Robert Saleh made the right fourth-down decision
The New York Jets opened the 2022 calendar with a 28-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, blowing a 24-10 lead. The game’s pivotal moment occurred late in the fourth quarter off of a crucial decision by head coach Robert Saleh.
Facing 4th & 2 at Tampa Bay’s 7-yard line with 2:17 to go in regulation while nursing a 4-point lead (with Tampa Bay having no timeouts), Saleh elected to keep the offense on the field rather than attempt a field goal and take a likely 7-point lead.
What followed resulted in the scratching of many heads across the New York area. In a baffling play-call, quarterback Zach Wilson kept the ball for a sneak up the middle and came nowhere close to the first down.
Saleh would explain after the game that Wilson had the option to either sneak or hand the ball off to Braxton Berrios on an end-around, but that the coaching staff did a poor job of communicating to him that Berrios was the primary option and the sneak was more of a secondary option. Saleh says Wilson executed the play as he should have, placing the blame on himself and the staff.
After the failed fourth down play, Tom Brady would take the ball with 2:12 to go in the quarter and march the Buccaneers 93 yards down the field for the go-ahead touchdown with 15 seconds on the clock, tossing a 33-yard score to Cyril Grayson courtesy of a misplay in coverage by young Jets safety Elijah Riley.
Of course, whenever these fourth-down decisions go wrong, the coach receives a ton of heat for it, as Saleh is right now.
However, when you break down the logic behind Saleh’s decision to keep the offense out there, it becomes obvious that going for it was the right call – or at the very worst a perfectly reasonable one.
The process and the results must be judged separately, and Saleh’s process here was good. Yes, the execution of the play that followed was a complete mess. But we cannot retroactively say Saleh made a bad decision just because the execution that followed was bad. These are two different things. At the moment of his decision, Saleh chose the option that gave the Jets a better chance to win.
Anyway, let’s get into it. Evaluating the risk and the reward for Saleh’s two different options (going for it and kicking the field goal), here’s why going for it was the right move.
How to evaluate fourth-down decisions
When making these fourth-down decisions, you’re evaluating the risk-reward of each choice. What do I gain for converting and what are the odds of converting? What do I lose if I do not convert?
In this scenario, the higher-risk, higher-reward decision was the more prudent one considering the enormous magnitude of the potential reward, the fairly high likelihood of earning that reward, and the low risk that comes with failing to convert.
To begin, let’s evaluate the reward that Saleh is shooting for.
The potential reward and the chance of earning it
Saleh is betting that his offense can gain two yards to win the game right then and there. If the Jets convert, the game is over since Tampa Bay is out of timeouts. Simple as that. Get two yards and get a victory.
That’s an extremely positive reward to shoot for.
Of course, it has to be considered that shooting for the higher reward comes with a greater risk. Making a field goal gives the Jets a substantially worse reward than converting a fourth down, but it would also be a substantially easier play to make, as a 20-yard field goal is a near-guarantee.
So what were the Jets’ chances of converting that 4th & 2 play for the ultimate reward of ending the game and never letting Tom Brady have another chance to touch the ball?
There have been 116 plays run in the NFL this year on 4th & 2 (pass and run plays, excluding kneeldowns). Teams picked up the first down on 67 of those – a 57.8% conversion rate.
Those odds are pretty darn good for such a massive reward.
That’s the baseline, league-average number these decisions are based upon. But not all situations in football are created equal. Coaches cannot just operate off of the league average rates, because most situations are not “league average”. They have to use their gut and take the flow of the game into account – how is your team playing against that opponent on this day at this moment?
On this day, the Jets’ offense was rolling. The unit finished with its third-most first downs (22) and fourth-most yards (374) of the season. At the point of Saleh’s decision, the offense was on a 68-yard drive that spanned over five minutes and featured four first-down pickups.
Operating off of that baseline conversion rate of about 58% with the knowledge that his offense is thriving, Saleh should have all the confidence in the world that his offense can match or even beat that conversion rate.
Knowing the league average for that situation and considering how well the Jets were playing, we can confidently assume that the offense had an approximately 60% chance of converting that play (for the sake of making all of this easier to follow, I’m just rounding it up a couple of points from 58% to give us a cleaner, rounder number).
Taking a 60% stab at ending the game is a gamble worth taking – especially when you consider the relatively minimal risk that came along with it.
We’ve gone over the potential reward and the Jets’ odds of getting that reward. Now we have to consider the risk factor. What are the Jets gambling by potentially failing to convert versus just taking the three points?
The Jets were certainly taking a risk, but that risk was not large enough to cancel out the value of the potential reward and the odds of converting that reward.
Saleh knew the risk of attempting the fourth-down conversion was that his defense would have to prevent the Bucs from mustering a 93-yard touchdown drive in two minutes and 12 seconds with no timeouts. Even with Tom Brady, that is an extremely difficult thing for an offense to accomplish, and something that should be fairly easy for any defense to stop.
