Third and 9, tie game, late: Do you pass or run?
In the aftermath of the Bucs' 17-14 win at Carolina, no single play has been scrutinized as much as Dirk Koetter's decision to run the ball on third-and-9 at the Carolina 27-yard line, with four minutes left in a tie game.
On the previous play, Bucs QB Jameis Winston had narrowly avoided his first interception of the day, throwing a pass intended for Mike Evans into double coverage. The Bucs lined up with three receivers, but opted to run Jacquizz Rodgers, who was dropped for a 1-yard loss. Even before Roberto Aguayo missed the 38-yard field goal attempt that followed, ESPN's Jon Gruden, the former Bucs coach, had called Koetter out on the live broadcast.
"I think Coach Koetter lost confidence in Winston after he forced the ball into a double zone," Gruden said.
Sean McDonough later called it "almost a give up" to run in that situation, and Gruden conceded that "part of me can't fault Koetter for being nervous" about Winston, but said the ball should stay in Winston's hands: "Don't put it on the foot of a rookie kicker who is struggling."
Koetter took exception to the broadcasters' suggestion he had lost confidence in Winston, addressing the issue in a news conference Tuesday.
"That wasn't a lack of confidence," Koetter said. "When Jon (Gruden) was coaching and someone said that about him, you know what he'd be standing up here saying? 'That guy doesn't know what I'm thinking or anything about my team.' He gets paid to talk on TV. I get paid to coach the Bucs. Those guys can say whatever they want.
"Yeah, we ran it on third-and-9. You know what? We also ran it on third-and-3 and third-and-5 and we were two out of three running the ball on third down and we weren't nearly that successful throwing the ball. It had no reflection at all on my confidence in Jameis Winston. There can be no person on this planet, other than his parents, that is more confident in Jameis Winston than me."
If you look across the league, given similar situations, Koetter's call to run the ball is certainly unusual, but the numbers back him up to a certain extent.
Using the database at Pro-Football-Reference.com, you can identify similar plays since the start of the 2015 season -- in the fourth quarter, facing third down and needing between 8 and 10 yards, the ball between your opponent's 25- and 30-yard lines. On 23 such plays, NFL teams passed the ball 21 times and ran it just two times before the Bucs did Monday. So the Bucs went away from what NFL teams are 10 times more likely to do in that scenario.
The success rates of throwing and running on such a play may surprise you. Of those 21 passes, NFL teams only completed passes nine times (43 percent) and only got first downs four times (18 percent), with only one touchdown (from the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, and on the first play of a fourth quarter) and one interception. So throwing the ball, you had an 18 percent chance of a first down and a small (5 percent) chance of a turnover.
Running the ball? It actually yielded a first down in one of the two attempts. The Bears, tied with the 49ers with 1:23 left and facing a third-and-10 at their 28 -- remarkably similar to the Bucs' situation -- ran Ka'Deem Carey and he gained 11 yards for a first down. Oddly enough, the Bears also missed a much shorter kick as time expired (from a much more experienced kicker in Robbie Gould) and ended up losing in overtime to the 49ers. But a first down handing the ball to a running back is overall very unlikely to result in a first down -- since the start of 2015, NFL teams have converted only two third-and-9s on RB runs, and Koetter would know generally that such a call was unlikely to result in a first down.
Koetter was facing a 45-yard field goal with an incompletion, and Aguayo hadn't made an NFL kick longer than 43 yards, so you could argue there was some appreciable value in the likely outcome of a running play: a short gain to trim some distance off the upcoming kick. None of Rodgers' previous six carries had gone for longer than 3 yards, so it's unlikely Koetter called a run expecting a first down, so much as a shorter kick.
That makes sense, until you hear Koetter's postgame conference, where he talked about the final drive, and having Winston take a 3-yard loss on the final play just to line up on the right hash as Aguayo had indicated was his preference. "Once we got to the 40, I thought if we ran the ball, for Roberto, I don't think it matters that much inside the 35," he said. "I don't think the distance really matters that much."