The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost an ultimately close game to the Arizona Cardinals, 38-35. And that happened after Dirk Koetter had passed up a field goal at the end of the first half, and tried to go for two points after touchdowns repeatedly—he managed only one two-point conversion, and the passed-up field goal led to 0 points.
Naturally, that led to a lot of criticism. Had he kicked a field goal and a few extra points, the Bucs would have had enough points to win! And yet, Koetter was, by and large, correct in his decisions.
Here’s the simple reason why: the goal isn’t to hang in there and keep hopes alive, the goal is to win the game. And when you’re down by a lot of points, you need to start making up points quickly—and that means making riskier decisions in hopes of catching up.
Yes, in hindsight kicking field goals and extra points would have resulted in more points. But that’s in hindsight: Koetter doesn’t know what’s going to happen when he makes these decisions, so he has to go off what is most likely to lead to the best result. The best result being a win.
Down 24 points, on fourth-and-five with a few seconds remaining in the first half, Koetter could have kicked a field goal and been down by 21 points. Normally, you’d want to kick the field goal on fourth down-and-five—or so the old fourth down chart tells you. That chart doesn’t take into account game probability, though: being down 21 points at the half gives you a 1.3% chance of winning. Being down 17 (if the Bucs had hit that touchdown) 3.7%—nearly three times as much.
Given that field goals aren’t exactly automatic, the Bucs’ offense was doing pretty well, and they needed to score a lot of points, going for the touchdown was probably the right decision. It just sucks that they didn’t get into the endzone. You can check the numbers in Pro Football Reference’s calculator.
Similar things can be said for all those two-point conversions. The odds of scoring a two-point conversion or hitting an extra point are now basically the same. But hitting two-point conversions will get you more points more quickly—it’s a more high-variance play. And when you need to score a lot of points to win a game, you want to take the high-variance play: slow and steady won’t win you race the much, but quick jumps will.
The same goes for the final two-point conversion: the Bucs went for two when down 38-26 (after the touchdown). That’s correct: it gives you a slightly higher chance of winning than kicking an extra point. And all those little bits help.
So the models say Koetter was most likely right in his decisions, but the models aren’t infallible: they can’t take into account a team’s specific strengths, nor how they’re playing on the day itself. They can only say general things based on average performances. And in that sense, you could certainly critique Koetter’s calls, as you can do with any call any coach makes.
But keep in mind that the head coach is one of the people best-positioned to take into account all of those variables that the model cannot incorporate.
I’m happy to see Koetter get these calls right, by the way, because he has a long history of being far too conservative in his play-calling—especially when it comes to going for it on fourth down. Any other day I would have joined in the chorus of boos, too. But today he was, by and large, correct in his decision.