LaFleur on Failed Fourth Down: Combo of Analytics, Feel

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield early in the fourth quarter on Sunday night’s game at New Orleans got rave reviews from the analytics community.

Never mind the fact LaFleur’s roll of the dice backfired and could have cost the Green Bay Packers the game.

With about 13 minutes remaining in the game and the scored tied at 27, LaFleur kept his offense on the field on fourth-and-1 from his 48. It was a logical enough decision considering the shootout nature of the game. However, Aaron Jones was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. That put the Saints merely one first down away from a potential go-ahead field goal.

EdjSports.com hailed LaFleur’s decision as the best decision made by a coach during Week 3.

“I know what the analytics say,” LaFleur said with a smile on Monday. “There’s times, and I give our guys a bunch of grief all the time, you know, they’ll tell you to go for it when you’re on your own 11-yard line if it’s fourth-and-1. I think for me, it’s much more feel, and if you feel like you have a good play and kind of the flow of the game.”

The risk-reward was huge in both directions. Convert the fourth down, and the Packers are close to field-goal range. Fail the convert, and the Saints are close to field-goal range. LaFleur based his decision on a combination of analytics and how his offense had been moving the ball.

“I felt like we were doing some good stuff up front, and we thought we had a play that could potentially pick up the first down,” LaFleur continued. “And, unfortunately for us, there were a couple mistakes and we weren’t able to convert. So, you’ve got to give credit to New Orleans for coming through in that situation. But I do have a lot of faith in our players and if we’re in that situation again, you’re probably going to see us go for it.”

What did the analytics say?

“An average NFL team is expected to convert a midfield fourth-and-1 around 70 percent of the time,” EdjSports analyst Ian O’Connor said, his data supported by EdjSports’ proprietary simulation model, which is based on 20-plus years of NFL play-by-play data along with customizations for each team’s relative strengths and weaknesses.

“In this scenario, the EdjSports Power Rankings (EPIs) have Green Bay’s rush offense No. 1 and their pass offense No. 6, while New Orleans’ rush defense is third and their pass defense is eight, so we’d expect Green Bay to convert this and retain possession more often than not.

“Green Bay’s Game-Winning Chance (GWC), or win probability, was increased from 40.6 percent to 50.0 percent by going for it vs. punting. A successful conversion would have raised their GWC to 56.8 percent. However, after failing to convert, their GWC decreased to 32.2 percent. It was the right decision, wrong result.”

Indeed, the result was almost disastrous, with the analytics saying the Saints were now big favorites to win. They took over at Green Bay’s 48 with a chance to take command of the game. After all, their last four drives had produced two touchdowns and two field goals. Each of them moved the ball more than the 48 yards the Saints needed to cross the goal line on this drive.

However, Za’Darius Smith’s forced fumble and recovery saved the day. Green Bay turned the takeaway into a field goal. Next, a three-and-out forced by Green Bay’s defense turned into the clinching touchdown.

“It’s always only a couple plays here or there that can alter the outcome of the game,” LaFleur said.

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