Numbers say Panthers should have gone for it

jjones@charlotteobserver.comOctober 2, 2012 

Ron Rivera has gone for a first down on fourth-and-short six times in his 20-game career as head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

He’s been successful five of the six times.

But he had never faced a situation like he did Sunday against the Falcons.

The Panthers led Atlanta 28-27 with the ball at Atlanta’s 45 and 1:44 to play. They punted to the Atlanta 1, but the Falcons managed to drive for a field goal and a 30-28 victory.

ESPN Stats and Information found the odds of the Panthers winning Sunday’s game were higher (83.5 percent) had they gone for it on fourth-and-1 rather than punting (which ESPN said dropped the odds to 57.4 percent). ESPN Stats uses 10 years of NFL play-by-play data to estimate how likely it is that either team will win at any point in the game based on historical results in similar game situations.

Rivera stands by his decision to punt. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski also said there’s more involved than odds with making a decision like the one Carolina faced.

“I think (the call) just depends on the game, defensively the things that they do in those types of situations,” Chudzinski said. “Our health, our situation from that standpoint, what’s been working. To say exactly what it is every single time, I don’t know if you want to do that as a coach.”

Carolina converted all five of its fourth-down attempts within two yards last season, but none was in the final minutes of a tight game. Two came in the closing minute of games that were already out of reach for the Panthers, one came in the first quarter when they were at the edge of Olindo Mare’s field goal range and the final two occurred in the second half of a Tampa Bay game in which Carolina won by 32.

The lone failed attempt came earlier this season against the New Orleans Saints, when Cam Newton fumbled an option toss to Mike Tolbert in the second quarter near the goal line.

Only once in Rivera’s head coaching career has a fourth-and-short occurred between the 40s in the final 2 minutes. In the final minute of Week 16 against Tampa Bay last year, with the Panthers leading 48-16, fullback Richie Brockel ran for 3 yards from the Carolina 43 for a first down and eventual kneel down.

Falcons opponents have succeeded 22 of 33 times (66.7 percent) on fourth-and-short in four years under coach Mike Smith — 14 out of 19 times on rushes (73.7 percent), 7 for 13 (53.8 percent) on pass attempts and one on a penalty.

Opponents have gone 5 for 9 against Atlanta on fourth-and-short between the 40s, converting three times on rushes, once on a pass and once on a defensive holding penalty.

But of those nine attempts, only three occurred in the fourth quarter – and Atlanta stopped its opponent each time.

“My decision would have been the same,” Rivera said Monday. “I would have done exactly what we did.”

It was, however, the first time in Rivera’s head coaching career he opted to punt on fourth-and-short from midfield or closer. All of Carolina’s punts on fourth-and-short under Rivera have been from their own side of the field.

Rivera said Monday he woke up, evaluated the decision and would have made the same call to punt. He said a fourth-and-short play a few years back — presumably the 2009 Patriots-Colts regular season game — played through his mind, when Tom Brady’s pass fell incomplete and Indianapolis melted the clock before kicking the game-winning field goal."

“I really did think about that at the time, too,” Rivera said. “My decision would have been the same. I would have done exactly what we did.”

“...The ball’s on the 1,” Rivera said. “That’s about as good as it gets.”

The stats support Rivera there. According to Elias Sports Bureau, cited by ESPN, only three other teams in the past 20 seasons had a game-winning drive starting inside their 5 with fewer than 2 minutes to play.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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