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This was one of the most remarkable games I can remember, certainly the most improbable late-game comebacks in a while. The IND-KC playoff game last year can't be overlooked, but this game had a completely different quality to it. The post-mortem on GB today is in full swing.

GB head coach Mike McCarthy deserves all the criticism he's taking. Those who are dismissing the criticism with terms like "hindsight is 20/20" and "woulda, coulda, shoulda" or pinning the blame on a lack of execution on the onside kick are off the mark. There's nothing hindsight about the analysis. In fact, the 4th down analysis (courtesy of the 4th down bot) runs in real-time, and all the models along with their recommendations are on record long before the kickoff. All the mistakes were avoidable.

Let's look at the autopsy through the lens of Win Probability.

Before we get into the decision analysis let's look at how unlikely the comeback really was. Surprisingly, SEA never had worse than a 0.02 WP (2% chance of winning), and that wasn't until 3 min to play when SEA's second TD drive appeared to stall. Every season there are a small handful of comebacks from a 0.01 WP, and maybe even lower--the old model doesn't have the resolution to see WP's below 0.01. The game had a Comeback Factor (CBF) of 50, but there are plenty of games in the database with CBFs of 100. 


The 4th Downs

Today I heard several commentators say that McCarthy was correct to 'take the points' on the two 4th downs in the 1st half. The reasoning was that you're not going to score a lot vs SEA's defense, so take any point you can get. It turns out the precise opposite is true. If you expect to have very few scoring opportunities, you're far better off optimizing the few opportunities you do have.

The game disproved one of the biggest tropes in football analysis--that patterns or trends early in the game indicate how the rest of the game will play out. SEA was shut out until 5 min left in the 3rd qtr, then scored four TDs.

GB's first 4th down was the most costly. It was 4th and goal from the 1 with 8:10 in the 1st qtr. Going for it amounted to a 0.613 WP while kicking the FG was worth 0.578 WP, a difference of 0.035 WP. The break-even success probability was 34%, and the league average is 55%. As far as those things go, nothing is a bigger slam dunk, and .035 WP is as much as an early 4th down error can cost.

The second 4th down was also a 4th and goal from the 1, this time with 5:10 in the 1st. This was only barely less costly, because GB was up by 3 at the time. It came with a 0.034 price in WP. That's a total of 7 percentage points of win probability just for those two decisions. I can be a broken record on this point, but this is not nearly as small as it sounds. 7% is really, really big. To help put that in perspective, last four seasons' all-pro RB averaged 0.06 Win Probability Added per game during their peak season. Forfeiting .07 WP would be worse than Seattle choosing not to dress Marshawn Lynch just for grins.

The third 4th down was debatable. This one was 4th and 1 from the SEA 22 with 9:42 in the 2nd qtr. GB was up by 13 at the time. The WP 2.0 model was basically indifferent here, but slightly favored going for it, 0.886 WP vs 0.882. But recall that going for it assumes no more than the minimum yardage needed to convert, so any "tie" goes to going for it. The FG was a defensible decision here because it put GB up, realistically, beyond two scores.

The Fake FG

The biggest 4th down of the game, however, was SEA's fake FG score. That was a 4th and 10 from the GB 19 with 4:50 to play in the 3rd qtr. SEA was down 16-0 at the time. Maybe coaches tend to go ahead with the FG in the regular season to take the shutout off the board, but this was a conference championship game. To not be fully prepared for, and fully expecting, a fake play was unbelieveable. The chances of blocking a kick from that close (the kicker can use a high trajectory) is close to zero. A FG doesn't really hurt. A successful conversion (not even a TD, just the 1st down) was worth 0.117 WP while a successful FG was only worth 0.067 WP. The TD gave SEA a .148 WP. With 10 yards to go, a straight play from scrimmage would not have been the 'analytically-correct' call; only a fake FG had a worthwhile chance of hurting GB.

Sliding after the Interception

I thought it was a good idea. It's impossible to say if Burnette would have scored or gotten near FG range, so I won't try to quantify it. Fumbles do happen remarkably often on turnover returns. I can't fault a player in the heat of play as much as a coach on the sideline, so I'll leave that one alone.

The 4-Minute Offense

GB had two bites at the apple to try to snuff out SEA's chances in the final few minutes. In their two possessions, they went run-run-pass-punt and run-run-run-punt, ultimately giving SEA 3:07. SEA gambled and played run, and the 4-min offense backfired on GB. In fairness, leaving SEA 3 min to score two TDs was not a bad position for GB to be in. However, in general, my analysis suggests offenses would be better off abandoning the '4 min offense' and simply playing straight up offense. That doesn't stop them from using common sense and staying in bounds, or taking a sack on 3rd down rather than throwing the ball away, stopping the clock.

The most bizarre part of all this was McCarthy's post-game explanation. He said he was targeting 20 runs in the second half. Man, that is dangerous thinking--targeting a specific run count or run/pass ratio. I can't believe coaches still think that way, especially in this era. If McCarthy didn't have Rodgers as his QB,...well, I'll say it would expose a lot of errant thinking, and leave it at that.
 

