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The game-changing strategy the Buccaneers have never considered

Instead of playing to win, NFL coaches sometimes play to not lose. Why? Conventional wisdom and loss aversion.
Since Dirk Koetter became coach of the Bucs in 2016, Tampa Bay has made 7 of 15 two-point conversions. [Associated Press]
Published Nov. 10, 2018
Updated Nov. 10, 2018

You’re not even thinking about it anymore.

Why would you? It was an extra point.

The snap was good.

The hold was good.

The kick was good.

All that mattered was that the Bucs were back in the game against the Panthers. The score was 35-28 with almost a full quarter left to play.

When we look back on this season, we’ll talk about Vance McDonald delivering a stiff arm from hell to Chris Conte. We’ll talk about Mitch Trubisky torching the Tampa Bay defense for six touchdowns. We’ll talk about Curtis Samuel zig-zagging down the field on a double reverse.

Chandler Catanzaro’s last extra point Sunday, though, is one of the most meaningful plays you’ll never remember.

And it shouldn’t have happened.

When a team trailing by 14 points late in a game scores a touchdown, it should forgo the extra point. It should attempt a two-point conversion instead.

Says who?

Says math.

Yet almost no one tries it.

Why?

Because almost no one tries it.

That’s conventional wisdom for you, and conventional wisdom says that a team should kick the extra point to cut the deficit to seven points. Because that’s just what a team should do, that’s why.

What amount of consideration do the Bucs give to attempting two-point conversions in such situations?

“None,” coach Dirk Koetter said, “because you’re trying to keep all your options for as far back in the game as you can. I would think most people would say if you’re going to go for win at the end, you’d kick the extra point, be down seven. Then if you scored at the end to be down one, that’s when you’d go for two instead of putting more pressure on yourself to have to get the two-point (conversion) just to tie it.”

Since the NFL introduced the two-point conversion in 1994, only five teams have attempted it after scoring a touchdown that cut an opponent’s lead to eight points, according to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective.

The first: The Browns in 1994. The head coach: Bill Belichick.

The others: Jimmy Johnson’s Dolphins in 1998, Brian Billick’s Ravens in 2001 and Doug Pederson’s Eagles and Pat Shurmur’s Giants this season.

Teams that have attempted a two-point conversion when trailing by eight points late
Season Team Opponent Play result Game result
1994 Browns Broncos Success Loss, 26-14
1998 Dolphins Jets Failure Loss, 20-9
2001 Ravens Packers Failure Loss, 31-23
2018 Eagles Vikings Success Loss, 23-21
2018 Giants Falcons Failure Loss, 23-20

So Koetter’s not wrong. Most people would say to kick the extra point. History tells us so.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s the right call.

The numbers say that when down eight points late in a game, a team should keep its quarterback on the field and attempt a two-point conversion. [Associated Press]

What the numbers say: Go for two

What Belichick, Johnson, Billick, Pederson and Shurmur did — and what Koetter did not do — was make the call that gave their teams the best chance to win.

Let’s walk through the scenarios when a team decides to go for two and calculate the likelihood of each occurring. (The statistics below assume a 48 percent chance of a successful two-point conversion and a 94 percent chance of a successful extra point.)

• Scenario 1: A team converts the attempt, cutting its opponent’s lead to six points. Assuming that it can prevent its opponent from scoring again, it can win the game with a touchdown and an extra point. Or, if there’s enough time, it can tie the game with two field goals. Likelihood of a successful two-point conversion and extra point: 45 percent.

• Scenario 2: A team converts the attempt, cutting its opponent’s lead to six points. After its next touchdown, however, it misses the extra point, resulting in a tied score. Likelihood: 3 percent.

• Scenario 3: A team fails to convert the attempt, and its opponents lead remains at eight points. Assuming once again that it can prevent its opponent from scoring, it can force overtime with another touchdown and a successful conversion. Likelihood: 25 percent.

• Scenario 4: A team fails on both attempts and loses the game. Likelihood: 27 percent.

