Mike McCarthy Should Have Gone For the Touchdown on 4th and Goal in Overtime


Mike McCarthy was in a win-win situation, with an opportunity to go for it on fourth and goal at the Minnesota 2-yard line on the first possession of overtime. He came away with a tie, and the Packers now sit a half-game behind Detroit and Chicago, after a day when the other two NFC North teams lost.

Under the rules that were adopted for the regular season before last year, the Packers could no longer win automatically with a field goal. Going for a touchdown, on the other hand, would end the game if successful.

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Coaches have yet to fully come to grips with the strategy associated with the new rule. The design is to force exactly the decision that McCarthy did not make on Sunday – to weigh the increased bonus of being aggressive. In this case, McCarthy not going for it was a pretty large error. Keith Goldner of Advanced NFL Stats estimated it at about a 10% drop in likelihood of winning.

I say that McCarthy was in a win-win situation near the goal line because, by choosing to go for it, he would have had two cracks at winning. First, of course, the Packers could have scored on what was the equivalent of a two-point conversion, a play that is converted just under 50% of the time (especially removing botched extra points classified as attempts).

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Second, though, is that even with a failure, the Packers would have been a very solid favorite to win the game by giving the Vikings the ball backed against their own end zone in a tie game. When a team is backed against their own end zone, the defense is actually the favorite to score next. If we look at just overtime in the last five years, five teams have been backed up with a first down inside their own 5. The team on defense ended up winning four of those games, usually by forcing a punt and getting the ball back in great field position.

If we expand it to also include tie games in the 4th quarter (excluding four end-of-quarter situations where team ran out clock to go to overtime), 19 teams have been backed inside their own 5. Only three of them scored on that possession (two touchdowns, one field goal). The team on defense was next to score 11 times, the team that was pinned was next to score six times, and twice, the team that was on defense missed a rushed field goal at the gun (on second down for both) after getting the ball back.

McCarthy was very much win-win by going for it there.

Instead, he fell victim to the new incentives of the overtime rules. The difference in going may have resulted in 3 points and about 20 to 25 yards of field position. The difference is much greater than that field position would suggest, because of incentives. A three point lead and the Vikings getting the ball after a kickoff means they are in an unusual situation–a must score drive in four down mode, but without any time pressure (they had ten minutes left).

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We don’t have much data on the actual effects of the overtime changes yet. Prior to this game, there had been only 31 overtime games in the last two years, of which only four saw an initial field goal with a chance to respond (teams were 1 for 4, with the Lions failing on a 4th and 1 near the goal line on a play that Jim Schwartz claimed they were not supposed to snap it). This then, marks only the fifth such occasion where we have seen a matching opportunity, and the first tie to result directly from the rule change.

To ballpark the chances of a retaliation score, I compared it to situations where a team had a first down between their own 20 and 30, down by a field goal or less, with between 3 and 5 minutes remaining in a game. The rationale is that we want to see teams that know they need to score, but are also not in immense time pressure where they must spike the ball, can’t run it, etc.

In the last five years, 42 situations meet those conditions. Here were the results:

  • Touchdown scored 24% of time
  • Field goal scored 19% of time
  • Missed field goal 5% of time
  • Turnover, turnover on downs, or punt 52% of time

In 43% of the cases, the team did get a score. Some of those were touchdowns, which would outright beat Green Bay.

Yes, failing on a fourth down there would leave Green Bay vulnerable to an outright loss by a field goal. The likelihood of Minnesota scoring when pinned deep were less, though, than outright winning or answering after the Packers settled for a field goal.

McCarthy could not have known he was playing for a tie. By incentivizing Minnesota to go on a drive to tie, though, and creating a situation where little time would remain if it happened, he did just that.

I do fear that a tie in this particular case will be costly for Green Bay, even though this Green Bay writer calls it a win. A tie does remove basically the risk of a tiebreaker (it’s doubtful the Lions or Bears also tie a game), but it leaves the Packers going to Detroit on Thanksgiving, likely without Rodgers, and now a half game back.

A tie is technically a half win and half loss, right there between the two other outcomes. In the Packers’ case, though, I suspect that tie will feel like a loss when the season concludes. Had they won, they could have gone to Detroit on Thursday, and had margin of error with a loss. Now, a loss at Detroit, presumably without Rodgers, puts Green Bay a game and a half back at 5-6-1, and basically needing to run the table with zero margin for any more costly overtime decisions.