The Cleveland Browns trailed 17-13 with six minutes left and faced a 4th and 1 on the Indianapolis 41-yard-line yesterday.They lined up to go for it, but then ran out of time, called a timeout, and coach Pat Shurmur decided to punt instead. The Browns lost 17-13.
This is another high-profile example of how the “punt to win” philosophy doesn’t make any sense. The difference in field position between where the Colts would have gotten the ball if the Browns failed on 4th down (the 41 yard line), and where they got it from the punt (the 20 yard line), was barely significant.
In the space of one decision, Cleveland gave away the chance to take the lead and gave Indy a chance to either run out the clock or put the game away with a TD.
The numbers don’t lie. On 1st and 10 from Indy’s 50-yard-line with 7 minutes left, Cleveland had a 44% chance of winning. After the punt, they had a 21% chance of winning. If they get the first down on 4th and 1, those odds shoot up back toward 50-50.
Ultimately, the Colts didn’t score and the Browns got the ball back. But that doesn’t change the fact that they made a move that reduced their chances of winning the game.
After the decision to punt, the CBS cameras cut to Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who just bought the team, and he looked less than pleased.
Conservative decisions like these are rooted in a coach’s fear of getting fired. No coach wants to see a risky decision backfire, and in the old-school NFL philosophy going for it on fourth down — no matter what the odds say — is always considered the risky move.
But that conventional wisdom is beginning to change with the rise of analytics, and Haslam’s reaction to his coach making an irrational decision is ultimately a great sign for football going forward.
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