Defending Jim Zorn's Fourth Down Calls
I don't want to get all footbally here, but let me have one brief go at the question of going for those fourth-quarter fourth downs. Here's the key point about what Jim Zorn did: It worked. His choice paid off.
What's that, you say? You believe, like Thomas Boswell, that Zorn's choice actually failed? Here was Boz:
Silence, full of the unspoken anxiety of his players, greeted Zorn as he walked into the locker room after his gamble on fourth and one at the Rams 2-yard line with two minutes to play had failed, but his defense had bailed him out on his failed gamble.
Respectfully disagree. The choice to go for a fourth down like that isn't measured by whether or not you gain the yard, it's measured by whether or not you win the game.
[A commenter correctly notes that it's actually measured by whether it was the right choice. That's true, my fault. I should have said the successful outcome we care about is the final score, not the result of that play. Regardless, the larger point is that if Zorn chose a course with a 97 percent chance of success and it failed, he still chose wisely.]
If you go for it and fail, you know that the Rams--having struggled to move the ball much of the day--will take over in the shadow of their own end zone, with no timeouts, against a solid defense. Which they did, and as it turned out, they wouldn't gain another yard. If you take the field goal, the Rams will still be getting the ball back, so in the HE FAILED!!!!! world, Zorn still needs to be "bailed out" by his defense.
If the success of going for it on those fourth downs is only measured by whether or not you convert, it would almost automatically fail at a stupendous rate. But that isn't the point. The point is, if you convert, the game is 100 percent over. If you don't, you're still in great shape, with the Rams pinned deep. If you kick the field goal, you haven't come close to clinching a win, and while the Rams will need a touchdown, they'll almost certainly start off with far better field position.
I loved the call on Sunday, and I love it now. That was the swashbuckling Zorn who was chucking the ball while preserving leads last year. The failed play has obscured that fact, but like I said, the decision ended up paying off.
Anyhow, I'm sure you've by now read the Advanced NFL Stats post that clearly shows Zorn made the mathematically correct decision. If you haven't, you should. See also: Gregg Easterbrook, a longtime proponent of going for it, whose celebration of a bunch of going-for-it attempts this week was illustrated with a huge photo of Jim Zorn .
"Why this sudden burst of manhood?" TMQ asked. "Maybe the statistical arguments in favor of going for it on fourth down are finally catching on."
Since I was curious about the same thing, I asked Jim Zorn whether he was familiar with the statistical arguments in favor of going for it.
"I've read those articles," he said. "Yet I always calculate it based on what were we doing when we got down there, and sort of the attitude and the flow and the momentum, and what's on the other side. So the first one, 4th-and-2, when Clinton was gonna go, that was the play. And even on the 4th-and-1, I thought it was the right play, in that area, at that time. But I called timeout, because you've got to think about it. Unless you know for sure, you've got to make sure. There was a touchy situation there as far as scoring, touchdown, field goal, first down, keep the clock running. There's a lot of issues there, on that situation, so I just took timeout and thought about it, talked about it, and went with it."
So he didn't try to do a quick version of the Advanced NFL Stats calculation in his head?
"No, no," he said, "I didn't have a calculator up in the press box, no."
I'll tell you what he did have up in the press box, though; offensive assistant Chris Meidt, a math major, devotee of using statistics to make coaching decisions, and all-around rational man. I'm not sure how familiar he is with the math on fourth-down conversion, but I'm positive he's read all the right things. My colleague Barry Svrluga asked him about last week's decisions.
"People will say, 'Well, a touchdown's harder to get than a field goal.' Our thinking at that time was, 'One foot,' " Meidt told Barry. "We gain one foot and the game is over. So we have a chance to end the game by gaining one foot. That was really more what it was about....
"In terms of the numbers, yeah, you can go up by five, [and] a touchdown's harder to get than a field goal. We get stopped, yeah, now they only have to get to the 40. They have to go 60 yards to get a field goal to beat us. But we felt like [with] the risk-reward--gaining one foot to end the game--the risk was worth it."
Completely and totally agree. Also, let me repeat this one more time: the Redskins will win this weekend, and I don't think it'll be close.
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