"What happened again last week?"
That was Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith, after Tampa Bay's 23-20 overtime upset Sunday of the Atlanta Falcons, playfully repeating his "can't live in the past" mantra. In the days before the game, he insisted the Bucs would not dwell on squandering a 24-point lead to Washington.
But despite the familiar refrain, it seemed Smith and his players were guided by that horrific loss as the Falcons, once down 17 points, mounted a fourth-quarter comeback.
Up 20-13 with 2:35 left in regulation, the Bucs faced a critical third-and-1, just as they had the week before. Tampa Bay, leading Washington by a field goal with about three minutes left, had reached the 1-yard line and was looking to put the game away. The Bucs replaced Doug Martin with Charles Sims, who tried to take a toss around the left end but was stuffed for a 2-yard loss.
Smith elected then to kick the field goal rather than go for it on fourth-and-3. Washington responded by going 80 yards in two minutes to score the game-winning touchdown.
"It just seemed like the way to do it was to go up six, take the field goal option out and make them go the distance for a touchdown," he said after the game.
On the third-and-1 against the Falcons from the Tampa Bay 40-yard line, there was no substitution. There was no attempt to catch the opponent off guard. With six offensive linemen, two tight ends, one fullback and Doug Martin in the backfield, the Bucs' intentions were obvious, even when Atlanta stuffed 10 defenders in the box. We're going to run right at you. Stop us.
And the Falcons did. That set up another fourth-down decision for Smith. Go for it on fourth-and-1, and if you succeed, the game is over. Or punt and try to pin Atlanta deep in its own territory. Make the offense go 80 or 90 yards for the touchdown.
Thing is, if Kirk Cousins — without a deep threat — could move 80 yards in two minutes, what would Matt Ryan and Julio Jones do? To that point, the Bucs' defense struggled to slow the Falcons. Each of their drives had ended in a turnover, touchdown or field goal, but never a punt. Ryan was in a groove, completing 19 of his past 20 passes, and Jones had nine catches for 130 yards.
This time, Smith decided to go for it. Jameis Winston rolled out to his left, prepared to throw, then tucked the ball and dived. But safety Ricardo Allen was there to make the stop and hold the Bucs to no gain.
Though the result wasn't what Smith had hoped for, it was the right call.
According to the New York Times 4th Down Bot, the Bucs had a 67 percent chance of converting the fourth-and-1. Their chances of winning before the play stood at 83 percent. If the play was successful, they would have improved to 92 percent. If the Bucs had punted, their chances would have fallen to 82 percent. Punting, the Bot says, makes sense only if you think the Bucs' chances of converting are less than 25 percent.
The 4th Down Bot is based on research by Brian Burke, formerly of advancedfootballanalytics.com and now of ESPN. As you'd expect, his fourth-down calculator also supports Smith's decision.
According to the calculator, a team has a 74 percent chance of converting a fourth-and-1 from its own 40-yard line. A successful play is worth 1.51 "expected points," which account for factors such as down, distance and time remaining. An unsuccessful play is worth minus-2.66 EP, and a punt is worth minus-0.46.
Here's the formula you'd use to determine whether to go for it or punt:
(success rate*EP if play succeeds) + (failure rate*EP if play fails)
So, (0.74*1.51) + (0.26*-2.66) = 1.12 + minus-0.69 = 0.43 = Go for it!
The Falcons not only came up with an unlikely stop but also marched 40 yards with ease to tie the score. Ryan picked up right where he left off, completing four of five passes on the drive, the final one a touchdown to Jones, who hadn't scored or eclipsed 100 receiving yards since Week 3 against the New York Giants.
Jones should not have been open on the play, but safety Chris Conte — who was supposed to help cornerback Johnthan Banks cover him in the end zone — bit on Ryan's pump fake to running back Devonta Freeman in the flat. Freeman was linebacker Lavonte David's responsibility.
The Bucs, despite a plus-four turnover differential, allowed the Falcons, down 20-3 with about 21 minutes left in regulation, all the way back. Such a differential should guarantee victory; the Bucs are 31-4 when they are plus-4 or better and haven't lost since December 2000 (Packers). Still, these are the Bucs, perhaps the only team in football that can make operating a chainsaw while climbing a ladder seem less dangerous than preserving a 17-point lead.
After the game, Smith stood by the fourth-down call.
"I just felt like, seven-point game … if we punted the ball we were going to have to stop them," he said. "To have an opportunity to finish the game right then, I make that call 10 out of 10 times."
His track record suggests otherwise. This is Smith's 11th season as a head coach, but between his two seasons in Tampa Bay and his nine seasons (2004-12) with the Chicago Bears, he faced this situation only a handful of times. Here is what he decided on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter when the scoring margin was between 1 and 7 points:
|10/23/2005||Ravens||1:13||RAV 30||10-6||Run, first down|
|10/2/2011||Panthers||12:02||CAR 49||24-23||Run, first down|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
None of these situations is exactly alike, but let's try to pick the ones that are the most similar. You might throw out the games against the Browns, Buccaneers and Cowboys — the Bears are deep in their own territory in those situations, though the 4th Down Bot would argue coaches should go for it on any fourth-and-1 starting at their own 9-yard line. You might consider tossing the game against the 49ers as well — the Bears had arguably the best defense in the NFL and the 49ers the worst offense.
That leaves the games against the Ravens, Lions, Bills, Panthers and Saints. Smith chose to punt three out of five times. (You also could make a case to eliminate the Saints game, the game the Bucs tanked for the No. 1 overall pick, from consideration.)
The failed conversion and subsequent touchdown seemed to spell doom. But then a funny thing happened. Lovie Smith's Bucs — the team that has lost seven games in which it had led during the fourth quarter, the team that has lost nine games by six or fewer points — didn't fold and didn't flinch.
In overtime, Winston delivered, converting three third downs, including a third-and-10 pass to Mike Evans. It took some extra time, but the defensive line finally generated some pressure, with Howard Jones' sack forcing a third-and-long and Gerald McCoy's ankle hug resulting in a rare Ryan incompletion to end the game.
Fans have waited a long time to see progress, and three wins in seven games represents a significant step forward for a team that won only two last season. The Bucs still have flaws — a leaky pass defense, a lack of a consistently disruptive pass rush, too many penalties — but this could be the kind of win that players, coaches and fans one day remember as a franchise turning point.
Thomas Bassinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.