Analytics: Lions should have gone for 1st

As we discussed earlier Sunday, execution was not the issue when the Detroit Lions attempted to draw the Tennessee Titans offsides on the final play of a 44-41 loss. The Lions just got too cute, in my estimation. Once they decided not to play for a first down, they should have attempted a 25-yard field goal to tie the game and extend overtime.

Ultimately, quarterback Shaun Hill lost a yard on a dive play when center Dominic Raiola mistakenly snapped the ball, ending the game. But what would have been the smarter decision: Kicking a field goal or running an actual play to gain a first down?

Research from Dean Oliver of ESPN Stats & Information suggests the Lions would have been better off truly going for the first down. Using a database of every NFL game since 2001, providing about 200 similar situations, Oliver found the following when teams were faced with fourth-and-1 between the opponent's four- and 10-yard lines:

  • Teams that attempted the field goal almost always tied the game (96 percent), but historical evidence suggests the Lions had about a 38 percent chance of winning. The Titans, after all, would have been getting the ball back in a game that they had scored two special teams touchdowns and two more on big plays in their passing game.

  • Over the same period, teams that have gone for it on fourth-and-one went on to score touchdowns 54 percent of the time and field goals another eight percent of the time. I am in no way a math major, but I think 54 percent is substantively better than 38 percent. In this case, of course, a touchdown would have won the game for the Lions.

Oliver's findings correlate with what much of the current statistical analysis suggests: NFL teams are too cautious when it comes to the question of going for it on fourth down. The impact of failure is glaring, for sure. But in this case, at least, the chances of winning were higher as well. No risk, no reward, I guess.