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Gary Kubiak and Coaching Scared

Posted by Jason Lisk on November 25, 2009

I'm stunned, absolutely stunned (your sarcasm meter should start going off about now) by the double standard that exists with complaining about coaching decisions. All last week, I heard about how a decision is judged on what happens thereafter. Well, by that standard, I saw plenty of decisions that were bad enough to merit complaint, but not a single talking head is yelping about it. Okay, so those were not in prominent prime time games. Well, then Gary Kubiak, with one timeout in hand, in position for a deep field goal from the thirty yard line with a kicker who had already missed from the same distance and had missed a last second attempt to tie the week before, uses that timeout by instructing his quarterback to take the snap and fall to the center of the field behind the line of scrimmage. Kris Brown, even with that excellent centering job, missed the kick badly. I mean, if ever there was a bone-headed decision that also lead to a bad result, this was it, in front of the whole Monday night football watching universe.

Two days later, and I'm still waiting for the firestorm.

Gary Kubiak even said (not that he would say anything differently) that he would do the same thing again:

I wouldn’t do that any different. I mean, we had a goal: We had to get our football team in field goal position and with eight seconds left, having Kris (Brown) right there at a 48, 49-yard field goal, I’m not going to take a chance of a penalty, a sack, or a turnover that would take you out of having any chance to play any more football. So, I’d do that the same way.

Ahhh, so that's it. See, I was under the mistaken assumption that the goal was to win the game. I guess it's to get in field goal position. Mission accomplished, if that's your goal. If the goal was to give the team the best chance to win the game, though, not so much.

Coaches need to get out of their heads this binary thought process of "in field goal position" and "out of field goal range." Every yard matters when it comes to giving your team the chance to win. Yet week after week, year after year, we see coaches get inside that magical 35 yard line and freeze. Don't move! The goal posts can see you! Don't try anything that might get you outside the range of their siren's song!

And week after week, year after year, we see kickers shockingly miss a higher percentage of kicks from 50 yards out than they do from 35. Weird how that works.

As indicated by Kubiak's comments, he was thinking about this negatively (what can go wrong?). Why wouldn't he? Clearly, he made a ridiculously horrible decision and the uproar is minute; it's all on Brown. If he had called a play and his team leader had thrown an interception, though, we know what the reaction would have been. He clearly is a follower of the saying "when you pass, three things can happen, and two of them are bad." I'd like to introduce its counterpart. When you kick, three things can happen, and two of them are bad. I doubt that catches on, but the "bad" things that happen on a kick happen more frequently from 49 yards out than the "bad" things that happen on a pass. Or how about this one. When you drive a car, three things can happen, and two of them are bad. I'm beginning to wonder how Kubiak mustered the courage to drive to the game with that kind of fear of failure.

Let's try to break this down to see how costly Kubiak's coaching out of fear of failure was to the Texans on Monday night. If we are going to break it down simply but effectively, we want to consider what the chances that Brown made the kick using the Kubiak strategy, versus the chances of winning when considering the various things that could happen if he ran an actual play.

Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats posted a graph showing the likelihood of success for field goals depending on the line of scrimmage. I'm going to discount any "Brown's a choker" factor in this analysis, but if you are inclined to weigh that in, it won't help Kubiak's case. Anyway, I'm going to give Brown a 62% chance of making a 49 yard field goal based on the league-wide numbers, his career, and the venue. So, that's our expectation of Kubiak's actual decision, which is to take an almost one yard loss to move the ball over three yards, and kick a 49 yard attempt. Remember, that kick definitely only sends the game to overtime, so from there, we need to cut the chances in half. A 62% chance of going to overtime, and a 31% chance of ultimately winning the game.

Before I get to the alternatives, a quick intermission about the actual centering of the ball. I apologize for breaking out the trigonometry on you. Centering the ball matters the most when you are closer to the goal posts, and it matters more in college where the hash marks are farther than six yards apart. It might make sense in some small marginal way if you are going to kick the game winning kick inside the 10. But it simply cannot matter at the distance for this kick. If you want to think of it like a triangle, with one point being the hashmark, one being the center of the field at the same yard marker, and the final point being the point on the ground directly below the upright meeting the crossbar, then we can see this is so. The distance (three yards) from the hashmark to the center is the base of the triangle, and from the center point to the crossbar/upright is the length. As the length of the kick decreases, the angle increases. In this case, a 3 yard base and a 49 yard length results in a 3.5 degree angle change on the kick. I'm inclined to say no effect, but convince me otherwise.

Now, turning back to the alternatives to simply centering the ball. I'm going to view this from the perspective of a pass play, as that is the more optimal decision in that particular situation generally, and definitely for the Texans specifically. Kubiak was worried about the negatives that could happen: penalties, turnovers, sacks. Let's get those out first.

