Analytics: Rivera made wrong choice

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
9:01
AM ET
ATLANTA -- ESPN Stats & Information ran the analytics on Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s decision to punt on a fourth-and-1 late in Sunday’s game with the Falcons.

Using their win probability tool, the ESPN Stats & Information people say Rivera made the wrong choice and should have gone for the first down.

The win probability tool uses 10 years of NFL play-by-play data to estimate how likely it is that either team will win at any point in the game, based on historical results in similar game situations.

Prior to taking a delay-of-game penalty, the Panthers had a 90.9 percent chance to win.

Carolina had two choices.

We’ll talk first about going for it on fourth down.

Since 2001, the league average conversion percentage for teams that go for it on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter with the lead and the ball between the 40-yard lines is 71.9 percent. (With Cam Newton, Carolina is 4-for-5 in fourth-and-1 situations.) Using this number, ESPN Stats & Information said the Panthers had a 99.1 percent chance of winning if they converted the first down. If the Panthers went for the first down, but didn’t convert, their chance to win dropped to 42 percent.

Just by going for it on fourth down, the Panthers had an 83.5 percent win possibility.

To calculate the win probability with the Panthers punting, ESPN Stats & Information used data since 2001 to get the net punt average of 31 yards for all punts between the 40- and 50-yard lines. This means the expected field position of the Falcons after the punt (and delay of game penalty) is their own 19-yard line. This situation (Falcons with first-and-10 from their 19, with 59 seconds left in the fourth quarter, etc.) would give the Panthers a win probability of 57.4 percent.

By choosing to punt, the Panthers decreased their win probability by 26.1 percentage points.

In this case, the punt went as well as possible for the Panthers, as they downed the ball at the Falcons' 1-yard line. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only three other teams in the past 20 seasons have had a game-winning drive starting inside their own 5-yard line with fewer than two minutes to play.

As we know, Matt Ryan and the Falcons drove to set up the game-winning field goal.

Still, I’m going to argue the numbers and say Rivera made the right call. He would have risked handing the Falcons a short field if he had gone for it on fourth down and been unsuccessful.

Instead, Rivera decided to pin back Ryan, who already had been sacked seven times on the day, and put his trust in his defense.

I say the defense, not Rivera’s call, is what let the Panthers down. If the Panthers simply could have made one big play on defense, they could have won.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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