New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton decided to kick one of the most inadvisable field goals of his illustrious career on Sunday and it led to the Saints nearly blowing a 21 point first half lead at home to the struggling Carolina Panthers.
First, let’s set the stage:
New Orleans led Carolina 21 to 0 with 4 minutes and 16 seconds left in the second quarter. The Saints had the ball on the Carolina 35 facing a 4th and 1. The Saints acted like they would go for it before calling timeout and bringing on the field goal team. Will Lutz’s 53 yard field goal was no good and the Saints blew an opportunity to bury the Panthers early on. Carolina pulled to within 14 at halftime and eventually tied the game before Lutz hit a 52 yard field goal to win it.
But let’s look closer at the decision to kick. The New York Times 4th Down bot suggests that the numbers argue for going for it way more often than most NFL coaches actually do. With 4th and 1 from the opponent’s 35, however, both the bot and NFL coaching tendencies agree that going for it is the answer.
The average NFL kicker hits 55 percent of kicks from 53 yards or longer. Throw in a rookie kicker who was 1 of 4 outside 50 yards and an offense that was rolling up 21 to 0 and it’s kind of shocking that the Saints kicked the field goal. The shock is even greater when looking deeper at what NFL coaches in general (and specifically Sean Payton) have done in similar situations.
Since 2006 (Payton’s first year) there have been 348 instances of 4th and 1 from between the opponent’s 30 and 40 in the first 3 quarters of the game. I excluded the 4th quarter to avoid situations where the score (rather than the down and distance itself) is more likely to influence the decision. Teams have gone for it 289 of those 348 instances (81 percent), attempted a field goal just 42 times (12 percent) and punted 17 times (5 percent).
Teams that went for it made a 1st down on 190 of 289 tries (66 percent) and teams that kicked a long field goal made it 31 of 42 times (74 percent).
The Saints have had 8 such plays since the start of 2006 prior to Sunday and had gone for it every time. The Saints picked up a first down four times and failed four times. Expanding the yardage a little more, the Saints have had 14 4th and 1 situations between the opponent’s 20 and 40 yard line in the first 3 quarters of a game. In those situations they had gone for it 12 of 14 times with two John Carney field goals of 38 and 39 yards respectively.
The Saints are 40 of 72 when going for it on 4th and 1 since 2006, a nearly identical success rate as the average NFL kicker has on a 53+ yard kick. Of course the Saints were rolling and have a below average (as of now) rookie kicker who has struggled from deep. Going for it was the only logical choice given the score, the momentum and the shakiness of the kicker. Things worked out in the end, but kicking the field goal was a bad decision.
UPDATE (10:28 AM 10/17/2016): One last point to make — the Saints have faced 1st/2nd/3rd/4th and 1 18 times so far in 2016. They’ve thrown it 8 times in those situations and run it 10 times. The Saints have picked up the yard 17 times with 1 incompletion on 2nd and 1. Going for it should have been a slam dunk.