This season, only 16% of all drives in the NFL that started inside the offense’s 10-yard line resulted in a touchdown. Tom Brady’s Buccaneers had only scored on five of those 21 drives (23.8%) since he joined the team in 2020 (prior to this game’s drive).
The Jets actually gained field position for their defense by attempting the fourth down instead of kicking a field goal. If they kicked a field goal, Tampa Bay’s ensuing drive would probably start somewhere around the 25-yard line off of a kickoff. Instead, the Bucs had to start at their own 7-yard line.
Since 2012, NFL teams have scored a touchdown on 42.9% of drives when starting at their own 25-yard line and trailing by four to eight points (touchdown required to tie or take lead) with between 4:00 and 2:01 remaining in regulation. Comparatively, teams have scored a touchdown only 26.9% of the time in the same situation when starting inside of their own 10-yard line. That’s a 16.0% difference in touchdown probability.
The Jets would have to prevent Brady from scoring a touchdown regardless of if they kicked a field goal or failed on fourth down. Trying the fourth down put them in a better position to stop Brady in the event that they failed than kicking a field goal would.
Of course, the primary argument in favor of kicking the field goal was what would happen in the worst-case scenario.
By going for it, the Jets risked losing in the event that the Bucs scored a touchdown, as with a four-point lead, a touchdown would put Tampa Bay ahead. Obviously, that’s what happened.
By kicking a field goal, the Jets would take a 7-point lead and presumably go to overtime at worst – it’s hard to imagine the Bucs going for two to win the game in regulation instead of going to overtime against a team they are much better than.
But it would take so many failures for the Jets to get to the point where that worst-case scenario happened.
First, the Jets would have to fail on the approximately 60% fourth-down opportunity.
Then, the Jets would have to allow a 93-yard touchdown drive in just over two minutes with the opponent having no timeouts.
Considering all of the numbers we looked at above – the 16% TD rate inside the 10 this year, the 27% TD rate when needing a TD with 2-4 minutes left in regulation and starting inside the 10 since 2012, and Brady’s 24% TD rate with Tampa Bay on inside-the-10 drives – the odds of the Buccaneers scoring were probably around 20%.
That might even be kind. None of the filters I listed accounted for timeouts remaining, so we can probably assume that each rate would be a few ticks lower when the team had no timeouts.
ESPN’s win probability metric agrees. According to ESPN’s win probability calculator, the Buccaneers had about an 11% chance of winning when they took over possession of the football after the Jets’ failed fourth-down play.
Okay, so, yes, the field goal eliminates the chance of the Jets losing in regulation while the fourth-down try leaves that possibility open. But to get there, the Jets would have to botch an approximate 60% shot at a fourth-down play and then botch an approximate 89% shot at a game-winning defensive stand. In a vacuum, the odds of both things occurring are 4.4%.
Using some of the numbers we’ve analyzed so far, here’s a very basic outline of the numbers that may have been in the back of Robert Saleh’s head when making his decision:
- Convert fourth down, win game: 60%
- Fail fourth down, prevent 93-yard drive, win game: 36% (Based on Jets’ 89% shot of winning after missing on fourth down according to ESPN’s win probability calculator)
- Fail fourth down, allow 93-yard TD drive, lose game: 4% (Based on Bucs’ 11% shot of winning after Jets’ fourth down failure according to ESPN’s win probability calculator)
Let’s say the Jets kicked the field goal. Here is a basic outline of how the numbers may have looked if the Jets made that decision:
- Stop Buccaneers, win game: 75% (I’m making a ballpark estimate that the Bucs’ odds of scoring a TD would be around 25% based on league average 43% rate from own 25-yard line between 4:00 and 2:01 since 2012 while trailing by 4-8 points, then adjusting that number downward based on Bucs’ lack of time and timeouts. The 18% drop between this estimate and the league average in the aforementioned situation since 2012 is about the same as the 16% drop between the league average in that same situation from the 10-yard line – 27% – and ESPN’s win probability estimate for the Bucs in this particular situation vs. Jets – 11% – so 25% seems like a reasonable estimate for the Bucs’ TD chances if the Jets kicked off and put them at the 25-yard line)
- Jets allow TD but go to overtime and win game: 12.5% (Out of the 25% shot they go to overtime, let’s guess that the Jets have a 50-50 shot of winning)
- Jets allow TD but go to overtime and lose game: 12.5%
I’m just estimating with these numbers the best I can based on the data that I can find (this is far from the exact process that goes into determining these win probability metrics), but they paint the picture of what leads to go-for-it decisions being made. Don’t take my numbers as gospel – they’re just my best attempt at painting the probabilities that made this a good choice by Saleh.
