The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Kick the Damned Field Goal! (Or, How ‘Analytics’ Is Ruining Football)

Posted on | December 17, 2021 | Comments Off on Kick the Damned Field Goal! (Or, How ‘Analytics’ Is Ruining Football)

Trivia question: Who leads the NFL in scoring?

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor has more touchdowns (16 rushing, 2 receiving) than any other player in the league, for a total of 108 points, but he is not the NFL’s leading scorer. That distinction belongs to New England Patriots kicker Nick Folk, who has kicked 33 field goals and 29 extra points for a total of 128 points so far this season.

The reason I bring this up is because the Los Angeles Chargers passed up three field-goal opportunities Thursday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, opting instead to go for it on fourth down deep inside the Chiefs’ territory, and as a result lost 34-28 in overtime.

Blame “analytics,” which is what they call it nowadays when geeks with calculators apply statistical formulae to football. Supposedly, “analytics” shows that the odds of converting on fourth-and-2 or whatever favor going for it, regardless of the overall game situation, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen teams lose winnable games this season by following “analytics.” It’s become a plague on the sport, and I think my brother and I — who were watching the Chargers-Chiefs game because the outcome could affect the Patriots’ postseason chances — were not alone in yelling at the TV: “Kick the damned field goal!”

This brings me back to the subject of Nick Folk, who leads the league in scoring points, and is a major reason why the Patriots are 9-and-4 going into Saturday’s game against the Colts. Under Coach Bill Belichick, New England plays what they call “complementary football,” with all three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams — working together to maximize the team’s chances of victory. This approach explains why the Patriots are near the top of the AFC in wins, despite the fact that their overall offense ranks only 10th in the conference in total yardage. New England win games by playing smart football in every phase of the game. Consider this, for example: Although their defense ranks 9th in the AFC in rushing yards allowed per game (114.5), New England is first in the entire NFL in terms of fewest points allowed by their defense (15.4). How can that be? It’s because Belichick’s approach to defense is “bend don’t break” (a phrase I first saw in a book by Bud Wilkinson back in the day). In other words, Belichick doesn’t panic when the other teams makes a couple of first downs, moving the ball up the field, but instead has his defense focus on not giving up the big plays, counting on the chance that the other team will eventually make a mistake. This is just old-fashioned common-sense football.

As demoralizing as it can be to a defense when the other team is driving the ball up field, good coaches teach the “bend-don’t break” attitude. Don’t worry if the other team is having success moving the ball, just focus on not giving up the big play, and when if they get down near your goal line, that’s OK, because the shorter field favors the defense (less territory to cover) and besides, mistakes happen. Fumbles, interceptions, sacks, penalties — all kinds of things can go wrong for a team on offense, and if the defense will just be patient, avoid mistakes of their own, and focus on each play as it happens, the “bend-don’t-break” defensive philosophy tends to win football games. So, yes, the New England Patriots give up a lot of yards, even while they allow fewer points per game than any other defense in the NFL: Points matter most.

And did I mention that the Patriots’ kicker leads the league in points?

By God, when the Patriots get to fourth down and they’re within field-goal range, you’ll never see Bill Belichick do that “analytics” nonsense. No, they kick the field goal, because that’s smart football.

Let me give you a couple of examples: On Oct. 10, the Patriots took a 1-3 record into a road game against the Houston Texans, one of the league’s doormats. If New England was to have any hope of a respectable season, this was a must-win game, but early in the third quarter, the Texans intercepted a pass, and two plays later Chris Conley threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to put Houston ahead 22-9. After a couple of three-and-out series by each team, the Texans got to fourth-and-2 at their own 36, and then screwed up a punt, which bounced off a player’s head and went out of bounds, giving the Patriots a first down at the Houston 36. Three plays netted only three yards, however, and New England settled for a field goal, cutting the margin to 22-12. On the next series, the Texans got a first down, but then got a holding call and had to punt again, and after a 13-yard return by Gunner Olszewski, New England started from their own 39. They drove all the way to the Houston 14 before stalling, and Folk came on to kick another field goal, to make it 22-15. Early in the fourth quarter, after Houston missed a field goal attempt, New England drove for a touchdown to tie the game 22-22 with 9:31 left to play. The Texans then went three-and-out, and the Patriots took over at their own 13 with 7:15 remaining. Nee England then mounted a 15-play, 84-yard drive that chewed up seven minutes on the clock until, faced with fourth-and-goal at the Houston 3-yard line with 15 seconds left, Nick Folk came on to kick the game-winning field goal.