Only Scenario 1 gives a team a chance of winning in regulation. Scenario 4 is the reason why coaches prefer to kick extra points, but it’s only marginally more likely than Scenario 3. At least the team in Scenario 3 is giving itself a chance to win by attempting a two-point conversion in the first place. In other words, a team is more likely to convert once (73 percent) than it is to fail twice (27 percent).

What are the advantages of going the conventional route and kicking extra points? There aren’t many. All that kicking does is increase the likelihood of overtime. Why would a team want to risk that? In overtime, it might have only a 50-50 chance of winning, and that’s probably the best-case scenario. It’s possible that the team loses the coin toss and never even touches the ball during the extra period. Guess what it will regret then: declining to attempt a two-point conversion during regulation.

That the Bucs don’t weigh these scenarios is startling. They’ve played in 16 one-score games since the start of the 2017 season, an NFL high. They’ve lost 10, also an NFL high. They need to be finding every possible edge and taking advantage. That they’re not raises questions about more than Koetter’s decision-making. It reveals a possible disconnect between coaching and analytics.

Tampa Bay is tight-lipped about its analytics team. We know it has a director of football analytics, but the number of staff members who also are involved is unclear. What’s clear, based on the Bucs’ onfield decision-making, is that there’s a lack of synergy between coaching and analytics. At the very least, data analysis is not the serious and immersive effort that it is in New England, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Seattle and Jacksonville, to name a few. If it were, you would think that someone would be in Koetter’s ear telling him that it’s better to try a fake punt on fourth and 2 than on fourth and 9.

Giants coach Pat Shurmur on his decision to try a two-point conversion late in a game against the Falcons last month: "I just felt like, we'd discussed internally the math on that. I felt like we had a good play, and I liked our two-point play selections, and we just didn't quite get it done." [Associated Press]

What the commentators say: ‘To hell with the analytics’

There’s another potential advantage to sticking to convention and kicking: less criticism.

“You’ve got to remember when you say it’s 50-50 (on two-point attempts), that’s over a season,” said Koetter, whose Bucs teams have made 7 of 15 attempts since he became coach in 2016. “We’re just talking about one game. The first time you do that and don’t get it in one game, then what questions will I be answering up here?”

Koetter’s comments reflect a bias we all exhibit: loss aversion. He fears the loss more than he desires the win. He made similar remarks earlier this season when talking about fourth-and-short situations.

“The percentages say you should go for it almost every time,” he said. “We’ve studied the analytics on it, and the problem with looking at it like that — those are all looking at all fourth downs over the course of the season. You might get three in a row, but if I don’t get it in this particular game, we might be losing, and I might be out of here.”

You might argue that a coach shouldn’t be thinking about criticism, and maybe you’re right. But it’s a very real consideration, especially in a profession where there’s virtually no job security. While more teams have incorporated data analysis into their decision-making, many around the game, including those who report on it, remain stuck in the Dark Ages. Stats are for losers, they say. Football is an emotional game, a game played not by spreadsheets but by strong-willed “football guys” who have chips on their shoulders.

Take, for instance, the second-guessing of Shurmur, the last coach to follow the two-point strategy. His process was sound but the result was bad, so commentators blasted him accordingly.

“When you’ve lost 18 out of your last 22 games, can you afford to roll the dice in that situation?” Monday Night Football analyst Booger McFarland said after the play. “In my opinion, that’s a terrible move by Pat Shurmur.”

Three minutes later, the Falcons lined up to kick a risky but game-clinching 56-yard field goal.

“I like being aggressive here, especially when you’re 2-4,” McFarland said. “I like gutsy, baby.”

So if you’re keeping score at home, it’s okay to take risks when you’re 2-4 but not when you’re 1-5.

McFarland doubled down on his criticism in a postgame SportsCenter segment.

“I understand the analytics and everything, but when it’s 20-12 and your team has fought their behind off all night and you’re Pat Shurmur and you go for two, to hell with the analytics,” he said.

McFarland then tripled down on Twitter: “I’ll say it again to hell with analytics.”

The New York Post roasted Shurmur, too.

