Numbers say Mike Smith made right call

ATLANTA – I’ve never been a math person, but the folks at ESPN Stats & Information excel in that area. So let’s turn to them to break down the controversial choice by Falcons coach Mike Smith to go for it on fourth-and-inches in Sunday’s overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints.

ESPN Stats & Information has a probability tool that says that, although the Falcons didn’t get the first down, Smith made the best-percentage call. The probability tool uses 10 years of NFL play-by-play data to estimate the likelihood that either team will win at any point in the game, based on historical results in similar game situations. It takes into account things like time remaining, score, who has the ball and other factors.

Here’s what the probability tool had to say:

  • Prior to the snap, the Falcons had a 48.5% chance to win based on their current situation (fourth-and-1, 10:52 left in OT, etc.). At this point, Atlanta had two choices:

Choice No. 1: Go for the first down

This choice, of course, leads to two different outcomes.

  • Outcome 1: They convert the first down.

  • Outcome 2: They do not convert the first down.

Since 2001, the average conversion percentage for NFL teams that go for it on fourth-and-1 is 66 percent. Using this number, we can find the expected win probability for Atlanta if it chooses this option.

  • Atlanta win probability if it converts (first-and-10 from own 30-yard line): 67.1 percent

  • Atlanta win probability if it does not convert (Saints first-and-10 from Falcons' 29-yard line): 18 percent.

  • Expected win probability of going for the first down: 0.660*(.671) + (1-.660)*(.180) = 50.4%

Choice No. 2: Punt

  • For this choice, we will assume the Falcons' net punt average of 36 yards for this season. This means the expected field position of the Saints after the punt is their own 35-yard line. This situation (Saints with first-and-10 from their 35, in OT, etc.) would give the Falcons a win probability of 41.4%.

So by choosing to go for it on fourth down, the Falcons increased their win probability by 9 percentage points.