Stats & Info: Ron Rivera

Data questions Panthers' choice to punt

October, 1, 2012

George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesRon Rivera’s decision to punt isn’t supported by the numbers.

Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta Falcons ’ 45-yard line late in the fourth quarter against Atlanta on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers chose to take a delay of game penalty and punt the ball away rather than going for the first down.

With the clock under two minutes and the Falcons without a timeout, a first down would have essentially sealed the victory for Carolina. The decision backfired after Matt Ryan led the Falcons down the field into position for the game-winning field goal.

Using ESPN Stats & Information’s win probability tool, the numbers don’t support Ron Rivera’s decision.

As a reminder, our win 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. This takes into account factors like time, score, and possession.

Before taking the delay of game penalty, the Panthers had a 90.9 percent chance to win based on their current situation (fourth-and-1, 1:10 left in the fourth quarter, etc.).

At this point, Carolina had two choices.

Choice #1: Go for the first down
This choice, of course, leads to two potential outcomes: convert the first down or turn over on downs.

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 4-5 in fourth-and-1 situations).

Using this number we can find the expected win probability for Carolina if it had chosen this option.

By converting the first down, the Panthers would have had a 99.1 percent chance of winning. If they’d gone for it and failed, the win probability would have fallen to 42.0 percent.

Based on those two numbers, going for the first down gave them a 83.5 percent win probability.

Choice #2: Punt
For this option, we 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.

This situation -- Falcons with first-and-10 from their 19, with 0:59 left in the fourth quarter -- would give the Panthers a win probability of 57.4 percent.

Thus, by choosing to punt on fourth down the Panthers decreased their win probability by 26.1 percentage points.

As it happened, the punt went as well as possible, as the Panthers downed the ball at the Falcons’ 1.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other team in the past 20 years has conducted a game-winning drive starting inside their own 5 with less than one minute to play.
With preparations for the 2011 NFL season starting soon under much different circumstances than in previous seasons, the teams with consistency in the head coaching and coordinator ranks are likely to have an advantage. No new system(s) to implement and fewer new coach-player relationships to build will ease the burden of shortened timeframes.

Eight teams will start the season with a different head coach than at the start of the 2010 season, a dramatic increase from the three head-coaching changes from the start of 2009 to the start of 2010. That's just three short of the NFL record (since the merger in 1970), set in 1976 and tied in 1997.

Three of the eight new coaches have previous head-coaching experience and two of them -- Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier -- got that experience as interim coaches last season, coaching 14 games between them. John Fox is the only new guy with even a full season under his belt, taking over in Denver after nine seasons in Carolina.

Only 13 teams will have the stability of entering the season with the same head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator that they ended last season with. On the other end of the spectrum, there are four teams that will have new men in all three positions -- the Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans.

Twelve different teams will have a new offensive coordinator and only three of those teams were in the top half of the league last season in yards gained. On the other side of the ball, 12 teams will have a new defensive coordinator and five of them were in the top half on the league in yards allowed last season.

Seven of the 13 teams with the same three coaches were playoff teams a year ago and none of the four teams that are changing all three positions made the postseason. In fact, they combined to go just 22-42 in 2010 with only the Raiders (8-8) winning more than 6 games.

Keep in mind, since the merger in 1970, only 11 first-year head coaches took their team to the Conference Championship Game and just five of those played in the Super Bowl.

Carolina Panthers
Ron Rivera
Entering first season as NFL head coach
Replaces: John Fox
Team W-L in 2010: 2-14 (last in NFC South)
Previous job: Chargers defensive coordinator

Cleveland Browns
Pat Shurmur
Entering first season as NFL head coach
Replaces: Eric Mangini
Team W-L in 2010: 5-11 (3rd in AFC North)
Previous job: Rams offensive coordinator

Dallas Cowboys
Jason Garrett
Entering second season as NFL head coach (5-3 in 2010)
Replaced: Wade Phillips
Team W-L in 2010: 6-10 (T-3rd in NFC East)

Denver Broncos
John Fox
Entering 10th season as NFL head coach (73-71 in 9 seasons with Panthers)
Replaces: Josh McDaniels and Eric Studesville (interim)
Team W-L in 2010: 4-12 (last in AFC West)
Previous job: Panthers head coach

Minnesota Vikings
Leslie Frazier
Entering second season as NFL head coach (3-3 in 2010)
Replaced: Brad Childress
Team W-L in 2010: 6-10 (T-3rd in NFC North)

Oakland Raiders
Hue Jackson
Entering first season as NFL head coach
Replaces: Tom Cable
Team W-L in 2010: 8-8 (3rd in AFC West)
Previous job: Raiders offensive coordinator

San Francisco 49ers
Jim Harbaugh
Entering first season as NFL head coach
Replaces: Mike Singletary and Jim Tomsula (interim)
Team W-L in 2010: 6-10 (3rd in NFC West)
Previous job: Stanford head coach

Tennessee Titans
Mike Munchak
Entering first season as NFL head coach
Replaces: Jeff Fisher
Team W-L in 2010: 6-10 (T-3rd in AFC South)
Previous job: Titans offensive line coach