In the battle for Texas, Dallas faced off against the Houston Texans in a game that ultimately needed overtime to determine the superior team. After a quick three-and-out for the Texans, Tony Romo and company took over, only needing a field goal to win in the sudden death format. Dez Bryant corralled a 37-yard pass from Romo, putting Dallas in "field goal range" at the 31-yard line.
The Cowboys handed it off to their stud running back DeMarco Murray twice in a row, netting zero yards, then decided to attempt a 49-yard field goal on 3rd-and-9. The logic here is that if there is a botched snap, Dallas would still have another attempt at the game winner. This is a belief that is widespread in the NFL, but unfortunately, it is misguided. The first part of this is that a bad snap is exceedingly rare (~0.3-0.4% of the time), but the bigger part is that every yard closer to the end zone matters. Below you can see the probability of making a field goal by distance, with the green line representing estimates from last year (field goal kicking has improved dramatically over the last several years):
Dan Bailey is one of the best kickers in the NFL and he had a record streak of makes coming into the game. League-wide, a 49-yard field goal converts at 71.6%. Dan Bailey, in his career, is 94.1% from 40-49 and 68.4% from 50+. From the 31, one yard increases the probability of making a field goal by 2%. A five-yard gain would increase the field goal probability by almost 10%.
In this situation, that means you have a 10% greater chance of winning the game! That down is super valuable for getting closer to the end zone. In addition, every yard you gain, means a yard your opposition would have to gain back if you miss the field goal. A miss from the 31 means the Texans would get the ball at the 39-yard line - not very far from their "field goal range." I would even advocate for passing the ball - the risk is obviously there, but so is the reward. With the Texans stacking the box, expecting a run, a large gain means a huge increase in win probability.
All told, Bailey nailed the field goal and the Cowboys still won, but that does not make kicking the ball early the correct decision.
Keith Goldner is the Chief Analyst at numberFire.com - The leading fantasy sports analytics platform - and creator of Drive-By Football. Follow him on twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook. Check out numberFire's new iOS App in the app store now.
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