In the aftermath of the Bucs' 17-14 win at Carolina on Monday night, 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 with four minutes left in a tie game.
On the previous play, Bucs quarterback 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.
"I think Coach Koetter lost confidence in Winston after he forced the ball into a double zone," Gruden said.
ESPN play-by-play man Sean McDonough later called it "almost a give up" to run in that situation. 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 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 was certainly unusual, but the numbers back him up to a certain extent.
The database at profootballreference.com 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 21 times and ran it twice before 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 might come as a surprise. NFL teams completed nine of the 21 passes (43 percent) and got first downs only four times (18 percent), with one touchdown (from the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, on the first play of a fourth quarter) and one interception.
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So throwing the ball equaled an 18 percent chance of a first down and a 5 percent chance of a turnover.
Running the ball? It actually yielded a first down in one of the two attempts. On Dec. 6, 2015, the Bears, tied with the 49ers with 1:23 left and facing third and 10 at their 28 — remarkably similar to the Bucs' situation — gave the ball to Ka'Deem Carey, and he gained 11 yards for a first down. Oddly enough, the Bears missed a much shorter kick as time expired (from a much more experienced kicker in Robbie Gould) and ended up losing in overtime.
Koetter was facing a 45-yard field goal with an incompletion, and Aguayo hadn't made an NFL kick longer than 43 yards, so there arguably was some value in the likely outcome of a running play: a short gain to trim some distance off the 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.