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FFL: Offseason | NFL: Championship

EXPLAINER: A look at the data behind NFL decision making

Thu Jan 21 2:27am ET
By JOSH DUBOW
AP Pro Football Writer

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, left, talks with Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid after an NFL divisional round football game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Kansas City. The Chiefs won 22-17. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)


Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid talks with players on the sideline during the first half of an NFL divisional round football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)


Fourth downs in the NFL used to be reserved for kicks, except in the most dire of circumstances.

But with teams scoring at a record pace and becoming more analytics friendly each year, teams are going for it on fourth down these days in scenarios that would have been unfathomable just a decade ago.

Whether it was Kansas City's decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in its own territory to seal a win last week against Cleveland, or Indianapolis' failed fourth-and-goal try from the 4 late in the first half the previous week, those decisions have taken center stage this postseason.

''You can make a very good decision and have a bad result and you can make a bad decision and have a good result,'' said Frank Frigo, the co-founder of EdjSports, a data company that has created its own customizable model for decision making in the NFL. ''That's OK. That's life. But you have to operate on the best available information. In the long haul, you will do much better making sound analytically based choices.''

The data behind those decisions is more readily available than ever to fans with places like EdjSports and ESPN tweeting out the numbers that show which decisions are best and worst during games each week.

Here's a deeper look into the in-game decisions coaches make and what the numbers say about them.

HOW FIGURE OUT

There are several models for decision making and they typically agree on most calls, although there are slight differences. EdjSports models the win probability for teams based on the decisions they make based on historical play-by-play data and adjusts it for variables like the strength and weaknesses of both teams from Football Outsiders, injuries and other factors. Calls that increase win probability are good and those that decrease it are bad.

WHY IS IT BENEFICIAL TO GO FOR IT

The models are more aggressive than almost any coach, advocating going for it on almost fourth-and-1 no matter the field position, favoring more fourth-down tries over field goals in the red zone and even advocating for ''riskier'' calls like saying the Browns should have gone for it last week on fourth-and-9 from their 32 with more than four minutes left when trailing Kansas City by five. That decision cost Cleveland 5 percentage points in EdjSports' win probability. The Browns punted and never got the ball back.

''You're voluntarily turning the ball over,'' Frigo said. ''You're essentially trading it for field position. The model is very good at determining what the field position is worth compared to giving the ball up.''

WHAT WAS THE BEST DECISION OF POSTSEASON

The best fourth-down call, according to EdjSports, came from Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, who went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29 with Cleveland trailing by five with about six minutes remaining. The call increased Cleveland's win probability by 7.3 percentage points. Baker Mayfield converted it with a sneak, but Stefanski squandered it when he punted on fourth-and-9 on the next series of downs.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid's call to go for it on fourth-and-1 on the next possession to seal the win was the second-best call of the postseason, increasing Kansas City's win probability by 6.5 percentage points.

WHAT WAS THE WORST DECISION OF POSTSEASON

There's little surprise on this one. The analytics didn't like Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel's call to punt on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 40 in the wild-card round when trailing 17-13 with about 10 minutes left. That decision cost the Titans 13.7 percentage points in win probability. The Ravens took the punt and drove for a field goal, and Ryan Tannehill threw an interception on the next possession to seal the game.

WHEN SHOULD YOU GO FOR 2

While fourth-down decisions have more impact, the decision on whether to go for a 2-point conversion after a touchdown can be difficult. Some choices are easy, like when a team scores a TD late in regulation and needs a 2-point conversion to tie the game or increase a lead from one to three points for example.

Others are more complicated with one that causes controversy being what to do when a team trailing by 14 points scores a TD. Conventional wisdom has always been to kick the extra point to make it a seven-point game. But the analytics point to going for 2, which some teams now do in that situation, because making it gives a chance to win in regulation with a kick and missing leaves open the option to tie with a 2-point conversion. The difference is only a percentage point or two in win probability, according to Frigo.

''The 2-point conversion decisions are interesting and certainly matter,'' Frigo said. ''But the more complicated ones tend to not have a huge amount of equity in the balance.''

HOW DO THE FOUR CHAMPIONSHIP GAME COACHES FARE

Three of the four coaches this weekend rank in the top 10 in EdjSports' Critical Call Index, which grades the decision making during the season. Green Bay's Matt LaFleur is third, followed by Reid (sixth), Buffalo's Sean McDermott (eighth) and Tampa Bay's Bruce Arians (30th).

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Free-agent CB Tramon Williams (Ravens) worked out for the Green Bay Packers Wednesday, Jan. 20, and is expected to sign to either the practice squad or the 53-man roster.

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Larry Ogunjobi Jan 20 8:03pm ET

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Ronald Jones II Jan 20 6:50pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (quadriceps) and wide receivers Mike Evans (knee) and Chris Godwin (quadriceps) were all limited participants during Wednesday's practice. Jones was able to practice in a limited fashion last week before ultimately suiting up against the Saints, while Evans' and Godwin's reps are being managed as precautions. Jones has a good matchup against Green Bay's front, though he and Leonard Fournette are trending towards a timeshare after head coach Bruce Arians described them as a "1-2 punch." Meanwhile, Evans will likely tango with star corner Jaire Alexander on the outside, as tough a matchup as any. Godwin is due for a rebound performance after dropping a surefire touchdown last week and could see more targets if Evans struggles and Antonio Brown (knee) is banged up.

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Lamar Jackson Jan 20 6:43pm ET

Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is wanted on a long-term contract, according to head coach John Harbaugh Wednesday, Jan. 20. 'Absolutely, we want Lamar to sign a long-term deal and be with us,' Harbaugh said. 'I'm totally certain that's going to happen. When it happens, that's the details.'

