Going for two when down nine doesn’t make sense

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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.

15 responses to “Going for two when down nine doesn’t make sense

  1. Much ado about nothing. I’m surprised the Cowboys won after screwing up so much, but they did. So even if you think McCarthy made a mistake, or multiple mistakes, he won, and winning beats second guessing every time.

  2. I read the comments as one coach is conservative and the other is more of a risk taker. Dungy was conservative with his 2 deep zones and conservative offense. Maybe he had to because Dilfer was his QB until he inherited Manning. Bottom line I can see it both ways and I think as a coach you have to have the feel of your teams capabilities and how the game is flowing and make that call. I mean it was a shoot out after all and McCarthy rolled a yahtzee and got 2 points instead of 1.

  3. So the only reason you think going for two down nine doesn’t make sense is because it takes mental pressure off the other team? The other team should be trying to get first downs and run out the clock whether they’re up 9 points or 8 points, how does that make them play better up 9 than 8? If anything being up 9 might make them complacent and more willing to play safe and give the ball back and give you a chance instead of playing aggressive. And it’s a huge boon to the trailing team to know if they have to fit in two possessions or one in the time that’s left.

  4. I’m with McCarthy here. If your 2 point play is going to fail, it might as well be earlier in the game so that you know what you need to play for at the end. Similar rationale to taking the ball first in OT.

  5. The Dallas outcome actually proves McCarthys theory was right. They missed the 2 point conversion. So they knew they had to rush and score two more times, managing the clock accordingly. Had they gone for one point to make it 39-31, they likely would have taken their time on the next drive, milking the clock on the way to a TD. Then if they fail the conversion there would have been no time left for an onside kick and drive for a FG.

  6. Going for 2 in that situation makes total sense for the reasons McCarthy gave. Going for 1 in that situation makes sense for the reasons Dungy gave. These sports writers who never played or coached beyond high school want to turn these decisions into a zero-sum game, when they are not. It’s 6 of one or half dozen of the other. This is not Madden ’20. This is the NFL. Execution is much more important than these game management decisions that can go either way.

  7. He also thought in Week 1 that going for it on 4th and 3 when they could have tied it was a smart move. Sounds like Cowboy fans are going to need to get used to lots of strange decisions.

  8. So, your contention is that a team up 9 points will be more difficult to stop than a team up 8 points, and this difference more than makes up for not knowing how many possessions you need. Umm, ok dude.

  9. I think McCarthy’s decision makes sense but not with only 5 minutes to go. They got bailed out because Atlanta went 3 and out and couldn’t recover an easy onside kick but with only 5 minutes you have to assume you’ve only got one more possession and I would rather end the game on the 2 point try. If it was 8 or 10 minutes than I think he’s right because you need to know whether you need one score or two.

  10. The fact that none of the Falcon players tried to field a live ball is probably the biggest issue. The entire special teams should have to apologize for that, it was basically the ball game. Its so difficult to recover an onside kick with the rules changes…but…it happened.

    Remember when Quinn had his Falcons vs 49ers in 2015, and opted to kick a field goal on 4th down, when his team was down 4 points vs the 49ers with under 3 minutes to go. and were at the 1 yard line or something.

    They kicked, down by one, and sure enough, they never got the ball back. What would analytics say about that call? It was easily one of the worst of all time. With game day decisions like that, its a miracle Quinn still has a job.

    I don’t think Arthur Blank will fire him during the season, but could fire him and promote the DC to the HC job.

  11. It’s just the Falcons, but I guess enjoy what you can. Cowboys will only win 7 more at the most this year and overpay the QB.

  12. “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.”

    Mike, your opinion on this decision is based on a fallacy that an 8 point game is a “1 score game” when it is impossible to know if that is true until AFTER you score and go for 2. So that’s wrong, as is the rest of your evidence (it’s all opinion – see Dungy’s comment).

    Additionally, why would you ever print that quote? This is 2020, are you really using absolutes to describe the limits of technology and science? Clearly, you live in the stone age, sir. Don’t impose upon us your narrow views on statistics and analysis. And this quote is wrong… you ABSOLUTELY can program psychology into analytics (ever heard of AI?). Look up regression testing. Every single variable is included in analytics (via regression testing for instance) even if it’s not an explicit variable. They’re all built-in in some way.

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