It’s been nearly 48 hours since Broncos head coach Vance Joseph made what might have been this season’s worst coaching decision (non–Nathan Peterman, Starting Quarterback Division). But now there’s math to let us know just how brutal Joseph’s play-call actually was.
To review: Trailing 17-13 with 4:39 remaining Saturday night, the Broncos faced a fourth and 1 from the Browns’ 6-yard line. Instead of going for it—even after back-to-back runs by running back Phillip Lindsay picked up just two combined yards—Joseph elected to kick a field goal. Which meant that, rather than try to get one yard just six yards from the end zone, Joseph chose to put his team in a position of having to make a stop and score again in a low-scoring game. Which is some ancient-ass thinking.
Here’s Joseph explaining himself:
“I trust our defense to get a stop there,” Joseph said, adding that he had one timeout remaining plus the two-minute warning, when in fact he had two. But going for it would have given the Broncos their best chance to win, according to the analytics folks at EdjSports, who calculated that the field goal put the Broncos’ game-winning chance (GWC) at 26.7 percent. Going for it would have given Denver a GWC of 59.8 percent. How big a difference is that?
As EdjSports explained on its blog (emphasis mine):
The offense only needed 1 yard to set up a first-and-goal. If successful, it allowed them the opportunity to run more clock with multiple opportunities at scoring a go-ahead touchdown. Importantly, a successful conversion followed by a touchdown provides the Broncos a path to winning that doesn’t require an additional possession. The safe option hopes, or perhaps assumes, that the Browns don’t score again, which is no certainty. A failed fourth down conversion also has residual value in terms of field position and the possibility of regaining possession via safety. All of these factors contribute to the magnitude of this error; an error which takes its place as the worst play call error on record.
EdjSports’ data only goes back to 2011, but their point couldn’t be clearer. Joseph’s thinking might have seemed sound in an earlier era, but it’s downright prehistoric in the modern NFL, where data analysis is increasingly influencing all sorts of on-field decisions.
The Broncos did eventually get the ball back, but only 1:49 remained and they had to start at their own 13. They got to midfield before turning the ball over on downs, ending the game. Denver had won three in a row and appeared to be back in the playoff hunt before losing last week at the 49ers; Saturday night’s loss coupled with the Titans’ win against the Giants on Sunday officially eliminated the Broncos from postseason contention. Decisions like these are what get coaches fired, and considering today’s report from Woody Paige about how GM John Elway wanted to bring Mike Shanahan out of mothballs to replace Joseph after last season, it doesn’t sound like Elway has a solid plan for the future of the franchise.