“We get it, the analytics say going for the two-point conversion when trailing by two touchdowns is not crazy,” Paul Schwartz wrote. “And Pat Shurmur wanted to be aggressive to show his team he has faith. Still, it just felt wrong and of course it did not work out.”

A few things:

• Why is it that every time someone says “I get the analytics,” they proceed to prove that they do not understand the analytics? At. All. “I get the analytics” is the “having said that” of sports commentary.

• “It just felt wrong”?! Really? My calculator tells me your feelings are wrong. Since when did opinions and feelings trump facts and reason?

• The strategy did work. The Giants didn’t convert on their first two-point attempt, but they did after their next touchdown. By then, however, the game was out of reach because of the Falcons’ “gutsy” 56-yard field goal.

It makes some sense why Koetter feels the way he does. Even when people have the necessary information, they still don’t arrive to the correct conclusion.

Perhaps it’s a moot point. Teams that trail by 14 points after three quarters almost never come back to win. It happens only six out every 100 games.

So what’s a coach to do? You’re going to be criticized no matter what, so why not do the right thing? One day, you just might steal a game.

The easy way is the conventional way. And that? That’s how you get fired.

• • •

Alex Smith’s interception rate (1.1 percent) is below 2 percent for the sixth straight season. [Associated Press]

Washington-Tampa Bay: What to watch for

Who takes the early lead?: Get an early lead and run out the clock. Sometimes it’s really that simple. Tampa Bay is 3-0 when it has a lead at halftime and 0-5 when it doesn’t. Washington is 4-0 when it has a lead at halftime and 0-3 when it doesn’t (one tie at halftime).

Turnovers: With the Bucs at 3-5 and fading from the NFC playoff picture, there is some debate about whether Fitzpatrick or Winston should be the starting quarterback going forward. The case for Fitzpatrick is that he has outperformed Winston this season. The case for Winston is that his rookie contract expires after next season, and Tampa Bay needs to gather as much information as possible on him before offering a long-term extension.

Let’s settle the debate with something more substantive than “because it’s my opinion, man.” Around the trade deadline, the Bucs said they were in win-now mode. As long as that’s the case, Fitzpatrick should be the starting quarterback. To put Winston’s struggles this season into perspective, consider this: It would be nearly impossible for an average passer to throw as many interceptions. A Football Outsiders analysis put the odds at 1.1 percent. Though Fitzpatrick also has been turnover prone, the analysis put the odds of an average passer matching his interception rate at 28.1 percent.

Aggression vs. patience: On Sunday, we watched the Panthers offense use the entire field, attacking the Bucs not only vertically but also horizontally. Tampa Bay, of course, lives and dies by the deep ball. Fitzpatrick ranks second in the NFL in average intended air yards (10.4) to only Winston (10.9). Alex Smith hasn’t been nearly as aggressive (7.8 average intended air yards, which ranks 22nd), preferring to work in the intermediate zones between the numbers.

The Bucs offense on third down: Fitzpatrick has been one of the league’s more efficient quarterbacks on third down, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt and posting a 100.6 rating. He could face a little more heat than usual Sunday, however, as Washington’s pass rush is generating pressure on more than half of third-down plays this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Gerald McCoy: The Bucs defensive tackle hasn’t been as effective a pass rusher as he has been in seasons past. He is generating a pressure once every 14 snaps, down from once every 10 last season. Perhaps McCoy, who missed two games last month because of a strained calf and is known to play through injury, is still on the mend. Against a banged up Washington offensive line, the 30-year-old will get a chance to prove that his lack of production to this point is an aberration and not a warning sign.

• • •

Prediction

Tampa Bay has recorded 18 sacks this season, just four fewer than all of last season. A team’s sack rate during its first eight games, however, is useless when trying to forecast future sacks. A better predictor is pressure rate, and the Bucs have the second-lowest percentage. Washington, though, will be cobbling together an offensive line. Aside from a quarterback sitting in a recliner, it’s hard to imagine a more favorable situation for a defense. I’ll believe it when I see it. The pick: Washington 28, Tampa Bay 26.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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