Brandon Staley isn’t apologizing, and neither should he.
The Chargers didn’t lose to Kansas City, or lose all rational hope of winning the AFC West, as they tried and failed to capitalize on two more goals from the Chiefs’ one- and five-yard lines on Thursday. He also tried a 46-yard field goal and went blank on fourth and two.
Staley’s stance was justified when the Chiefs took the first fourth-down bobble and went for 95 yards. Touchdowns, not field goals, were necessary to defeat the two-time AFC champion, and Travis Kelce turned the Chargers’ defense into a blue Gatorade when he ran 34 yards for an overtime touchdown.
Later, the Chargers coach called his decisions “calculating”, not gambling. He has kicked off the entire season. After 14 games, the Chargers converted 15, on 26 fourth down. Only the Washington football team has tried it more times (27) and none have been as successful. Last year’s Chargers, with Anthony Lynn coaching, tried it 26 times in 16 games and made it 12 times.
But it is also true that the Chargers left nine points on the field. Contrary to popular belief, a field goal counts for three points, not a minus-4.
There is a different math going on in football these days. You see this in unconventional decisions to go for a two-point conversion after a touchdown.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh lost his abacus last Sunday. After nine minutes, the Ravens scored to reduce Cleveland’s lead to 24-15. Harbaugh decided to go for a 2-point conversion, and backup quarterback Tyler Huntley threw an interception. Baltimore still needed two scores to win.
A regular PAT would have gotten Baltimore to within a touchdown, plus a 2-pointer.
The Ravens then scored with 1:17 to finish behind 24-22. Against the odds, he retrieved the onside kick, but Huntley couldn’t convert the fourth and six, and that was it.
Harbaugh later said that Analytics told him to do so, and he is not alone. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin tried the same thing after losing to Minnesota last week.
If you go back to the post-floor chart prepared by Dick Vermeal and Tommy Prothro at UCLA, it really says to go for two when you’re down to nine.
Why do this? Proponents say it clarifies your decision-making. If you fail, at least you know you need two digits. If you succeed, you’re down to 7, and you have the means to tie or win when you get the next touchdown, which of course comes on schedule like your city bus.
Why would you kick a point when you’re under nine? Because that means you only need one point and a 2-pointer to tie. It also clears decisions. Plus, MIT researchers determined that nine is still one more than eight.
If a 9-point deficit was indeed the best place, teams would deliberately miss the PAT when they got to within 10.
Furthermore, Prothro was a longtime advocate of the onside kick, which has been made virtually irrelevant by the NFL. Before the rule change, onside kicks were successful at a rate of 23% in 2018. In 2020, this figure was 4.23%. Any theory that rests on a successful onside kick is as credible as a prince’s plea for $5 million.
And if you’re wearing your WWBD (What Will Belichick Do?) bracelet, the Patriots are 3 for 3 on two-pointers and only tried to convert eight quarters down, which is the NFL short.
But then New England does not rely on abstract modeling. It makes its call based on whatever the current situation is.
Football analytics, like baseball analytics, began long before the Internet. The forerunner was Bud Goode, an obsessive statistician and former TV executive who once said he threw his cat at the TV when he saw a team make a mistake. Fortunately for the cat population, he rarely saw the Pac-12.
Vermeel spread the gospel of good, especially his two fundamentals: yards-per-pass effort is the most telling statistic in football, and rushing attempts are close.
This season Cincinnati is the top yards-per-pass team with Arizona second, Rams third, New England sixth, Green Bay eighth and Tampa Bay 10. However, Arizona has a league-best 1.8 in yards-per-attempt difference.
Tennessee has raced more than anyone, with Arizona fourth and New England seventh.
But Tampa Bay, likely to finish 14-3, is in 29th place. This leads to an analysis that Goode missed but rarely refuted: the team with Tom Brady will probably win.