On opening drive of Super Bowl, should Bengals have punted?

Super Bowl LVI - Los Angeles Rams v Cincinnati Bengals
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Twitter is rife with reminders that there’s no football to watch today. Here’s an idea — watch the Super Bowl again.

That’s what I’m doing. And I’ll have some thoughts as I do it. I’ll post some of them, because I’m bored. Because there’s no football to watch today.

Here’s an item regarding the first big decision from Super Bowl LVI. Facing fourth at one from the L.A. 49, the Bengals went for it. They failed to convert, with a short throw from quarterback Joe Burrow to receiver Ja'Marr Chase landing incomplete, the pass broken up by Rams linebacker Ernest Jones.

As to the key question of whether the Bengals should have gone for it or punted, the NFL’s Next Gen Stats account on Twitter explained that, based on the Next Gen Stats Decision Guide, the Cincinnati win percentage by going for it in that spot was 27 percent, and the win percentage by punting was 25 percent. Going for it prevailed by a 1.9 percent margin.

So what? With 55 minutes left to be played in the game, a 1.9-percent ultimate-victory margin means nothing. The outcome of a fourth and short in that setting has negligible relevance to the outcome of a game that has barely gotten started.

Run the numbers with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter? Fine. With 10 minutes left in the first quarter, it’s just plain goofy. Too much still has to happen in the game, and the outcome ultimately will turn on something far more consequential than the outcome of the opening drive by the Bengals.

This is a prime example of the manner in which hyper-reliance on analytics overtakes common sense. The Bengals eventually throttled the L.A. offense on the opening drive. Why not trust the punt team to pin Matthew Stafford and company deep in their own end of the field for the second drive of the game? Why not get into a field-position battle for the first score?

That’s what the Bengals did, frankly. They surrendered field position, gave the Rams the ball only 51 yards from the end zone, and watched Stafford lead L.A. on the drive that delivered the opening touchdown.

By going for it, the Bengal tried to retain possession, obviously, and to position themselves to notch the first points. This is where the process of converting should not be regarded as mechanical but as strategic and dependent on preparation and execution.

What play did coach Zac Taylor have ready for that spot? How well would his players run it? What should quarterback Joe Burrow be looking for before he throws the ball?

The play could have worked. Receiver Tee Higgins, who was in motion from left to right before the snap, ended up wide open after safety Nick Scott collided with cornerback Jalen Ramsey. If Burrow had noticed, he could have had an easy first down. Instead, Burrow thought Chase was open, not realizing that Jones had broken toward the ball.

The effort to boil outcomes down to percentages overlooks that the go-for-it decision opens the door to various factors like that. It’s not a coin-flip or a single-factor proposition, like kicking an extra point or a field goal. It’s about play design, play selection, preparation, execution, defensive effectiveness, and the ability of the players to seize an opportunity that arises, or not.

Finally, the officials missed a fairly obvious post-play taunt by Ramsey, who stood over Chase with the same kind of posture that drew plenty of flags all season long. Yes, the rule sucks. Not enforcing it consistently sucks even more. The Rams should have started the drive from their own 34, not from their own 49.

Here’s the bottom line. Decisions made and not made that early don’t decide the game. Whether going for it or punting provides an incremental bump as to the eventual winning percentage should be ignored. What matters is whether the head coach believes that his offense can and will create a better outcome than trying to pin the Rams deep in their own end and hoping to keep them from driving the length of the field. The Cincinnati offense, in that moment, didn’t get it done.

34 responses to “On opening drive of Super Bowl, should Bengals have punted?

  1. Actually it did matter and it mattered a lot. Anayltics are fine but too many don’t understand them nor do they know how to apply them. Everything in the game matters. These 7 points given up on the next drive shapped the game going forward and where very costly. The Bengals defense was performing well to start the game. The first drive was 5 plays and out and the 3rd drive was 3 and out. In fact in the 1st half the Rams really only had 2 long plays on the 4th drive that did any damage. 4 of the 6 drives ended in a punt or INT, 2 TD drivess with one starting with a short field. I had Odell to score the 1st TD and Rams -1 1st qtr so I loved the call but it was a bad call that put you in a hole early in a big game.

  2. If they punt there, everybody says they wasted an opportunity. Better execution gets a first down there, either with that play or running the ball. However, I think you like your All Pro rookie’s chances against an LB.

  3. “after safety Nick Scott collided with cornerback Jalen Ramsey.”

    Just curious, what was going on with Ramsey that he was constantly either falling down, getting torched, or running into teammates all game? And then getting up and taunting… This is supposed to be the best CB in the league?

  4. I enjoy watching coaches push the envelope and not sticking with the staid, conservative approaches.

    With that said, I like aggressiveness, but not recklessness. I don’t think it was reckless. It was definitely aggressive.

    Not getting it hurt the Bengals, but if they make it, then it would have been a good call. Hindsight being 20-20.