Fantasy Spin: Harbaugh also said they aren't going to adjust the offense to be more pass-heavy. So long as Jackson is healthy, he'll be a top fantasy QB for the foreseeable future due to his added production on the ground.

From TheHuddle

Ronald Jones II Jan 20 6:43pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (quadriceps) said Wednesday, Jan. 20, he already feels better than last week and he's all good for the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers.

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Antonio Brown Jan 20 6:20pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) was listed as a non-participant for Wednesday's practice. Brown sustained the knee injury during the divisional-round win over the Saints, with Tampa Bay officially listing him as day-to-day. The veteran wideout will look to ramp up his activity during Thursday and Friday's sessions to give him a chance at suiting up against Green Bay in the NFC title game. Fellow wideouts Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson- who both made big plays in the victory over New Orleans- would be in line to receive more targets if Brown isn't healthy enough to play.

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Nickell Robey Jan 20 5:53pm ET

Philadelphia Eagles DB Nickell Robey-Coleman was removed from the Reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday, Jan. 20.

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Jordan Wilkins Jan 20 5:43pm ET

Indianapolis Colts RB Jordan Wilkins was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday, Jan. 20.

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Mason Crosby Jan 20 5:33pm ET

Green Bay Packers LB Krys Barnes (thumb), PK Mason Crosby (shoulder), RB AJ Dillon (quadriceps), DL Kingsley Keke (concussion), TE Marcedes Lewis (knee), LB Za'Darius Smith (thumb), WR Equanimeous St. Brown (knee, ankle), OT Ricky Wagner (knee) and RB Jamaal Williams (ankle) were limited at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. S Will Redmond (knee) practiced in full.

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Chris Godwin Jan 20 5:23pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (hip, quadriceps) was limited at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Fantasy Spin: Godwin caught four of seven targets but for just 34 yards against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional Round. The Buccaneers' passing game wasn't needed much as Tampa Bay operated from favorable field position for much of the game. Godwin, Mike Evans and Antonio Brown should all see more work against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship. Godwin is likely to see the most targets.

From TheHuddle

Ronald Jones II Jan 20 5:23pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (finger, calf) was a limited participant at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Fantasy Spin: Jones ran 13 times for 62 yards against the New Orleans Saints last week after being considered questionable for most of the practice week. He should be more involved this week, but the game script isn't likely to be as favorable for the Bucs as it was in the NFC Divisional Round. Jones will be a touchdown-dependent fantasy FLEX option this week.

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Jason Pierre-Paul Jan 20 5:23pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) didn't participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. S Jordan Whitehead (knee) and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (quadriceps, ankle) were limited. DL Jeremiah Ledbetter (calf) and G Ali Marpet (pectoral) practiced in full.

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Antonio Brown Jan 20 5:13pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown (knee) didn't participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Fantasy Spin: Brown is expected to be fine in time for Sunday's NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. He'll represent a contrarian pivot from either Mike Evans or Chris Godwin.

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Mike Evans Jan 20 5:13pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (knee) was a limited participant at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Fantasy Spin: Evans didn't practice much last week and was targeted just three times in the NFC Divisional Round game against the New Orleans Saints. His day was saved by a three-yard touchdown catch, but it was his only reception. He should be more involved in the NFC Championship with another week of recovery under his belt.

From TheHuddle

Stefon Diggs Jan 20 4:53pm ET

Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs (oblique) was limited during practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Fantasy Spin: Diggs has posted at least 100 yards in five of his last six games and is a must-start fantasy option if he is active for the game.

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Quinton Jefferson Jan 20 4:53pm ET

Buffalo Bills DT Vernon Butler (quadriceps) did not participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. QB Jake Fromm (non-injury) and DT Quinton Jefferson (ankle) were limited during practice. PK Tyler Bass (hand), LB Tremaine Edmunds (hamstring) and DE Darryl X. Johnson (knee) fully participated in practice.

From TheHuddle

Stefon Diggs Jan 20 4:40pm ET

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (oblique) remains on the injury report and was a limited practice participant on Wednesday. Diggs has been battling an oblique injury late this season, but it hasn't really slowed him down at all. The NFL's leader in receptions and receiving yards in 2020, the 27-year-old has 14 catches on 20 targets for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the team's two playoff tilts against the Colts and Ravens this year. Diggs was able to haul in six of his eight targets for 46 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Chiefs back in Week 6 in a 26-17 loss. With quarterback Josh Allen having a breakout season under center, Diggs has been one of the most valuable fantasy wideouts this season, and that shouldn't change in the AFC Championship this Sunday.

From RotoBaller

Patrick Mahomes Jan 20 4:33pm ET

Updating a previous report, Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (concussion, toe) is now listed as limited during practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. He was initially listed as a full participant Wednesday.

Fantasy Spin: Mahomes is going through the concussion protocol but may be able to do more during practice over the next few days. He is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL when healthy and should be a starting option if he is active.

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Gabriel Davis Jan 20 4:30pm ET

Buffalo Bills rookie wide receiver Gabriel Davis (ankle) and defensive tackle Vernon Butler (quadriceps) both missed practice on Wednesday. Davis injured his ankle in the Divisional Round win over the Ravens last Saturday night. As of right now, the impressive 21-year-old should be considered questionable to play against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship on Sunday, but keep an eye on his practice status through the rest of the week. He was unable to haul in any of his four targets against Baltimore's defense last week after going for four catches and 85 yards in the wild-card win over Indianapolis the week prior. He's hard to trust for consistent production behind Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley. If Davis can't play this weekend, Isaiah McKenzie could see an expanded role.

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