Fourth And Inches
Issue   |   Tue, 10/02/2012 - 23:29

I always regret looking up reviews for a new movie because I inevitably find out how long it is. The twists and turns just aren’t as moving knowing that the ending is still 20 minutes off. Watching close NFL games, I tend to have the same problem. Make no mistake; there are few sporting spectacles consistently as exciting as the last two minutes of a tight football game, precisely because unpredictability runs rampant on every play. Nevertheless, knowing how much time is left in the game leaves me expectant, knowing that no matter what the teams will switch possession of the ball eventually and begin the fourth quarter comeback anew. Exciting as that seems, predictable unpredictability adds something of a “doomed-if-you-do-doomed-if-you-don’t” element to the NFL head coaching equation.

This all comes to a head in the popular practice among NFL head coaches of calling a timeout just as a kicker lines up for a late-game field goal. I suppose the idea behind “icing” a kicker, as it’s known, is that a kicker is more likely to crumple in the all-important moment given some extra time to think about what he’s about to do. Alternatively, maybe just the threat of an impending timeout actually takes off the edge, sapping kickers of a little testosterone and lulling them into taking a practice kick the first time around.

Whatever the logic behind icing, the numbers don’t seem to bear it out. Citing Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s book Scorecasting on Grantland, Bill Barnwell writes that icing has a spotty record. Scorecasting examined data on field goals from 2001 through 2009, and after controlling for distance, showed that icing had its most marked effect on kickers inside with anywhere between 120 to 61 seconds remaining in the game. In that interval, kickers who were iced connected on 74.2 percent of attempts, while those that weren’t successfully launched 77.6 percent of their kicks. A significantly less pronounced trend holds for kicks taken between 60 to 31 seconds and 30 to 16 seconds remaining in a game. Moreover, as the game wound down, icing kickers backfired. Inside of 15 seconds left in the game, iced kickers had an accuracy of 77.5 percent, as opposed to the 75.4 percent put up by those who were not iced. So for all the hoopla, icing doesn’t seem to amount to much, if anything.

But the icing issue also raises questions about the change in strategy coaches employ as the game progresses. It may seem obvious, for instance, that icing has only taken hold in late-game situations. Perhaps rightfully so, as I suppose the logic doesn’t pan out in situations when a field goal isn’t deemed imminently important enough to merit pressure or a burnt timeout. But the impact of strategic changes on the other parts of the game might be more subversive. Knowing that the game may come down to a last-second field goal, might a coach opt to hang onto a timeout he might have otherwise used? Or might the opposing coach run more time-consuming plays to deplete his counterpart’s timeouts and prevent icing altogether?

For starters, I’ve seen Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (I suppose I would be remiss if Eli Manning didn’t get a shout-out here) go to work often enough in the fourth quarter to know that picking up a late lead can prove inconsequential if your team hands the ball back with time on the clock. As an Indiannoplis Colts fan, I remember watching the 2009 AFC Championship in fear, as Bill Belichick decided to go for a fourth-and-two from his own 28 with the New England Patriots up by six. The Pats came up short on fourth down, Manning got a short field with two minutes left in the game, and the rest is history.

As Belichick explained to reporters after the game, had he elected to punt, his defense would have had to keep the Colts from gaining 70 yards to win the game. National pundits made quick work of his logic, but 70 yards isn’t so formidable a distance on the comeback trail. Punting the ball away may very well have only delayed the inevitable.

Belichick knows better than anyone that the name of the game in the fourth quarter is keep away. All other things equal, in a one-possession game the losing team might prefer to start their final drive with say five minutes left in the game, rather than eight. Of course there are a lot of qualifiers there. You have to ultimately be able to score. You have to churn out positive plays that also eat up clock in the meantime. But you have to do all of this unpredictably, so that the other team never knows what hit them. Assuming that simple set of assumptions holds, in general the idea is to give yourself the best chance of winning while simultaneously foreclosing on the opportunity the other team has of making a comeback.

Unfortunately, there is surprisingly little data available about the duration of an average NFL drive (cross-sectional data by quarter would be most useful, if anybody out there is feeling bored this week). In theory, with enough data, it could be possible to determine what the ideal length of a second-half drive should be, if you’re aiming to get the ball back with five minutes left in the game. At the very least, this kind of study should provide insight as to whether a team should accept the kickoff or defer at the start of a game.

Consider a scenario where letting the other team score is the right call. Again, I don’t have numbers, but I suspect that if the other team is closer than your 10-yard line, and there’s anywhere between two to four minutes left in a one-possession game, these scenarios are plausible. They are tough to imagine though, because hard-nosed football head coaches don’t concede anything. But really it’s akin to a basketball team intentionally fouling its opponent to limit them to a maximum of two points, while it takes three-pointers on the other end — it’s all about hedging your bets.

Not to say that any of this should be on a linebacker’s mind when he’s trying to make plays. Much like icing a kicker, forcing players to think about what should come naturally seems to unnecessarily increase the complexity of the situation. Much in the same way, NFL head coaches might be creatures of habit when it comes to game management. They may not have the time to explore whether the winning strategy in football games can be boiled down to a science, and the last two minutes of a close game don’t seem like a good time to start. But this is why they play the preseason games, right?