A regular analysis of strategy, decisions and calls that impacted the week of NFL play.
Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak faced a decision Sunday night with no good answers. It was the worst kind of coaching dilemma: His best option was to pursue a tie rather than a win, anathema to any leader of competitive men, and he couldn't find the resignation necessary to go through with it.
So Kubiak, who in his past four seasons as an NFL head coach has won three division titles and a Super Bowl, aggressively (and recklessly) chose a thin path to victory. He trotted out place-kicker Brandon McManus for a 62-yard field goal attempt with one minute, eight seconds remaining in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs.
If McManus made the kick, however unlikely that outcome was, the Broncos would win in sudden death. If he missed, however, the Chiefs would be awarded the ball at the Broncos' 48-yard line -- just 15 yards away from field goal range.
In choosing to go for the win there, Kubiak opted against punting and pinning the Chiefs perhaps 60-plus yards from field goal range -- a decision that would have in essence pursued a tie. He also decided not to go for it on fourth-and-10 with an offense that had scored 17 points and rolled up 233 yards on its previous three possessions.
Predictably, McManus missed -- making NFL place-kickers 6-for-72 (8.3 percent) in attempts from at least 62 yards in league history. The Chiefs needed only four plays to get place-kicker Cairo Santos in position for the winning kick in a 30-27 victory. And we are left to determine whether Kubiak was right or wrong, or whether he was simply stuck between the hammer and the anvil.
"My thing is we're going to try to win around here," Kubiak told reporters, "and I made that decision and it just didn't work out. I've got a lot of confidence in Brandon and I've got a lot of confidence in our football team."
This really was a fascinating decision on multiple levels. The raw numbers, as computed by ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke, favored a punt. Burke's statistical model -- based on years of past results -- shows that the Broncos had a 51.974 percent chance of winning (where a tie is worth half a win) if they punted, better than if they went for it on fourth-and-10 or if they attempted the field goal. Full numbers are in the chart below:
Of course, those numbers don't take into account that Denver's altitude is generally more conducive to long kicks, of which Kubiak -- a former Broncos quarterback -- was no doubt well aware. Indeed, according to the great database at Pro Football Reference, three of the six 62-plus-yard field goals in NFL history were kicked there.
Still, McManus was attempting a kick that had been missed in more than 91 percent of similar situations in league history. It was a highly unlikely conversion, and yet it represented the type of pride and bravado any coach would want to impart on his players. It's rare that a coach even has the option to accept something less than a win in game management, and Kubiak wasn't about to give in.
The Broncos only had one timeout remaining, and Kubiak said that he would have considered punting if the Broncos had all of them. In that scenario, their defense ostensibly could have stopped the Chiefs in one possession and forced a punt with time to make one last drive.
"I've seen [McManus] do that many times in practice," Kubiak said. "It's on me. I gave him a chance. I thought we could do it, but we didn't get it done. Give them credit."
Generally speaking, a tie is better than a loss in the standings. And to be fair, the Broncos came close to securing the tie despite Kubiak's decision. Santos' attempt hit the left upright, but at an angle that allowed the ball to deflect inside the right upright.
But make no mistake: Kubiak chose the lowest odds, and the biggest risk, for the greatest reward. Punting would have been more than defensible. Pride overcame cold calculation, and now the Broncos (7-4) find themselves needing help over the season's final five weeks to make the playoffs. So it goes.
Seahawks know the rules
The NFL wanted little to do with the Baltimore Ravens' offseason proposal to make most plays reviewable. But in small concession, the league quietly added a few administrative items to its existing list. One of them -- to allow challenges to determine the spot of the foul -- surfaced Sunday for what is believed to be the first time, and it led to a safety for the Seattle Seahawks.
The play occurred with 13:23 remaining in the second quarter at Tampa Bay's Raymond James Stadium. With the ball at the Buccaneers' 4-yard line, referee Bill Vinovich caught Tampa Bay tight end Luke Stocker with a clear takedown of Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark.
Vinovich signaled holding and, initially, marked off half the distance to the goal line. But replays showed that the hold occurred in the end zone, which by rule called for a safety.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was among those who remembered that the NFL now allows challenges to the spot of the foul. Vinovich had ruled that Stocker held outside of the end zone, but upon review, he realized it had occurred in it. The result was changed to a safety, an example of replay review working exactly the way it was intended: to correct obvious and objective mistakes that were clear on video replay.