  5. Nope. If the Bengals did what everyone expected all year long, they’d have gone 6-11. The fact that they were in the super bowl at 500 to 1 odds makes me think we’d be better off studying what they did, and then copying it, rather than try to critique it.

  6. It was a good game, I just hate that so many big moments were decided by bad officiating. Either way I’m proud of my bengals.

  7. It was a gamble that missed and the Rams scored from a short field. It seemed like Ramsey might have been on Viagra during the game but he made good plays as well. Higgins could have had a TD catch on one Bengal drive but Ramsey nearly intercepted at the goal line. Had Mixon been part of the final two Bengals plays on offense, they may have kept their drive alive.

  8. I didn’t like it at the time and still don’t.. why not make the Rams drive it the length of the field? Basically let them gain confidence on a short field. Maybe they do go and score a td, but more likely a punt or FG.

  9. So, a few plays into the opening drive, the Bengals had, at best, a 27% chance of winning the game? Confused. Right call by the way…

  10. The Bengals should have tried to shorten this game. One way to do that is pin the Rams back and make them drive the field. I’m sure that was their plan going in, but they abandoned it very quickly.

    Not only did they give the Rams a short field, they essentially gave them an extra possession at the end of the game – which was the game winning drive, BTW.

  11. This is why analytics don’t help decision making. The football coach knows that his defense just stopped them on their first drive, which is scripted and practiced. That same defense has been playing lights out. Not converting gives the other team automatic points essentially. It’s simply not worth the leverage you lose. That’s what the football coach recognizes and punts. The analytics coach ignores all of that and just goes for it bc 1 time out of a 100 it works more. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s smart and aggressive and played QB for two years at a small school. One coach is Bill Belichick and one coach is Brandon Staley. I think you can figure out who is who. Good football is good intuitive football decisions, not mathematically based decisions that have no intuition. Punt the ball, keep your leverage and don’t risk losing it bc of 1.9%

  12. Of course they should have punted. Look at how hard poor field position made things for the Bengals toward the end of the game. At a time when they needed to put the game away, they kept getting backed up deep in their own end of the field – it felt like it was uphill the whole way for them. For the Rams, punting kept them in it.

    Possession is huge, but field position can define the tone of a game.

  13. Thought they should have punted. That early in the game with a chance to influence the position. But thats also the problem with making decisions only from a numbers POV, not calculating a human reaction which how the actual game is played.

  14. Yes of course and they should not allow undressed in active players on the field. Both resulted in wasted field position opportunities.

  15. Between the 2 pointers and the 4th downs, a lot of these coaches are going to analytic themselves out of jobs

  16. As a Bengals fan, I thought it was absolutely the right call at the time and stand by it.
    I’m assuming Zac Taylor realized his team was at a huge disadvantage trying to play from behind. The Rams pass rush against our sad offensive line was such a mismatch, that he had to establish a balanced attack. And the best way to do that is to get a lead. It was a gamble based on trying to minimize his team’s biggest weakness, which is how you play to win, not simply prolong losing.

  17. They had a play with a wide open man. Rather then question the decision question the execution.

    Their first drive and final drive ended with a 4th and one in similar points of the field. Both times they couldn’t get the yard and it cost them.

    We question decision that don’t work never ones that do. No one goes and questions the rams going for it on 4th and 1 on the game winning drive. If it failed this article would be about that instead.

  18. Well maybe the question should be why was Donald not flagged for lining up in the neutral zone??

    If they converted or not should have not mattered

  19. Looking back one could say, “yes they should have” knowing that they did not make the conversion. At the time, even I was questioning why at the start of the game would you risk turning the ball over on downs at mid-field to a top 10 offense.

  20. These decisions are decisions because they can go either way. When it’s that little of a difference, choose the less volatile decision.

  21. Just a game where both teams showed they shouldn’t be there. Neither will be back for the foreseeable future and only Cinci and about 200 rams fans will remember either team was even there.

  22. Analytics kinda ruined sports, to be blunt. The artistry of great minds and great athletes on the field should involve more improvisation and gut feelings rather than nerds crunching numbers behind the scenes.

  23. That doesn’t matter. But everything the Bills did (wrong) against the Chiefs with 13 seconds left, did matter, and I don’t think I’ll ever be over it!

  24. Everything happens for a reason, so the answer is don’t look at the past. Only look at what is ahead of you.

  25. Why would anyone chance giving an offense like the Rams the ball at mid-field this early in the game as this wasn’t week 2 or 10 it was the biggest game of the season, in a game this important this is the time you play field position and punt and try to bury the Rams inside their 20 and preferably inside their 10 then let you D do their job? If the Bengals get a 3 & out or even if they hold the Rams to one 1st down and a punt they get the ball back at mid-field or if the punter shanks it(which happens quite often) maybe they get it inside the Rams 40!

    Making bad decisions even that early in the game can come back to haunt you and it did the Bengals in the SB!

    PS And if you have your heart set on going for it you run Mixon OUTSIDE of the tackles on a misdirection, not in-between the tackles against a front like the Rams have and definitely not on a low percentage pass play!

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