The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing

We interrupt your “regularly” scheduled basketball analysis to bring you some thoughts on the world of football.  As you may have heard, the NFL is facing some struggles – concussions, player conduct, incompetent leadership, and so on.  This column isn’t about any of those things.  My concern lies with a very specific on-field problem that needs to be addressed in much greater detail – 4th down and the coaches who hate it.  And the stone-faced poster child of this phenomenon is none other than Lions’ head coach/coward Jim Caldwell.

The problem isn’t just Caldwell, obviously.  The lack of aggressiveness on 4th down extends to virtually all coaches at every level of the game.  In my estimation, we need to completely dismantle and reconstruct our thinking on the subject, both in theory and, ultimately, in practice (and games!). 

But first, I must digress.  Speaking of the Lions, you may have noticed some controversy this past weekend surrounding a certain was-it-or-wasn’t-it pass interference call involving Caldwell’s troops against Dallas.  There was an inevitable glut of attention paid to that particular play, and it definitely had an effect on the outcome of the game, so it does need to be addressed, mostly so I can show how it has nothing to do with my actual point. 

As a football fan, I pride myself on my ability to see judgment call-type plays correctly in real time on TV.  When it comes to questions of down by contact vs. fumble, in bounds vs. out of bounds, crossing the goal line vs. knee down short of it, and similar kinds of plays, I get it right at first look much more often than not.  With that said, in real time the play looked like PI to me.  Watching replays of it, I could see how the refs could interpret the hand-fighting as incidental contact, as well as the underthrow of the ball causing the receiver to come back into the defender, who was in good defending position throughout the play.  The whole thing was one big judgment call, and I could honestly be convinced that either call is correct (which is an issue for a different column).  Had the refs just not called anything, the Lions’ players would have barked and their fans would have gotten momentarily upset about the perceived slight.  Hell, Caldwell might have even blinked.  The fact that the refs threw the flag, called the penalty over the PA, marched off the yardage, and THEN changed their minds and picked up the flag without any explanation is the reason why everyone lost their damn minds about it. 

The point is this: the Lions called the play they wanted to call and ran the play however they were going to run it (somewhat poorly, as it turned out).  They controlled the things they could control.  The refs called the play the way they saw it, albeit in an unorthodox fashion.  They couldn’t control what the refs did, and ultimately, the end result was the same: 4th and 1 on the Dallas 46 yard line.  Regardless of who you play, coach, or root for, that previous play is over.  The only thing you can control is what happens next.  And in my opinion, the Lions didn’t lose because of a call by the refs that they couldn’t control; they lost because of a call by their coach (who we must presume has full control of his faculties) on the very next snap. 
The Lions lost because Caldwell didn’t have the balls to go for it on 4th down.  When his offense needed one yard to greatly improve his team’s odds of winning the game, he couldn’t or wouldn’t pull the trigger.  Context is obviously important in any breakdown of coaching strategy, so let’s dive a little deeper into it and see how this particularly high-leverage decision can inform our thinking on 4th down in general.

Before we talk about what happened Sunday in Dallas, we first need to discuss what happens on fall Saturdays in Annapolis, MD.  My father-in-law is a retired U.S. Navy Captain who attended the Naval Academy.  Due to this relationship, I’ve watched (live and on TV) a pretty large number of Navy football games. 

The truth is, Navy football games are horrible, boring affairs.  As a result of the pool of candidates from which the school chooses and the rigors and requirements of being a Midshipman, their football squad is at a constant disadvantage in terms of size and athletic talent.  The way that they (and other schools facing a similar predicament) compete is by running the triple option offense.  You probably know what the triple option looks like, but the basic idea is to use similar formations and looks in a variety of ways that create misdirection and numbers advantages for the offense.  These advantages create consistent running lanes that can be exploited for repeated positive gains.  The possessions are often long, drawn out, and repetitive.  The beauty and athleticism of the game is compromised in the service of a strategy that methodically grinds down the opponent’s defensive will.

But here’s the thing: it works.  Playing with less size, speed, and strength than virtually all of its opponents, Navy consistently puts up winning seasons with the same game plan every year.  So what does this have to do with 4th down, you ask?  The answer: everything.

You see, the triple option tends to create small positive yardage on almost every play.  When you run it three times in a row, chances are you’re going end up with either a first down or a 4th and short situation.  When Navy ends up in the latter scenario in opposition territory, they virtually always go for it.  Conventional football wisdom would say that this is a risky, gambler’s mentality, but the truth is that it’s not at all.  It’s the smart way for them to play. 

