FROM THE SKY HIGH ABOVE GEORGIA OR FLORIDA -- We already brought you one analysis of the percentages surrounding Atlanta coach Mike Smith’s controversial decision to go for it on fourth down in Sunday’s overtime loss to New Orleans.
But now we’re going to bring you another one, because the good people at ESPN Stats & Information are looking at this one from every angle.
Since I’m on a very short flight from Atlanta to Tampa and the wireless won’t stay on for long, I’ll just hand it over and let you see the latest analysis from ESPN Stats & Information.
First let’s look at the win percentages for each of the possible outcomes of both punting and going for it on 4th-and-1.
Teams who punt from their own 25-35 in overtime were 18-21-1, good for a .463 win percentage.
Teams who get a 1st-and-10 on their own 30, 31, or 32 (where the Falcons would likely be if they converted) in overtime were 51-28-1, good for a .644 win percentage.
Teams who get a 1st-and-10 on the opponent's 28, 29, or 30 (the situation the Saints were likely to be in if the conversion were failed) in overtime were 38-3-2, good for a 0.907 win percentage. That would be a 0.093 win percentage for the Falcons.
If you assume these numbers reflect the circumstances better than the win probabilities below, the break-even conversion percentage -- the 4th-down conversion rate necessary to make going for it more valuable than punting -- is 67.2 percent. So the Falcons would have to have a pretty high conversion rate to make this decision defensible.
That being said, consider the following facts about 4th-and-1 conversion percentages:
Teams that went for it on 4th-and-1 with the score tied in either the 4th quarter or OT converted 23 of 32 times (71.9 percent).
Under Smith (since 2008) and entering yesterday’s game, the Falcons were 18-of-22 on converting 4th-and-1 for a 81.2% conversion rate. That includes a 71.4 percent success rate for Michael Turner, who was 5-7 in this situation entering yesterday’s game. These percentages get even higher if you include Turner’s successful 4th-and-1 attempt earlier in the game.
In the same span (since 2008) and entering yesterday’s game, the Saints have allowed teams to convert on 13 of 19 4th-and-1 attempts (68.4 percent). Again, that doesn’t include Turner’s successful attempt earlier in the game.
So if you look at everything facing the Falcons at the time of the decision -- overall league averages, their own success rate, the opposing defense, etc. -- it would indicate that going for it was the higher-percentage decision. If they punted, they would still face an uphill battle (46.3 percent chance of winning), while if they converted, they would be in a pretty good position (64.4% chance of winning). The relatively high probability of success means that the potential payoff of converting outweighs the possible detriment from not converting.
At worst, if you assume something like a 50 percent 4th-and-1 conversion rate (which is extremely low for this type of situation and probably wrong), the decision itself cost the Falcons about 5-10 percentage points in win probability. The play call after the decision to go for it and the failure to execute that call -- if you watch the play, the Falcons blocking basically gave Turner no chance to get the 1 yard -- had much more to do with the Falcons losing than the decision to go for it.