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NFL playoffs AfterMath: Football announcers gone wild

When a team trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter scores a touchdown, it should NOT settle for the extra point. It should attempt a two-point conversion.
 
Hall of Fame quarterback and extra-point endorser Troy Aikman has been a Fox NFL analyst since 2001. [Associated Press]
Hall of Fame quarterback and extra-point endorser Troy Aikman has been a Fox NFL analyst since 2001. [Associated Press]
Published Jan. 15, 2019|Updated Jan. 16, 2019

A stranger knocks at your door.

What do you do?

Like most Americans, you hide behind your couch and don’t make a sound until he goes away.

If you’re one of the few who opens the door, you regret it immediately.

You don’t want what the stranger is selling, so you nod, pretend to listen and say “I’ll think about it,” even though you won’t. All you’ve done is waste your time and the stranger’s.

But football announcers?

We happily invite them into our homes. And then we spend hours and hours listening to them.

And what do we get in return?

Well, we certainly don’t get any smarter.

It’s not that announcers deliberately mislead us. It’s just that they’re conventional thinkers.

That was obvious this weekend during the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

When the Cowboys scored a touchdown late in their game against the Rams to cut their deficit to nine points, Fox analyst Troy Aikman argued that Dallas should settle for the extra point rather than attempt a two-point conversion.

“This is the right call here,” Aikman said as Cowboys coach Jason Garrett sent kicker Brett Maher onto the field. “Kick the extra point, make it a one-possession game, eight-point game. Then if you get the ball back and you score (a touchdown), you’re going to have to make a two-point conversion.”

Maher’s kick was good, making it a 30-22 game with a little more than two minutes left.

But was it really the right call?

The right call in these situations — when a team trails by nine points in the fourth quarter — is to try to cut the deficit to seven points. A team’s win probability is, of course, higher when it trails by seven points instead of eight.

Consider, too, that the classification of an eight-point game as a “one-possession game” is a bit of a misnomer. Mathematically, it’s more like a one-and-a-half-possession game. Because the chances of a successful two-point conversion are roughly 50-50, half of the time an eight-point game is a one-possession game and half the time it is a two-possession game.

To be clear, no matter what the Cowboys did in that situation, their chances of winning were extremely low. Time wasn’t on their side. One option, however, was better than the other.

The object in any game is to improve your chances of winning, but that’s not how most football coaches operate. They try to keep hope alive for as long as possible.

Former Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter admitted as much earlier this season when asked about his two-point conversion strategy.

“You’re trying to keep all your options for as far back in the game as you can,” he said.

The only benefit to that strategy is that it might create some last-second drama.

RELATED STORY: The game-changing strategy the Bucs have never considered

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A few hypotheticals:

Say a team trailing by nine points late in the fourth quarter attempts a two-point conversion and fails. That’s a crushing blow, but it’s no more crushing than failing later. In fact, it’s less so. If a team fails, it will manage the last few minutes of the game differently knowing that it will need 10 points to win (a touchdown, an extra point and a field goal).

Say a team trailing by nine points late in the fourth quarter attempts a two-point conversion and succeeds. If it gets the ball back and scores another touchdown, it has two options: It can kick the extra point, tie the game and go for the win in overtime, or it can attempt another two-point conversion and go for the win in regulation.

Say a team trailing by nine points late in the fourth quarter attempts the extra point and succeeds, as the Cowboys did. One could argue that keeps pressure on the opponent. It can’t relax, run the ball three times and punt. Then again, wouldn’t the opponent feel more pressure if its lead were only seven points instead of eight? If the trailing team gets the ball back, it’s a do-or-die possession. It has to not only score a touchdown and succeed on its two-point conversion but also completely drain the clock. If it fails on the two-point conversion, the game is over.

Put another way: In either situation, the trailing team is going to have to attempt a two-point conversion. It isn’t any more likely to succeed with two seconds left than with two minutes left. Failure to convert the two-point try — not the timing of it — hurts a team’s chances of winning. So why wait? The answer depends on whether you prefer hope or knowledge.

Aikman wasn’t the only one to offer a bad take on game strategy. So, too, did Charles Davis, who called the Eagles-Saints game. Davis, who tends to be one of Fox’s more insightful analysts, questioned coach Sean Payton’s decision to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal midway through the second quarter. New Orleans was trailing 14-0.

“Personally, I would go ahead and get three points now,” Davis said. “Long way to go (in the game), but Sean Payton’s M.O. is always to go get it. He’s always aggressive.”

Payton’s decision paid off, as Drew Brees completed a fade pass to an open Keith Kirkwood.

To Davis’ credit, he acknowledged his take might have been wrong.

“That’s why Sean Payton’s coaching over there and already has a ring,” he said.

For as much as we’ve talked about Payton’s fake-punt call, Marshon Lattimore’s two interceptions and Alshon Jeffery’s game-ending drop, the decision on fourth-and-goal might have been the biggest difference maker of all.

It’s clear in the light of day, but it bears repeating, especially when we chastise kickers for missing field goals: When a team scores more touchdowns, it wins more games. There is no such relationship between field goals and wins.

RELATED STORY: Can a kicker make the Bucs a winner?

Even if the Saints had failed, Payton was right to go for the touchdown. Settling for field goals can help the opponent, something that might have crossed his mind when he watched Cody Parkey’s double-doink miss against the Eagles a week ago.

Though it’s impossible to know how the Eagles-Saints game would have unfolded had Payton settled for the field goal, consider the final score — New Orleans 20, Philadelphia 14. In the final minutes, the Eagles needed a touchdown to win. If the score had been 16-14, they would have needed only a field goal.

That call is why we’re talking about whether Nick Foles will be heading to another team in the offseason instead of to Los Angeles next week for the NFC championship game.

A word on Jeffery’s drop

After the game, the Eagles receiver shouldered the blame for the loss.

“It’s a play I didn’t make,” Jeffery said. “It went through my hands. Nick gave me a catchable ball. I gotta make that play. It’s on me. I’ll take that loss. It’s on me. I let all my teammates down, the city of Philadelphia. That’s on me. I’ll take that.”

It was only his third drop of the season. But it wasn’t why the Eagles lost. Their offense sputtered after jumping out to a 14-0 lead, and their defense allowed the Saints to convert four of five third downs of 10 or more yards.

Still, it was a devastating blow, just as Parkey’s field goal miss was for the Bears, and a reminder that professional athletes, like the rest of us humans, fail, too. It brought to mind Foles’ comments after the Eagles won the Super Bowl last season:

“I think the big thing is don’t be afraid to fail. I think in our society today, Instagram, Twitter, it’s a highlight reel. It’s all the good things. And then when you look at it, when you think like, wow, when you have a rough day, ‘My life’s not as good as that,’ (you think) you’re failing.

“Failure is a part of life. It’s a part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times. Made mistakes.

“We all are human, we all have weaknesses, and I think throughout this, (it’s been important) to be able to share that and be transparent. I know when I listen to people speak and they share their weaknesses, I’m listening. Because (it) resonates.

“So I’m not perfect. I’m not Superman. I might be in the NFL, I might have just won a Super Bowl, but, hey, we still have daily struggles, I still have daily struggles. And that’s where my faith comes in, that’s where my family comes in.

“I think when you look at a struggle in your life, just know that’s just an opportunity for your character to grow. And that’s just been the message. Simple. If something’s going on in your life and you’re struggling? Embrace it. Because you’re growing.”

Contact Thomas Bassinger at thomasbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.