They understand two basic things about their style of play: 1) Possession of the ball is extremely important because the more they can control the time of possession, the less opportunities the opponent has to score; and 2) the option makes it very likely that they will convert in short yardage situations.  For them, the reward (continued possession) is far greater than the risk (giving up field position).   They aren’t “being overly aggressive” or “gambling,” they’re making the choice that most increases their chances of winning the game.  Every choice carries risk (as Jim Caldwell found out, but hold that thought); in more cases than most “experts” would care to admit, going for it on 4th down is actually the least risky option. 

You hear the phrase all the time in football: “trust your defense.”  Coaches use it, announcers use it, fans use it.  It’s become something of a football truism, but since we’re in the mood to question assumptions, let’s question this one too.  Of course context matters, but generally speaking (and assuming a reasonable 4th down distance to gain), is punting from the opponents’ side of midfield and “trusting your defense” to get the ball back a strategically wise decision? 

The analysts and internet tough guys who back the TYD strategy usually employ some version of the justification that “if you go for it there, you DON’T trust your defense.”   Well, what about trusting your offense to make a play?  Why does trust apply to one unit and not the other?  And if you truly “trust” your defense and they understand that trust, who gives a crap if they get put in a less-than-favorable spot because the offense didn’t convert on your aggressive decision?  If the D is so worthy of your trust, then they’ll pay it off with a stop anyway.  TYD is a total justification, and a lousy one at that. 

In addition, and I’m going to say this a lot in the next few paragraphs, CONTEXT MATTERS.  There are times where trusting the defense might make sense in these scenarios (to be clear, I’m talking about 4th and short-to-medium situations between midfield and the opponent’s 30-35 yard line).  Specifically, it could possibly be the right choice when your offense is significantly worse than the opponent’s defense, your defense is significantly better than the opponent’s offense, AND you are leading late in the game.  The last point matters, for sure, but the fact that Caldwell used it as his sole rationalization for the decision not to go for it is total BS. 

Caldwell should know what his team does well and what it does poorly, along with the same information for the opponent.  That is, you know, his job and everything.  And amazingly enough, there are statistics to tell us how each team’s offensive and defensive units rated over the course of the season.  Your columnist is a big fan of advanced statistics, so we are going to compare Detroit and Dallas in terms of Offensive and Defensive DVOA.  For the uninitiated, this is Defense-adjusted Value over Average, a proprietary statistic developed by the very smart fellas at Football Outsiders to measure a team’s performance based on every play of the season, breaking it down by situation in order to compare it to the league average.  It boils down to a more comprehensive measure of the performance of each team (and each unit on that team) than do counting stats and simple per-game ratings. 

Here are the offensive and defensive DVOA ratings of the teams for the 2014 season:
Detroit Offensive DVOA: 19th
Dallas Defensive DVOA: 22nd
Detroit Defensive DVOA: 3rd
Dallas Offensive DVOA: 4th

Again, context matters.  When considering his options on 4th and 1, Caldwell obviously isn’t poring over these numbers in his mind, but he HAS to be aware of them on some level.  He knows that his offense is basically the equivalent of Dallas’ D, and that the same goes for the other side of the ball.  So statistically, there is no real reason to trust your defense to stop Dallas’ offense any more than there is a reason to trust your offense to beat the Cowboys’ defense.  Punting is at best a 50/50 proposition, probably worse (more on that later).  So when either option is justifiable, why would you not go with the more aggressive one that gives your team the chance to keep possession of the ball and extend your lead?

And I get it – it’s not all about stats and geekery.  There is a human element here as well, so let’s talk psychology for a minute.  A big part of the head coach’s job is to motivate his players, to show his faith in them in the way he calls the game.  In that specific situation, everyone on Detroit’s sideline believed that they had just gotten screwed.  I strongly believe that, at that moment, nothing would have sent a stronger message to his team than Caldwell saying, “You know what? Fuck these refs and their bullshit calls.  We are going to go for it, and we are going to get it.  Their garbage calls don’t matter because we are going to TAKE this game by force.”  He could have challenged his players to win the game, and instead, he meekly punted the ball away because he “trusted his defense.”  The fact that the punt was the worst shank you will ever see from a professional is merely a bit of karmic justice for Caldwell’s cowardly decision-making. 

