Not long ago, NFL coaches resisted doing the unconventional thing because doing the unconventional thing and failing resulted in the kind of criticism that can get a guy fired. At some point in the past few years, NFL coaches have embraced doing the unconventional when analytics supports the unconventional selection, either ignoring the criticism that comes from doing the unconventional thing or trusting that someone from the analytics crowd will praise him loud enough to shout down the critics.
There’s a balance to strike in this regard, and that’s what the best coaches do. Analytics definitely have their place as to certain in-game decisions. When down 14 and scoring a touchdown, for example, going for two and converting gives the team that’s trailing a chance to avoid overtime by scoring another touchdown and converting a one-point kick. Failing to convert the two-pointer still keeps the trailing team within one score: A touchdown and a two-pointer.
When up by one point and scoring a touchdown, going for two and making it makes it a two-score game. Failing or settling for one keeps the margin at seven or eight, respectively, keeping it a one-score game.
On Sunday, the Cowboys scored a touchdown with five minutes left to make the score 39-30. And the Cowboy went for two instead of one.
Going for one and converting it would have left the Cowboys down by eight points. A successful two-pointer would have reduced the margin to seven. Failing kept it a two-score game.
The argument, as articulated by coach Mike McCarthy, for going for two is this: Eventually, you’ve got to go for two and convert it. It’s better to try now, because if you fail you know that you need two scores in the time that’s left. If you wait to go for two, there may not be a chance to rectify it by getting the ball back.
Since most teams have a two-point play in mind during the latter stages of the game, if it’s going to not work it may as well not work sooner than later. So there’s some superficial appeal to rolling the dice then and there. However, as noted last night by Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy, going for two and failing takes significant pressure off the team that’s leading, since it knows it has a two-score lead. Going for one makes it a one-score game, giving the team that’s leading a different mindset when it gets the ball back.
Psychology is and always will be the water’s edge of analytics. Numbers and formulas and percentages have their place. They can’t, won’t, and never will factor intangible realities like the mindset of a team up by one score versus the mindset of a team up by two scores.
Of course, in this case, McCarthy’s decision paid off despite itself, because Falcons. Still, the same bocce ball onside kick that gave the Cowboys possession with enough time to secure the game-winning field goal could have been tried and accomplished if the Cowboys, down by eight, had scored late and failed to convert the two-point conversion then.
Unless the deeper goal of the effort to go for two was to unleash an elaborate Jedi mind trick on the Falcons, luring them into a false sense of security and thus setting the stage for implosion, going for two when down by nine doesn’t make sense. And to the extent there’s a sliver of plausibility to it, it’s a far cry from the more popular (yet still controversial for some) concept of going for two after scoring a touchdown when trailing by 14 or going for two after scoring a touchdown when leading by one.