 
Then again, who needs logic when you can just yell?

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