A model-based approach to football strategy.

December 17, 2007

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2007 Week 15 Strategy Review

Philadelphia at Dallas

With 2:19 left in the game, Philadelphia had 1st-and-10 at the Dallas 25-yard line, leading 10-6. Dallas had just called its final timeout. On the next play, Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook broke free for what appeared to be an easy touchdown. However, rather than scoring, Westbrook downed himself at the 1-yard line. The clock ran down to the two-minute warning, and when play resumed, the Eagles took a knee three times to end the game.

Had Westbrook scored, Dallas's win probability would have been miniscule—we estimate roughly 0.003. Still, the consensus is that Westbrook's tactic reduced Dallas's chances to zero. His own coach Andy Reid described the tactic as brilliant. We disagree.

What if there had been a defensive penalty on the play? Was Westbrook certain there had not been one? Certainly the Eagles decline the penalty, retaining the ball at the 1-yard line, but the clock stops, and (by Rule 4-3-1) does not re-start until the next snap. With the two-minute warning still to come, Philadelphia cannot run out the clock by taking a knee. Unless the Eagles are able to score a touchdown, the Cowboys get the ball back with around a half-minute remaining, trailing by at most a touchdown. A foul by either team that occurs after the play (e.g. unsportsmanlike conduct) but before the two-minute warning would also frustrate Westbrook's plan.

Indeed, Westbrook's tactic definitely fails against a team coached by a reader of this Web site. As we described in detail in a previous article, the Cowboys don't have to hope that there was a penalty on the play. They can foul intentionally after Westbrook downs himself. The penalty moves the ball half the distance to the goal, but as long as the Cowboys foul before the clock reaches 2:00, they still have a chance to win. We have pointed out several cases in which an intentional foul could have been used this way, most recently in our 2007 Week 9 Strategy Review.

We believe strongly that there are circumstances in which a ballcarrier should down himself deliberately instead of scoring. See, for example, our analysis of Minnesota at New Orleans in Week 6 of the 2004 season, or our remarks about an Emmitt Smith scoring run in a article at Football Outsiders. However, these cases have to thought through carefully by the coaching staff.

Baltimore at Miami

At the end of regulation, with the ball about a foot from Miami's goal line, Baltimore coach Brian Billick elected to kick a field goal to send the game into overtime rather than go for a touchdown. This decision has been so thoroughly panned by commentators that we need not add any additional criticism. We merely want to point out that Billick's decision is identical to the decision faced by Kansas City coach Dick Vermiel in Week 9 of the 2005 season. At that time we hoped that the praise Vermiel received for making the right decision would lessen coaches' fear of being second guessed in similar situations. Evidently those hopes were unjustified.

Copyright © 2007 by William S. Krasker