New England 25, Houston 22 — and Folks’ four field goals made the difference. The second example: Three weeks after beating the Texans, New England had a 3-4 record as they traveled to L.A. to play the Chargers. A win would bring the Patriots to .500, but the Chargers came into the game with a 4-2 record, and New England was the underdog. While I won’t recap the game in detail, the Chargers took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, but Nick Folk kicked four field goals and the Patriots eventually won, 27-24. In those two crucial games, Nick Folk accounted for a combined 26 points, so don’t tell me that “settling” for a field goal is a bad choice: Kick the damned field goal.

You might think L.A. Chargers coach Brandon Staley would have learned something from getting beat that way by New England, but there he was with first-and-goal at the Kansas City 5 early in the game, and three incomplete passes later, it’s fourth down. Kick the field goal? No, he went for it, another incomplete pass, and the Chiefs took over. Kansas City went 95 yards in 11 plays, chewing up 5:53 on the clock before going ahead 7-0. The Chargers battled back, and were leading 14-10 when they recovered a Chiefs’ fumble with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. L.A. drove to the Kansas City 1-yard-line where, on fourth-and-goal, Staley passed up the chance to kick a field goal that would have put the Chargers ahead by 7. Instead, another pass went incomplete.

Kansas City took the second-half kickoff and drove down to the L.A. 14 before settling for a field goal that cut the Chargers’ lead to a single point, 14-13. On their next possession, the Chargers made it down to the Kansas City 28 where, on fourth-and-2, Staley again decided to go for it and failed. So that’s 9 points Staley rejected in a game where L.A. didn’t kick a single field goal and only punted once — it’s touchdowns or nothing, in Staley’s playbook, and that’s why they lost the game. Because “analytics.”

Believe it or not, Staley defended his decisions:

Chargers coach Brandon Staley isn’t changing his ways: He says he will continue to go for it on fourth down, even after three out of Los Angeles’ five attempts Thursday night failed in a 34-28 overtime defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I felt really comfortable with all those decisions,” Staley said after the loss, which dropped the Chargers two games behind the Chiefs in the AFC West standings with three to play. “That’s the way we’re going to play around here. That’s the way we’re going to play. When we have a quarterback like ours, and we have an offense like ours, that’s the way we’re going to play because that’s how you need to play against Kansas City, for sure. That’s how we’re going to become the team that we’re ultimately capable of being, by playing that way.”
The Chargers entered the game 13 for 21 on fourth downs this season, giving them the fourth-most conversions in the league. Their conversion percentage (61.9) was tied for eighth best in the NFL.
Two of Los Angeles’ failed attempts to convert came inside the Kansas City 5, and another was on the edge of field goal range. The Chargers became the first team to fail twice on fourth-and-goal in a first half since the 1984 Chargers did the same — also against the Chiefs — 37 years ago to the day (Dec. 16, 1984).

You lost a game you could have won, and yet you’re still doubling down? Get back to me in a few weeks, when you’re sitting at home watching the playoffs on TV, loser. After Thursday’s defeat, the Chargers are 15-of-26 (57.7%) on fourth-down conversion attempts, ranked 8th in the AFC in that category — where New England ranks 4th in the AFC. But you see, the Patriots have only gone for it 8 times on fourth down, converting five (62.5%). No team in the AFC has tried fewer fourth-down conversions than New England. And unlike Brandon Staley, Bill Belichick has his team poised to win their division and make the playoffs.

Oh, I almost forgot: Guess who leads the NFL in field goals attempted (36) and field goals made (33)? That would be the New England Patriots.

Of course, there’s no telling how the Patriots will do in their final four regular-season games — Saturday night’s game at Indianapolis will probably be a tough one, because the Colts (7-6) have home-field advantage and are fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive. But I guarantee you this: New England won’t lose because of “analytics.”

Bill Belichick is not stupid.



Comments are closed.