I didn’t get to watch a lot of football yesterday, but I did watch the end of the Cowboys-Giants showdown, where the winner would take control of the division. Secretly, I don’t think either of these teams are very good, and selfishly, I was rooting for the Cowboys, which would help my Lions slightly in the wild card race.
The end of the game was really exciting, featuring big plays both directions (even though the Cowboys’ big plays were primarily due to horrible pass coverage by the Giants). Apart from the excitement, though, there were a few hidden plays (good and bad) that caught my attention.
The first plays deal with time management. Time management is still an underrated aspect of the NFL endgame. It drives me bananas when teams screw it up, since it really isn’t difficult. With under 6 minutes remaining, the Giants chose not to cover Dez Bryant and gave up a 50 yard touchdown. This score put the Cowboys up by 12. Bryant was 20 yards from the closest defender — why didn’t he run around in the field of play and kill clock? On the verge of being up two scores at that point in the game, the only numbers that should matter are 00:00.
The Cowboys gave up a quick touchdown drive (more on prevent defenses later), but got the ball back, up 5, with 3:14 left. The Cowboys ran into the line on first and second down, and the Giants called timeout at 2:25. However, on both plays, the Cowboys snapped the ball with 4 seconds left on the play clock. Come on Romo, you’ve been at this for awhile.
My guess is the clock could have been under 2:10 at this point. The Cowboys’ almost made it all irrelevant on the next play, but Romo missed Miles Austin sprinting down the sideline (wide open again — nice work Giants). Instead of forcing another timeout, the Cowboys’ risky play call gave the Giants the ball on the top side of the two minute warning with 2 timeouts left.
With time no longer a factor, the Cowboys now needed to stop the Giants. Two silly Cowboys penalties (offside and holding) bailed out the Giants on two awful plays (a snap over Eli’s head and a crazy left-handed pass that looked like a bad decision). The Cowboys probably wouldn’t have risked those penalties if there were less time on the clock.
Eli made a nice pass to rising star Jake Ballard to earn first and goal. Every stat guy celebrated as the Giants ran the ball twice from the one (even though they did it primarily to burn clock), scored on the second try, and then ran successfully for the two point conversion and a three point lead.
Runs are far more likely to succeed on two point conversions, but teams call passes more often. Game theory predicts that teams should call more runs until defenses react and the success rates even up. My descriptive theory is that teams throw for two point conversions because the ball is almost guaranteed to go in the end zone. It may not be caught, but the play will seem closer to success than a running play that is stood up at the line.
Sunday night madness wasn’t over yet, though. With only 46 seconds left, the Cowboys drove to the Giants 29 and spiked to stop the clock with 6 seconds remaining. How did they travel 51 yards in so little time with no timeouts? It helped that a Giants player picked up a “fumble” that was clearly not a fumble and ran away with the ball. This delay of game stopped the clock and saved the Cowboys the 6 seconds they needed to get a field goal set up (even Al Michaels noted the boneheaded play).
But Sunday night madness still wasn’t over! After Jason Garrett iced his own kicker last week, Tom Coughlin thought he’d have a go at it. Of course the first kick went in, and the second kick was blocked. Between kicks, Cris Collinsworth said, “We all know the stats . . . ,” but I bet coaches won’t be checking those stats when facing Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey in the future. (Side note: earlier, I commented that Bill Barnwell’s stance against icing the kicker was overblown; stats posted on ESPN, however, are pretty convincing for kicks under 10 seconds. I’m not sure why the numbers from Barnwell’s article, using 15 seconds as the cutoff, are so different).
For a thinly veiled segue to Tebow, I note that the Bears also iced Broncos kicker Matt Prater in overtime on Sunday, but that couldn’t stop the Tebow machine from rolling to it’s fifth straight magical victory. His run has reached such epic proportions that one of my professors made a Tebow joke during a public finance lunch seminar today (he is a Bears fan and needed an outlet I guess).
Though everyone says it every week, I’ll still say it. The Broncos should be thanking the Bears, not Tebow. Marion Barber ran out of bounds and stopped the clock when the Bears could have effectively ended the game in regulation. After the comeback, Barber fumbled in overtime with the Bears in Mile High field goal range (around the 40 or 45 yard line).
I really felt bad for Barber when they showed him disconsolate on the sideline. Despite his mistakes, the Bears defensive coaching deserves equal blame. After holding the Broncos to zero points by playing standard defense for over 55 minutes, the Bears went into super prevent. If there’s one thing Tebow can do, it’s beat up a prevent defense. He has proven game after game that he cannot beat a standard defense.
In a future post, I’ll tackle whether this is Tebow-specific or a more general mistake. My hunch — after watching the Giants and Broncos fly down the field — is that teams become too risk averse at the end of games when they are ahead. If you are ahead with under 5 minutes left, you probably kept the other team from scoring many points. Why change strategies so drastically?