It took a lot of mistakes for the Jets’ failed fourth-down play to prove costly. The Jets took a very small risk they would eventually lose the game prior to overtime (thanks to the great spot the defense would be left in if they offense failed) in exchange for the strong chance that they could end the game immediately and never give Tom Brady a chance to touch the football again. That made sense. What happened afterward was highly unlikely and required an embarrassing chain of failures by New York.
All it takes is young safety Elijah Riley not making one dumb gamble to make a play on the football and the Jets hang on. Tampa Bay was on the ropes, quickly running out of time while still over 30 yards away from a score.
While the alternative path of kicking the field goal was safer, it has to be considered that:
- The Bucs would have a much greater chance of scoring a touchdown considering the 20-or-so free yards of field position they would get off of a kickoff compared to the 7-yard line
- If the Bucs scored and tied the game, the overtime period would favor Tampa Bay greatly due to the talent disparity and Tampa Bay’s momentum entering the period
If the Jets kicked a field goal and then allowed a touchdown, then yes, they would go to overtime instead of the worst-case scenario of losing if they took the alternative path.
However, the odds of the Jets beating the Bucs in overtime would not be very good. You’d have an 11-4 team on a 17-3 scoring run against a 4-11 team that lost its starting left tackle and starting running back mid-game. That’s not a “safe” position to be in.
The Jets played above their heads for 58 minutes and had a chance to make all of that count before the Bucs finally got their act together and started out-playing the Jets as you would expect them to. Saleh took that chance. It didn’t work, but it was the right thing to do.
I gave the Jets a 50-50 shot of winning in overtime as a part of my odds calculation above, but that was probably a little generous. A 60-40 edge in the Bucs’ favor would probably make sense considering the talent disparity and momentum.
And yet, even though I gave the Jets a 50-50 shot at winning in overtime, kicking the field goal still gave the Jets worse odds of winning in my comparison above in relation to going for it.
Why is that? It’s because by kicking the field goal, the Jets would be guaranteeing the Bucs a decent chance to tie the game and force a toss-up overtime period.
The key factor is the improved field position off a kickoff versus off a failed fourth-down play from the 7-yard line. That difference – likely nearly 20 yards – gives the Buccaneers a much greater chance of scoring a touchdown. With that field position disparity in mind, it was wiser for the Jets to use their unique opportunity to immediately end the game considering the minimal risk that came with that gamble thanks to the field position margin.
In my win probability estimation outlines above – which, again, are complete guesses based on the best information I could find to display guidelines to all of the probabilities in play here – I gave the Jets about a 4% chance of losing by going for it compared to about a 12.5% chance of losing by kicking a field goal. That 8.5% disparity is not far off from the calculation made by EdjSports’ model, which calculated that the Jets increased their odds of winning by 11% with their decision to go for it instead of kicking.
Gutsy call by Robert Saleh!
Although it wasn't successful, our model gave the #Jets 11% greater chance to win vs. kicking the field goal.
A conversion ices the game.
— EdjSports (@edjsports) January 2, 2022
As easily as the Bucs scored from their own 7-yard line, they probably would have had no problem scoring from their own 25-yard line (or wherever in that vicinity they ended up off a kickoff). Following that, they likely would have cruised in overtime.
Saleh had the game in the palm of his hands and took a worthy risk to seal the victory before the more talented team could take control. While the offense failed miserably to convert, the Jets were still in a great position to win afterward. The execution that followed on the defensive side was about as bad as it possibly could have been, leading to the tiny chance of failure coming to fruition.
If the Bucs were in the Jets’ shoes, I could see the argument for kicking the field goal. You expect your championship defense to hold against a rookie quarterback, and in the event you go to overtime, you expect to have a greater than 50% chance of defeating a far inferior team over a 10-minute period.
But as a gargantuan underdog, you have to understand how lucky you are to have control of the game and take full advantage. Regardless of how well you’ve played thus far, you are likely going to be outplayed by your opponent over the rest of the game, because they’re flat-out better than you.
It makes much more sense for an underdog team to force the game to come down to one play rather than rely on its inferior roster to win a whole defensive drive and then win a potential overtime period in the event they fail. The more plays you force your team to win against a superior opponent, the more likely your team is going to get outperformed when it’s all said and done – but on one 4th & 2 play, any NFL team can come out on top.
A lesson in separating process and results
When it comes to coaches’ game management decisions, we have to separate the process from the results. First, judge the process – the weighing of risk and reward that occurs prior to the execution of the play. Here, the process was good.
Then we can judge the result by focusing on the execution of the process. Here, the execution was bad, thus the bad result.
The process and the result are separate things and must be evaluated separately. Don’t just retroactively knock the process because the results were bad. Knock the execution if the results are bad. It’s possible to make a good decision that leads to a bad result, and vice versa. Both things happen in real life all the time, and they can happen in football, too.
Judge the thought process behind the decision and the ensuing execution separately. In this case, we have a very good decision followed by very bad execution (both by the offense and the defense).