Childress made the (statistically) correct call

The Minnesota Vikings opening drive remains a big talker this week. Head coach Brad Childress decided to go for it on 4th and 2 from the Miami 26 following a Percy Harvin catch for 6 yards.

Fans are on his case for not having Ryan Longwell attempt what would have been about a 41-yard field goal to put points on the board.

Childress watched his offense move the chains quite effectively in the opening drive. After Brett Favre’s first pass to Harvin went for a 1-yard loss, Harvin grabbed three more passes on the drive, then his own false start penalty turned a 3rd-and-3 into a 3rd-and-8 from the Dolphins 32. A 6-yard catch left the controversial 4th and 2.

A pass over the middle to Greg Lewis fell incomplete. The Dolphins then went deep and soon put the Vikings in a 7-0 hole.

While going for it this early, we retreat to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s decision last year to go for it on 4th and 2 from their own 28 with a 34-28 lead and 2:08 left in the game. That failed attempt lead to the Colts winning the game to keep Indy unbeaten.

Without getting into it deeper, the Patriots decision appeared to rest on the fact that if you punt, you give Peyton Manning 2 minutes to decide the game. You go for it and make it, you take some knees and win.

Childress’ decision doesn’t exactly go against the grain, however. Brian Burke, who operates the website Advanced NFL Stats, charts out the recommended option on fourth downs, of course, regardless of score or how healthy your wide-outs are.

So I asked Brian today if Childress statistically made the right call. Burke’s data shows that a 4th and 2 play has a 60 percent chance of gaining a first down.

“Yes, in general coaches should be going for it on 4th and 2 at nearly every yardline on the field. At the opponent’s 26, it makes sense to go for it at surprisingly long to-go distances,” Burke writes.

In fact, the lower graph on this page is quite surprising.

And while we’re at it, Burke says the decisions to score whether your home or away is “overstated to say the least.

In fact, if being on the road makes a team more of an underdog, it should seek higher risk/reward situations like going for it. Not that the Vikings were underdogs for that game, but in general if favorites and underdogs play to their exact average level of performance every time, the favorite would always win. What underdogs want is ‘high variance’ outcomes, and what favorites want is ‘low variance’ outcomes.”

Burke’s statistics drew national interest last year after the New England game. Burke says Belichick made the correct move to go for it.

“The difference between the two situations is that in ‘end-game’ situations like for the NE-IND game, we can’t use the basic Expected Point model like the one here (which I believe you are referring to). We need to use a Win Probability model that takes into account time remaining and score,” Burke writes.

“Coaches see fourth downs too pessimistically. They overestimate the downside of failing to convert, and they overestimate the value of a kick. As NFL offenses have become more and more potent, the value of possession increases and the value of kicking decreases. The easier it is for teams to move down the field, the less field position matters.”

Got that?

I would hardly think Chris Kluwe and Ryan Longwell are in jeopardy of losing their jobs, but Childress in this case was well within his rights to keep the field goal team on the sidelines.

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