Now this is the point where the internet wankers say, “Yeah, Detroit should have brought their crystal ball so they’d know the punter would shank it.  Hindsight is 20/20.”  But here’s the thing, and I can’t be clear enough about this: THE RESULT OF THE PUNT IS IRRELEVANT.  Even if that punt goes out of bounds or gets fair caught inside the 10 yard line, it is still the wrong decision. 

This is about to get a bit subjective again, but here’s why.  Caldwell claimed in the postgame presser that Detroit’s defense had been “stingy” (his word) up to that point, which is true if you look at a football game in a static way, rather than a fluid one.  Detroit’s D stifled the Cowboys early on in the game, particularly their vaunted running game.  The Lions created a lot of pressure with blitzes early in the game as well, getting to Romo for a number of sacks. 

The thing is, as the game went on, the dynamic changed.  Dallas’ pass protection started to hold up, Detroit’s front four started to fatigue, and the Cowboys started moving the ball and scoring points in the second half.  Based on the “eye test,” by the time Detroit booted away that ill-fated punt, the Lions’ defense was already beaten.  The odds are that Dallas was going to score on that possession, regardless of where the drive started, and to a degree, regardless of the DVOA numbers I cited above. 

You can often tell these things by the amount of pressure that the defensive front gets on the quarterback on the decisive drive, and it was instructive here.  On the 4th and 6 that Dallas converted (I won’t argue that Jason Garrett was somehow “ballsier” here than Caldwell was; Dallas’ situation was much more dire) and the game-winning touchdown throw, Detroit’s front four, consistently rated as one of the best in the league, didn’t even get remotely close to Romo.  Dallas’ offensive line, which by virtually any metric you can dream up is the best in the league, had worn down Detroit’s D-line and rendered it ineffective in that very specific situation.  Regardless of what you think of Romo, he is at a massive advantage when he can sit in the pocket and pick out one of his weapons.  On the touchdown throw, it looked like he could have sat back there all day until someone got open.  As soon as he dropped back, I knew it was over.

Want more proof that punting was the wrong choice?  Right after the punt, I texted the following to a good friend of mine (who believes in 4th down the same way I do): “Odds that Detroit will have to convert a more difficult 4th down than the one they passed up: 100%.”  Then: “Odds that Joe Buck or Troy Aikman will mention this fact: 0%.”  Setting aside how terrible Fox’s broadcast team is, without knowing how Dallas’ possession would go or anything after that, I knew that Caldwell had screwed up.  The result was dictated by the process, and it came to pass exactly that way.  Sitting at almost exactly the same spot on the field as they were when Caldwell passed up the earlier 4th and 1, the Lions fumbled away their last chance at the win on 4th and 3 (which, for the statistically-inclined, is more difficult than 4th and 1).  If you were paying attention, it played out so perfectly that you’d have to be suffering from post-concussive symptoms not to see it, which explains why Aikman was so blissfully unaware. 

That single decision to punt, albeit in an extremely high-leverage situation, was a microcosm of the way that NFL (and to a certain extent, college) coaches view 4th down.  Caldwell used some coach-speak to defend his decision in the press conference, but what he was really saying was this: “I wasn’t playing to win.  I was playing not to lose.  When we needed one yard to greatly increase our chances of winning the game, I didn’t believe in my team to get that yard.  True leaders are willing to make the hard choices, and I am not able to do that.  Also, am I allowed to talk during the game?”

His Art Shell-ian silence notwithstanding, Caldwell is not alone among NFL coaches.  There is a rampant tendency toward risk aversion when it comes to 4th down decision-making, and it has to stop.  So many coaches are so worried about their job security that they make these timid decisions on 4th down, pushing the blame to the players if they don’t get it done, rather than accepting responsibility for not putting the team in the best position to win. 

Once again, context matters, and it’s on the organizations to empower these coaches to make in-game decisions that are in everyone’s best interests without threatening their jobs.  There are plenty of reasons to fire an NFL coach – a bad result on an aggressive 4th down call shouldn’t be one of them.

Football is fundamentally a game of aggressiveness.  Everyone knows and accepts this.  What I can’t accept is that the gap between the aggressiveness that the players are expected to display and the aggressiveness that coaches display in their decision-making is so large.  Every player is expected to put himself on the line on every play of every game.  That the head coach, the leader of these men, won’t do the same on the very biggest plays of the game (and in Jim Caldwell’s case, the season), should be considered nothing short of a violation of the very principles upon which this glorious sport was founded. 

Bottom line: you get four downs – use them all.  Say it with me, kids: YOU PLAY.  TO WIN.  THE GAME.