There were plenty of things to complain about and dissect from the Cowboys’ season-opening loss on Sunday night, but one that many are focusing on was Mike McCarthy’s decision to go for it on fourth and three.
Dallas was down 20-17 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the offense had driven from their own 35-yard line to the Rams 11-yard line. A run on third down failed to move the chains, setting up a fourth and three. Conventional football logic says to kick the field goal to at least tie the game, and worry about taking the lead later. McCarthy opted to be aggressive and go for the touchdown.
The play that Kellen Moore drew up involved CeeDee Lamb running a quick crossing route as both Amari Cooper and Dalton Schultz ran the other way, effectively picking Lamb open for what should have been an easy pickup. But Lamb failed to get deep enough on his route and caught it short of the sticks, getting tackled immediately to come up one yard short. Lamb acknowledged as much after the game:
Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb on fourth-and-3: “Not really a rookie mistake, but a mistake from a rookie. I need to make that conversion, make that play, and I didn’t.” https://t.co/a2E7ol8jcl— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) September 14, 2020
For as productive as Lamb was in his NFL debut, this mistake was costly. But the decision that led up to it was not. Conventional football wisdom said to take the field goal, but conventional football wisdom is how Jason Garrett lost games repeatedly. It’s what John Harbaugh bucked last year with the Ravens, embracing analytics to turn Lamar Jackson into an MVP winner.
And the analytics indicate McCarthy made the right call, or at least took an appropriate risk. I’m referring to something called the Bellman equation, named after applied mathematician Richard E Bellman. The Bellman equation was developed for use in calculating dynamic programming methods within the optimal control theory, which is a very nerdy way of saying it weighs short-term and long-term goals in situations that have a lot of moving parts.
The Bellman equation has been primarily used in economics, weighing short-term and long-term effects of certain economic and monetary policies to evaluate risk and reward. But David Romer, an economics professor at Cal-Berkeley, started using the Bellman equation for football back in the early 2000’s. He came away with the conclusion that NFL teams should be going for it on fourth down way more often.
“Teams should be a lot more aggressive on fourth down,” Romer says with the precise air of a scientist. “On average, you’d be better off going for it, essentially, in any short-yardage situation, and then there are some cases even in longer yardage when you’re in that position where neither punting nor a field goal looks very attractive.
“The usual assumption of profit-maximization implies that in their on-field behavior, teams should act to maximize their probabilities of winning. This isn’t happening.”
At the time, Romer’s hypothesis was mostly derided by football coaches everywhere, but the basic tenet of his research has become more accepted in today’s NFL. Bill Belichick was one of the early adopters of Romer’s approach, though, and it’s one of the things that’s helped give him such an edge the last two decades.
“I think, basically, he was saying that if you get down there and don’t score, you’re putting the other team 80, 90 yards away from the goal line anyway, and the chances of them scoring aren’t very good,” Belichick said. “You’ll probably get the ball back in good field position. And the percentages added up to his conclusion, which was to go for it.”
Even Bill Walsh, much more of an “old-school” coach, supported the theory:
“To this day, I can close my eyes and see 22 players,” he said in his San Francisco 49ers office, where he still serves the team as a consultant. “I can see them moving and I can see the equation. My indicators would be somewhat different than (Romer’s), but this (equation) is what it takes.”
“I think (coaches) can tend to be too conservative,” Walsh said. “They can tend not to trust themselves — in a sense, take the easy way out and, in this case, punt the ball.”
And so we circle back to McCarthy’s decision to go for it. The ball was at the Rams 11, and it was a fourth-and-short situation with just three yards to go. As McCarthy said after the game, he felt good about the way the team was moving the ball.
And for good reason, too. Dak Prescott was 2-for-3 on that drive with 25 yards and Ezekiel Elliott had 24 rushing yards on just four carries. Beyond that, the Cowboys defense had tightened up after a rough start, getting an interception and forcing a three-and-out on their last two possessions. McCarthy felt confident in his offense to convert the first down, and was equally confident in his defense if they ended up giving the Rams the ball with 89 yards to go for a touchdown.
And guess what happened? Lamb was tackled short, the Rams got the ball, and nine plays later they punted the ball back to the Cowboys. The offense retook the field, still down by just three points, with just under six and a half minutes remaining. They ended up getting the ball once more as well, providing them with ample time to go down and score.
The decision to forego the field goal ultimately cost the Cowboys very little. It didn’t lead to a Rams touchdown, and it wasn’t what sunk the Cowboys’ chances to win. Had Greg Zuerlein hit on his field goal earlier in the game, and the score was tied 20-20 at that point, a field goal would’ve been the obvious move. But that wasn’t the situation, and McCarthy opted to play to win instead of trying not to lose.
Had Lamb been one yard deeper and gotten the first down, McCarthy would be hailed as a genius, as being exactly what the Cowboys needed. This goes to show how obsessed we can be with results over the decision-making processes. But you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater the moment you get an unfavorable result.
The fact is McCarthy made the correct decision, according to the analytics, but the play itself fell short. Better execution next time around will have fans singing McCarthy’s praises, but bad plays happen from time to time. This was just one of those times.