Published: 20 October 2014
Up two points to the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, the Rams were stopped on three plays and forced to punt with 2:55 left in the fourth quarter. With the line-of-scrimmage at their own 18-yard line, Rams' punter Johnny Hekker took the snap and threw the ball to Benny Cunningham on a quick out route, converting and essentially solidifying the huge upset.
How gutsy was Jeff Fisher's fake punt call? And was it the right call from a statistical standpoint? We already know that big underdogs need to employ high risk/high variance
strategies to maximize their chances of winning. We have also looked at whether faking a punt or field goal is actually more successful than just lining up and going for it
. The truth is that it completely depends on the situation. When coaches fake, it is usually because they believe there is a weakness or tendency they can exploit. And, fakes work especially well the unlikelier they seem.
If the Rams punt to the Seahawks, Russell Wilson would get the ball with over two minutes remaining, just needing a field goal to take the lead. This equates to a 53.4% chance for the Rams to win on a punt - pretty close to a coin flip (keep in mind, these are league-wide averages and not specific to each team, although team strength is taken into consideration). If the Rams go for it and convert, they can essentially run out the clock. It is not a guarantee, as the Seahawks could still get the ball back with about 30 seconds - more than enough time to get into field goal range. Only needing a first down to win, the Rams would have a win probability of 88.2%. If the Rams go for it and fail, while they still had timeouts remaining, the Seahawks would have the ball inside the 20 only needing a field goal to win. This would mean just a 14.9% chance for the Rams to win. Talk about a high variance swing on a decision! 88.2% to 14.9%.
So, how likely were the Rams to convert, and more importantly, how confident did Fisher need to be in his fake punt to make the call? League-wide conversion rates on 4th-and-3 are right around 51%. That means the expected win probability for a team going for it is 88.2% * 51% + 14.9% * 49% = 52.3%. 52.3% is just below the 53.4% chance the Rams would have to win if they punted, but it's extremely close! The break-even point is just 52.6%. With so many potential things shifting the probabilities and the fact that Fisher most likely had seen something in the Seahawks special teams to believe there was a high chance of conversion, you will hear no argument from me against the decision. Gutsy, yes. Crazy, not quite.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.