Smith plays the odds with OT gamble


New Orleans Saints stop Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner on a fourth and one yard play during overtime at the Georgia Dome.

The NFL talk around the water cooler on Monday revolves around the Atlanta Falcons decision to go for it on 4th and 1 from their own 29 yard line. The Falcons came up short on the play, but was the decision justified?

The easiest way to examine the decision is by looking at the Falcons win probability under the various outcomes of the play. Three different outcomes are relevant in this situation – converting the first down, failing to convert the first down, and punting the ball away.

Josh D. Weiss/US Presswire

Teams that punt the ball from between their own 25 and 35 in overtime lose more often than they win. Since 2001, those teams are 18-21-1, good for a .463 win percentage.

If the Falcons had converted the 4th-down attempt, they likely would have had the ball between their own 30 and 32. Teams with 1st and 10 from that area of the field are 51-28-1 in overtime, a .644 win percentage.

As it was, the Falcons failed to convert on 4th down and gave the Saints the ball inside the 30. Teams facing with 1st-and-10 situations between their opponents 28 and 30 have an overtime winning percentage of .907 (38-3-2).

Based on these win probabilities, the 4th-down conversion rate necessary to make going for it more valuable than punting is 67.2 percent.

Since 2001, the NFL average conversion percentage for teams that go for it on 4th and 1 is 66.0 percent. That includes all 32 teams and game situations, but the numbers are similar late in games and for the Falcons and Saints:

• 4th quarter and overtime: 71.9 percent (23-32)

• Falcons offense under Mike Smith: 81.2 percent (18-22)

• Saints defense since 2008: 68.4 percent (13-19)

If you look at everything facing the Falcons at the time of the decision – league averages, their own success rate, the opposing defense – going for it was the higher-percentage decision. Michael Turner had converted a 4th-and-1 attempt earlier in the game, and had a 75 percent career success rate (6-for-8).

If they punted, they would face an uphill battle (46.3 percent chance of winning). If they converted, they would be in a good position to win (64.4 percent chance). The relatively high probability of success means that the potential payoff from converting outweighs the possible detriment from not converting.