Browns Review: Game 6 (@ Tennessee)

In order to put the Tennessee game in any type of perspective, we have to begin with Hue Jackson’s decision to go for the two-point conversion after the Browns scored a touchdown to bring the score to 28-19.

In my quick take, I said “No sensible analysis supports Hue Jackson’s decision to go for the two-point conversion.” This Plain Dealer piece is not sensible– it misstates the point of the article it is relying on.

Chase Stuart’s piece in Football Perspective is entitled “Trailing by 15 in the middle of the 4th quarter, teams are foolish to not go for 2 after touchdowns.” If the headline isn’t sufficiently clear, his fifth paragraph makes it explicit:

Against the 49ers on Sunday, with 6 minutes left in the final frame, Aaron Rodgers connected with James Jones to cut the lead to 30-21. At that point, attempting a two-point conversion is the obviously correct call, in an attempt to cut the lead to 7. I was disappointed but not surprised that Mike McCarthy decided to go for 1. But what did surprise me was seeing a number of smart people on twitter disagree with me that going for 2 is the right call. So I figured I’d devote a post to explaining why in this situation, it’s a no-brainer to go for two.

Stuart’s argument for trying the two-pointer immediately (this is my paraphrase, not what he wrote) is:

  • If you miss the two-pointer: You’re down 9 points and you;ll need two scores– but you have 6 minutes left to get them,
  • If you make the two-pointer: You’re down by 7. If you score again, you can tie the game with a kick, or win it with another two pointer.
  • If you kick the extra point: If you score again, the you have to go for the two-pointer, and the best you can do is tie.If you miss, you need another score–  the same position you’re in if you miss the two-pointer after the first TD. But you’ll have much less time to get it.

His reasoning makes sense– if you have 6-7 minutes left. The Browns scored with 2:10 left. They couldn’t expect to get two more possessions in 130 seconds.

I don’t know if Scott Patsko didn’t read the article carefully or deliberately twisted it. (I’d believe either.)

The reason to kick is very simple. You;re almost certainly going to make it, at which point the score is 28-20. That puts the pressure on the Titans. If they want to be certain of winning, they have to recover. If you get it, they have to worry about you scoring and getting a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime.

The odds that the defense will press– and end up making a mistake– are very high.

If you miss the two-pointer, you can’t tie the game with your next score. That removes all the pressure on the opponent. They don’t have to recover the onside kick. The defense doesn’t need to prevent you from scoring. It can use a prevent, to force you to run time off the clock.

Even if you score, you probably won’t have time to recover the second onside kick (a very low-percentage possibility), move down the field and kick the field goal.

That;s exactly what happened. The onside kick put the ball on the Cleveland 49, with 27 seconds left. Even if the Browns had recovered it at that spot, they would have needed to move at least 15 yards (that gets it to a 51-yard field goal). Figuring 7 seconds per play, they would have been able to run only three plays, and the third play would have had to stop the clock, so the kicking team could get on the field.

There is one reason to go for two points after the first score: If you want to win the game in regulation. A two-pointer makes the score 28-21, so another touchdown and a two-pointer wins it.

I don’t think that was the reason Jackson went for it. Based on his answer, I’ll bet anything that Jackson was told to try for two if he was down by 15 or more– but he misunderstood the advice:

“I went for two early because I knew at some point I was going to have to go for it. I’d rather go for it now than have to come back and do it again. … I am making these decisions with very good information from people I trust. That is what we decided to do.”

The “very good information” almost certainly was provided by the Marx Brothers… whether Jackson trusts them or not, we’ll pass.

The reason we’re starting with the conversion can be explained in two bullet points:

  • The Browns scored 26 points and gained 341 yards.
  • They scored 13 points (half the total) and gained 137 yards (40.2% of the total) on their last two possessions.

At which point we need to have the same discussion we had after almost every game of the Pat Shurmur era:

“Do scoring drives that occur very late in the game– after the opponent has a substantial lead– prove the Browns are making progress? Or should we ignore those points and yards, on the assumption that the opponent isn’t really trying?”

If you remember the Shurmur years, you probably remember what the correct answer was. If you just started following the team, let me refresh your memory, by listing the number of wins, points scored and points allowed:

2011 4-12 13.6 (30th) 19.2 (5th)
2012 5-11 18.9 (24th) 23.0 (19th)

One of the points I kept trying to make in 2011 is that the defensive totals were extremely misleading. The defense was allowing less than three touchdowns a game, because the offense was scoring less than two. Teams would get a lead and run out the clock.

In 2011, the Browns were behind in 12 of the 16 games when the fourth quarter began. They scored 44 points in the fourth quarter; opponents scored only 53.