The Onside Kick

Obviously that was huge, but it wasn't a slam-dunk call. SEA could have gone either way. With one timeout left, they could get the ball back with 1:06 left. That's not a lot of time, but remember that there a lot of things that could happen. One of them would be that GB would have the ball back with 3 timeouts and enough time to take the lead. Remember that even if SEA scores the TD, the 2-pt conversion was required to go up by 3. Otherwise, a FG would win it for GB. One reason the model is indifferent there is that recovery rates are down for expected onsides since the 2009 rule changes requiring a balanced kicking formation. 

SEA's 2-Point Decision, No not that One

SEA's 2-pointer to go up three was a freakishly amazing play and made all the difference in the ultimate accounting, but they had the option of making it a one-score game after the fake FG TD. It was the right call not to go for two. They would need at least a 55% success probability to make it worthwhile with about 5 min left to play in the 3rd qtr. 

Amazing game on a lot of fronts. The play on the field determined the outcome, but a lot of small mistakes added up to become very costly in the end. This analysis is not after-the-fact second-guessing. The analytics are there for any team to use long before kickoff.

Addendum: The original version of this analysis omitted the second 4th and goal from the 1 from GB.

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  • Guest - Michael

    What about Green Bay second field goal? 4th and goal from two yard line

  • Guest - Mark Malonson

    You didn't address Green Bay's strategy on their last drive. Seattle had the "advantage" of being up only by 3, and not 4 to 6. Green Bay started at their own 22 with 1:25 left and had all their timeouts, but seemed content to let the clock run as they marched into field goal range with short passes in-bounds. Granted, they ended up having to kick the FG on 4th down, but McCarthy seemed content to just put the game into OT with two timeouts in his pocket. I wonder: if Green Bay had converted one more first down, would they even try to take a shot at the end zone? Or just let the clock run, take a timeout, and kick the FG on 1st or 2nd down?

  • Guest - mike

    Although my mouth is still hanging open after watching that game, one decision from GB that struck me was the defensive setup when SEA had 3rd and 19 later in the game. Is there a way to determine a better defensive strategy (blitz, etc) than the 0 man rush/prevent that GB used?

  • Guest - Kostya

    I'm curious about the slide (photo here: https://twitter.com/RobDemovsky/status/557632358107852802/photo/1).

    You mention fumbles happen remarkably often on interceptions. Do you have a sense of how often? Are we talking 5%? 10%? Etc...

  • Guest - roger

    So, the 1st FG was only a ~3% change in the estimated WP.

    So why is that a slam dunk? that seems extremely close to even. And it would seem to even make the case for kicking it with such a high success rate, rather than attempting to go for it in a heavy rainfall against a very tough seattle defense, especially when that defense previously stuffed you on 3rd or short.

    Personally I would have gone for it both times (but how demoralizing would it be to no points after those two opportunities).

  • Guest - Anicra

    4th and 14
    Packers ball on their 39
    4th quarter, 4:00 remaining, up by 12 - The bot says to go for it instead of punting....seriously?

  • Guest - roger

    this is way late, so i assume no one will see it. However, I think this is a huge point.

    BUT, GB "lost" 7 WP early in the game. Later, their WP went up to 99%. So where did that 7 WP go? It vanished, and thus it didn't matter if they went for a TD or the FG, since later plays washed it away. Thus according to WP, those plays didn't matter since later plays gave GB a 99% chance to win (and not a 106% chance to win).

    It seems WP only matters if you can cash out after a WP decision. In a football game, you have about 50 WP decisions in a row, and the sum or the WPs do not add up.

  • Guest - Joe

    Roger, it appears you do not understand the complexities of statistics or this machine. You are over-simplifying it... It's not as easy as just adding the different WPs together from various points and situations during the game. This is also why the 3.5% doesn't seem like a big deal to you. It involves multiplying certain WPs together and subtracting from 100%. Think about if GB had gone for and converted just one of those two 4th and goals from the 1 in the first quarter into a TD (which I understand is not a given, but high probability), they would've been up by 23-7 and SEA would've needed 2 TDs and 2 (miraculous?) 2-pt conversions just to tie. Then GB still has the chance to go down and kick the FG at the end to win (instead of force OT). But heck, even if they went for both and failed to convert and score any points on one of them, but then scored a TD on the other one (one of those turning into a TD is VERY likely), then they still would've had one extra point (20 instead of 19), meaning SEA only could've gone up by 1 or 2 on their last TD and GB still gets the win with the last minute FG.

    My point is that, obviously, you can't just add the 7% to get to 106% near the end of the game there. But had GB gone for both (thus giving them their extra 7% WP early in the game) and been up 23-7 or 20-7 instead of 19-7, their WP would've increased significantly from 99% to, maybe, 99.8%+ (the 0.8% is a huge difference when comparing to the highest you can go: 100%). And heck, even if GB failed to convert both 4 and goals and assuming no advantage in field position as a result of a turnover on downs at the 1 (which there definitely would be), GB still probably would've been better off being up only up 13-7, since they wouldn't have run that dumb 4-minute offense and prevent defense because it would've been a 1 possession game and/or they would've actually been playing from behind, which I think would've ended up being better in the long run anyway.

    Bottom line is statistics are way more complicated than you're making them out to be. Trust me, Brian and the WP machine are way more accurate than your faulty logic.

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