The Texans are averaging 6.3 penalties per game. That, however, is an overall number that also includes defensive and special teams penalties. I don't have the specific breakdown on offense, but even if we assume half of those are offensive, then the Texans are going to have less than a 5% chance of an offensive penalty there. I'll go all the way up to 5% to give Kubiak the benefit of the doubt. Not all penalties are equal. The clock is already stopped, so a false start or other pre-snap penalty will cost yardage, but not time or the timeout, the team is still in "field goal range" back another five yards, and you can still run a play to get the yardage back (and more). A post-snap penalty that results in time coming off the clock could be more costly, basically leaving the Texans out of field goal range and with no choice but to throw to the end zone from about their own 40. I won't bore you with further details (because they don't have a huge effect on the final numbers) but I am splitting out these things and including both possibilities in the final numbers.

Next, the sacks. Matt Schaub has a sack rate of 5.6% in Houston over the last three years. This year is slightly better at 4.9%, but again, benefit of reasonable doubt to Kubiak. So we'll go with 5.6% chance of a sack. That needs to be multiplied by 0.95 (because we've already taken out 5% of the plays due to the penalties), which means there was a 5.3% that play ends in a sack. I'm assuming that Schaub is not going to stay on the bull and take an 8 second sack there, and the Texans can still call timeout. A sack then, usually, is not going to end the game because the Texans have that timeout. Without again getting into the numbers from there, I am considering that Schaub could fumble and lose the ball on a sack, and that some sacks will be deeper than others, so that a sack could either result in a throw to the end zone, or a longer field goal attempt.

Finally, for the negatives, the interceptions. Schaub has thrown an interception on 2.7% of his passes in Houston over the last three years. It's a little lower than that this season, and those include hail mary passes and situations where he is playing from behind. I think Schaub's chances were a little less than that, but again, giving the benefit of the doubt to Kubiak and his fear of bad things, I'll go with 2.7% as his interception rate there. Again, because we have to discount the penalty and sack plays (which aren't included in that rate), the actual rate is dropped to 2.4% (2.7% of the remaining 90% of plays).

Now let's turn to the positives. With the timeout, the whole field is open, time is not a factor in getting a play run, and getting the player down and calling timeout (unless someone decides to run back and forth across the field), and there is thirty yards of field position so the defense can't just play near the line of scrimmage. The Texans could outright win the game if the Titans blow a coverage and let someone run free down the sideline. This is not a likely scenario, but a possibility.

Matt Schaub has completed 66.5% of his passes on over 1,000 throws in his Texans' career. Again, he is slightly higher this year, but we'll go with that number. The average completion is 12.1. We'll come of that a little, and give Kubiak the benefit of the doubt, and I'll assign a 3% chance of the Texans scoring outright on a blown coverage (which I suspect is very conservative and in favor of Kubiak again), and assume that the remaining completions will gain an average of 10 yards. When we adjust for the penalties and sacks, this means we have 2.7% of plays resulting in a win, 59.7% completed to the 20 yard line on average, and 24.9% falling incomplete (leaving the Texans in the same position, and with a timeout still so that Kubiak can center it to his heart's content).

How much is that 10 yards to the 20 yard line worth for a field goal attempt? Looking at Burke's graph again, it looks like the difference between the 20 and 31 is about 19% improvement on making the field goal. I'm going to give Brown an 81% chance of making the shorter field goal.

Finally, I'm assuming a 5% chance of a successful touchdown throw from about the 40 in the event a sack or holding penalty. It's not a full out hail mary, and Schaub could definitely get the throw into the end zone with some general accuracy for who he's trying to throw it to. I'm also assuming a drop to a 50% chance of Kris Brown making it if the kick becomes a 53 yarder due to a short sack or a penalty without further gain of yardage.

Throw all those numbers into the mix, run a second iteration for the 5 yard penalties where they get to still run another play, and the final result is 36.7% (with several assumptions in Kubiak's favor) for the Texans to win if he tries a pass with the timeout in hand and enough time to run a play. The timeout is the key here. Without it, those numbers drop dramatically on running another play.

When we compare that to his actual decision, we see that the centering of the ball cost his team at least a 5% chance of winning the game. That may not sound like a lot, but it's a pretty costly decision. In order to justify that decision, the centering the ball would have to have improved Brown's chances of making that kick from about 62% to about 72%. It's implausible that a 3.5% change in the angle from 49 yards out could matter more than moving the ball five yards upfield.

A better way to show how bad this decision is might be to look at how inept the quarterback and offense would have to be in order to make this a break even decision.

If we assume that the Texans would commit a penalty on 10% of their offensive plays, that the quarterback's sack rate is 10%, that he throws 10% of his passes to the other team, and completes only 45% of them to his own team at a rate of less than 11.0 per completion (so 4.9 yards per attempt), then, just maybe, this decision might have been justified (30.4% to 31.0% chance of winning). In other words, if the quarterback was substantially worse than Gary Kubiak the player. Check that, substantially worse than every quarterback who has played the game. Ever. How's that for a vote of confidence, Matt Schaub?

Other than that, good call.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 25th, 2009 at 2:29 pm and is filed under Rant, Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.