If the Browns began scored more points, I argued, they wouldn’t begin winning. Opponents would stop sitting on the lead and score more points– the defense would seem to be much worse.

That’s exactly what happened in 2012. The Browns’ offense scored 5.3 more points– but the defense allowed 3.8 more. The Browns entered the fourth quarter trailing in 11 games and scored 56 points. Opponents scored 93.

The biggest mistake people make when they try to analyze football is forgetting that baseball doesn’t have a clock. Both teams are guaranteed nine possessions, and they can bat until the opponent records three outs. Because a team can bat (in theory) forever– because it can score four times on a single play– it means even an 11-run lead isn’t safe.

Because that is so, the statistics produced in any two games almost always have roughly the same value– and can be directly compared. Unless the manager is letting the catcher pitch the last inning of a 14-2 loss, the batter is facing an opponent trying its best to retire him. A single is always a single.

In the NFL, where time is limited, the value of a play depends entirely on the game situation. Compare and contrast:

  • With 6:05 left in the first quarter and Cleveland trailing 7-3, Cody “Trust Me” Kessler completed a 10-yard pass to Andrew Hawkins. 41 seconds elapsed before the Browns ran another play. According to the Win Probability system used by Pro Football Reference, that pass decreased Tennessee’s chances of winning from 81.1% to 78.6%– an impact of 2.5%.
  • With 3:49 left in the fourth quarter, Kessler completed a 16-yard pass to Hawkins, which took only 7 seconds. The play gained 60% more yards and used 83% less time– but it reduced Tennessee’s win probability by only 1.1%.

I don’t use win probability stats because (a) they confuse people and (b) they can’t be proven. They’re estimates based on thousands of past games– they tend to be accurate, but I wouldn’t use them to make fine distinctions between players (as some rating systems do).

The point to take away is that a long passing play that took less time had less than half the value, because it came late in the game. Here’s a better illustration:

  • On the drive before that 16-yard pass, DeMarco Murray gained 3 yards on a first down. Because that play consumed 34 seconds, it increased Tennessee’s win probability. Even when he got stuffed a few plays later, it had virtually no impact.

It’s a very good thing that Kessler completed 26 of 41 passes, that he gained 336 yards, threw for 2 touchdowns and no interceptions and posted a 105.3 rating for the game. His performance buys him, I would guess, at least two or three more starts. Anything that reduces the calls for Josh McCown or RGIII is very valuable. Kessler might someday play a role on a Browns’ championship team– neither of those shopworn veterans will.

But do I think Kessler’s day was better than Eli Manning’s? Absolutely not. It isn’t even comparable. Manning (32-46 for 406 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs) was worse than Kessler’s; his lower rating (100.2) reflects that. But Manning was throwing against a defense fighting to prevent every completion and every yard– he helped his team win 27-23. The degree of difficulty was immensely higher.

Was Kessler’s better than Alex Smith (19-22 for 224 yards, no TDs or INTs)? Nope– and not because Smith’s 109.1 rating was a bit higher. Smith was playing in a game where the opponent was trying to stop him. Also, after the Chiefs opened up a 26-10 lead over the Raiders, with 9:56 left in the fourth quarter, Smith threw only one more pass– a nine-yard completion on 3rd-&-4.

The context in which points are scored and yards are gained matters as much– if not more– than the points and yards.

Besides, the performance of the defense more than offsets any enthusiasm:

  • It allowed 28 points to a team that had come in averaging 18.4
  • It allowed 407 yards– 7.1 per play.
  • It gave up 137 rushing yards and let the Titans gain 4.4 yards per rush.
  • It had two sacks and two stuffs
  • It forced no fumbles and had only one interception– on a play where Marcus Mariota made a throw across his body, on the run and back against the grain.
  • It had only three quarterback hits and two pass knockdowns

After six games, the Cleveland offense– even though it has been run by two journeymen and a rookie– has only 8 turnovers They’re 14th in the league.

But because Ray Horton’s defense gets virtually no negative plays, the Browns have a turnover +/- of only one. The defense is 20th in turnovers forced.

Let me close with one note about Chris Tabor’s kicking teams:

  • On October 2, in their 27-20 loss to the Houston Texans, Tennessee allowed a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown.
  • On October 9, in their 30-17 win against Miami, Tennessee allowed another punt touchdown runback– this time for 74 yards.

On October 16th, in their 28-26 win against Cleveland, Tennessee punted five times. The Browns gained a total of 6 yards.

After six games, the Browns have 64 yards on punt returns (their longest being 18) and 182 yards on kick returns (the longest being 21). They rank 28th in yardage in both categories. They are 29th in punt return average and 31st in kick return average.

When a team has a young offense, good field position can take a lot of pressure off the team. Tabor’s units– failing to get them past their own 20– are adding to it.


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