What analytics say about Lions’ 4th down decisions in NFC Championship Game

The Detroit Lions found themselves with an impossible decision with 7:32 left in the NFC Championship Game. Early excitement and promise was replaced with a nightmarish fever dream, as a combination of skill and luck cracked open the door for the San Fransisco 49ers. They kicked it down in the third quarter, surging into the lead after being down by 17 points at halftime.

Dan Campbell had the biggest decision of his coaching career to make with the ball on the San Francisco 30-yard line and facing a fourth down. In front of him were two bad decisions. Campbell could either pray that his offensive players, who had failed to execute for much of the fourth quarter, would somehow pull it together on the most critical down of the game — or he could send out kicker Michael Badgley, a player whom he didn’t particular trust, and had only been on the active roster for a little more than a month.

Campbell decided to dance with the date that brought him, trusting his best players to pull the Lions through, and it failed. Jared Goff was under pressure and forced to attempt a deep pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown, which fell out of reach, giving the ball back to San Francisco. The 49ers scored on their ensuring drive and sealed the game.

Normally in these situations, there’s a clear right and wrong path, an obviously correct decision which is either executed on or ignored, but the Lions’ 4th-down decision is one of the rare occasions where it was truly a coin toss in the greatest sense of the word.

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The Fourth Down Decision Calculator shows an extremely marginal edge to go for it, with a less than 1% difference in the decision to kick the field goal or not. A success rate of 40% is far from a gimme, but those a pretty solid odds.

Now, where this model gets interesting is that the Lions had a better chance to win the game on a missed field goal than a success. The presumption here is that a miss would have altered how the 49ers played on offense following the kick, with the assumption being they’d play conservative football — which could have led to either a punt or a field goal, allowing the Lions a chance to drive for a win on a touchdown.

Another model shows that the decision to go for it was so narrow that it was only a 0.3% difference in decision making on the 4th down attempt.

So when you have essentially a tie in the analytics we need to move to the subjective, and it’s here where we can debate the decision to go for it on 4th by Campbell.

The argument in going for it

The scoreboard is bad, but at this point there are only two plays that have really turned this game: Brandon Aiyuk’s 51-yard gain on a pass that should have been intercepted, and Jahmyr Gibbs fumbling the football.

This has been a five play, 45 yard drive. Jameson Williams caught one for 22, David Montgomery rushed for 16, and St. Brown caught a pass for 7. Only needing three yards seems like it’s attainable.

Calling on the field goal team could be incredibly damaging to morale at a time players need to have belief. You’ve been an aggressive 4th down team all season, so going to the kicker now is an indictment of your trust in the players who got you to this moment.

We also need to factor in that the kicker, Michael Badgley has history with the Lions. He’s been on the practice squad all year, he wasn’t put on the main roster until mid-December, and he’s only a career 77 percent kicker on attempt between 40-49 yards. It’s not like you have an automatic guy to send out there.

If you convert you can eat clock and potentially score a touchdown. If that happens you can call on the kicker later to win you the game.

The argument for the field goal

As a coach you have to stop the bleeding. This confidence-filled offense is clearly rattled and they’re making uncharacteristic mistakes. Already this half you’ve seen Josh Reynolds make two critical drops, Sam LaPorta uncharacteristically put it on the turf, and Jahmyr Gibbs has fumbled.

Something has to happen to alleviate the pressure, and the best way to achieve that is to get the score tied, treat this like a new ballgame, and re-rally the team back around the moment to focus their attention.

If you make the field goal you stop the momentum. At the very least you put the pressure back on the 49ers to think about a drive where all things are equal. A miss isn’t great, but you can use it to ignite your defense by flipping the attempt into a positive, saying you believe in them to get a key stop — and you’re only down by three points.

On the road and with this much pressure you take what the game gives you. In this case it’s three points and a tie game. From there anything is possible.

So, what was the right call for Dan Campbell?

There’s no definitive answer. The entire situation sucked from a coaching perspective. The arguments calling to go for it, or take the points are each equally compelling — with the analytics and anecdotal backing both of these up.

All we know for sure is that if the field goal was successful, and everything played out as it did, we would have had an overtime game where anything was possible. Instead the 49ers are left to celebrate their Super Bowl berth, and the Lions pondering what the hell went wrong.

Football is fickle like that.

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