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Declining a touchdown

Posted by Doug on February 8, 2007

A few days after Boise State's Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, I got an email from a reader named Dan who had a question about endgame strategy.

Here is the situation:

Tie game. Boise State ball on their own 25. 1:16 to play. Boise has two time outs remaining. On the first play, Bronco quarterback Jared Zabransky threw an interception which Sooner defensive back Marcus Walker returned for a touchdown.

As we all know, Boise came back to win the game, but that's neither here nor there. Dan's thoughts:

It has long been my contention that in situations like these, instead of scoring on that interception TD, Oklahoma should have gone out at the 1 (or the 1-inch line or whatever). Then, run the time down (or at least force Boise to use its timeouts - they had 2 left) and punch it in. Everyone I talk to says that this is lunacy - that you have to "TAKE THE POINTS!" (caps added since usually they are yelling it at me). But I think it is far from an obvious decision. Especially in a case like this when even if you just kneel it down a few times, a FG still wins the game.

From a strict win-probability-maximization standpoint, my intuition tells me that Dan is right. Let's walk through it. What if Walker had stepped out at the one inch line?

Since Boise had two timeouts remaining, the Sooners could have run three kneel-downs and then tried a chip-shot field goal on the last play of the game. Using that strategy, their probability of winning has to be about 98% (I'm estimating a 96% chance of making the field goal, and a 50% chance of winning in overtime after missing the field goal.) Using the strategy they actually used --- i.e. scoring the TD --- they were giving the Broncos the ball with two timeouts and 1:00 to play, down 7. If Boise's touchdown probability on such a drive is 4%, then the Sooners would have the same 98% chance of winning the game. If it's less than 4%, they'd be better off scoring the TD. If it's greater than 4%, they'd be better off not scoring it.

To generalize, here is the rule:

If your chance of making a 20-yard field goal is better than your chance of stopping your opponent from scoring a TD with 1:00 minute left and two timeouts, then step out. Otherwise, score the TD.

Frankly, both of those are such gimmes that it's tough for me to estimate which is greater. Unless your defense or your kicker is really, really terrible, you're never going to be able to estimate either of these probabilities with sufficient accuracy to be confident that one is greater than the other.

But the strategy I outlined above (three kneel-downs and a field goal) isn't OU's only option. They could have run two kneel-downs, forcing Boise to use its last two timeouts, then tried to score a touchdown on third down, and kick on fourth if that failed. With that strategy, the possibilities are as follows:

Score the TD on 3rd down. Give the ball back to Boise with about :45 remaining, no timeouts, and a seven-point deficit.

Fail to score, try the field goal on 4th down. Assuming your third-down play was a run, you're trying the field goal on the last play of the game. If your third-down play was an incomplete pass, you're trying the kick with about :40 remaining.

Turn the ball over on third down. Give the ball back to Boise with :40 remaining, no timeouts, and a tie game.

In the first case, you're not that much better off than you would be if you had scored the TD in the first place. In the second case, you're not better off than you would be if you just took a knee on third down, which I opined above isn't better than scoring the TD in the first place. And the turnover, of course, is disastrous.

So based on this admittedly thin analysis, I don't see much advantage in stepping out.

But this all changes if Boise has more --- or fewer --- than two timeouts remaining.

If they have three timeouts, then the only advantage of not scoring the TD is that you can force them to use all three of their timeouts and use about 10 seconds of their clock. That's not nothing, but I don't think it's worth the risk.

If they have no timeouts remaining (and you do), then you take a knee on first down. This runs the clock down to about :15. Now you take two shots at the end zone, and then kick a field goal on fourth if necessary. This probably gives you a better win probability than if you had simply scored the touchdown in the first place.

Now, if the time remaining when you made the interception was more like 2:00 instead of 1:00, then this could all start to look very different.

But what does seem clear to me that a loss caused by a purposeful decision not to score a free touchdown is unquestionably much, much worse than a regular loss. That's the kind of thing that could ruin a season, or a coach's or player's career. Further, the line is so fine between situations where this might make sense and situations where it doesn't that it would be mighty tough to give your defensive players clear instructions in August when you're reviewing fundamentals.

The bottom line is that, while I agree with Dan that it's not lunacy to consider the possibility, if you score the TD your win probability is in the 90s, probably the high 90s. There just isn't a lot of upside to getting cute.

But there is a situation where I think there is upside to declining a touchdown in this way, and that's the same situation but up one instead of tied. Had OU been up by one point at the time of the interception, then scoring the touchdown makes the lead eight --- still a one-score game --- and gives Boise the ball back, whereas stepping out of bounds at the one-inch line would have literally ended the game. Well, OK, not literally literally, but you know what I mean.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 8th, 2007 at 4:48 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.