Mike Smith Doesn't Understand Math, Which is Why the Falcons Attempted a Field Goal Down 4 Late in the Game

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I don’t know what is more mind-numbingly awful. Mike Smith opting to kick a field goal down by four points with 2:24 left in a game, or the almost universal praise after the game that this was the right decision.

I can go about explaining it any number of ways, but this was a dreadful decision. Here is Mike Smith:

“There’s not a whole lot of fourth and 14’s. We had I believe it was around 2 minutes, 28 seconds, so we had a timeout before the two minute, use the two minute as a timeout, we were going to have an opportunity to get the ball back with the offense, only having to kick a field goal to win. Matt Bryant has kicked a lot of clutch field goals for us, and giving us an opportunity.”

The play was a 4th and 15. There have been 306 attempts on fourth down of between 13 and 17 yards going back to 1999. It’s not an insignificant number. This isn’t a rare case where teams never go for it in this situation at the end of the game. This would be the exact kind of situation where having someone with a sense of actual results in other games would help in decision making.

The NFL Network analysts, most of whom I believe were once competitors who must have had great belief in themselves, acted like this was an impossible feat. God forbid that a football team ever pick up 15 yards on a play by means of this forward pass.

Teams have converted 20.3% of fourth down attempts of between 13 and 17 yards (62 of 306). Let’s just call it 20%. Does that change your view of the call?

Here’s another number to compare it to: 24.8%

That’s the percentage of time that New Orleans has a first down with the ball, and fails to pick up another one. (via Football Outsiders Drive Stats)

Using the win probability estimator at Advanced NFL Stats, I estimate the chances of Atlanta winning based on choosing the long field goal at 9.8% (which accounts for the chances of a miss) and the odds of winning based on going for it at 15.7%.

That is a massive drop. It’s a fascinating decision because it combined a bunch of coaching logical fallacies into one giant crapola soup. Those include:

  • SO YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE: Vastly underestimating the actual chances of converting a fourth down, even a long one;
  • THE POINTS DON’T ALWAYS GET TAKEN: Overconfidence in the concept of field goal range and the likelihood of making a kick;
  • ALL WE NEED IS A STOP: Coaches seem to make these decisions with the assumption that the stop is likely. Just look at Smith’s quote;
  • THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ONE AND FOUR IS MASSIVE: Coaches overestimate the relative value of being down 1 versus 4, compared to outright having the lead versus still trailing. In reality, the difference between 1 and 4 is not nearly as great as having the lead.

Add all that up, and you get a coach that gives away a chance to take a lead, and opts to try to stay close and hope and pray that a bunch of other stuff goes right.

The Falcons missed the 52-yard field goal and lost.

Related: Fourth Down and Short Situations in 2013: What Do They Show?
Related: Fade Into the Red Zone: A Look at Hot and Cold NFL Pass Plays Near the Goal Line
Related: Coaching Decisions on Fourth Down in the Super Bowl
Related: Ray Rice’s Amazing Fourth Down Conversion Sent The Ravens to an Overtime Win Over the Chargers