# Statistical estimates on the fly: The Sean Payton saga

Sean Payton has been an NFL head coach for 18 years, and a football coach for 37.

Yesterday he made a really bizarre decision at the end of the Denver-Pittsburgh game.

Denver kicked a field goal with 1:54 to go to make the score 13-6 Pittsburgh. Denver had one time out remaining. At this point Payton elected to kick the ball off through the end zone rather than try an onside kick. If you do the math, this meant that the reasonable best case scenario for Denver was that they would stop Pittsburgh from getting a first down after three running plays, and get the ball back after a punt deep in their own territory with about ten seconds left and no time outs. This is in fact what happened. Since the odds of scoring a game-tying TD in this situation are almost zero, the question that naturally arose after the game is why Payton didn’t try an onside kick.

The answer he gave, essentially, was that per his math Pittsburgh would have to punt with 26 seconds to go, so Denver would have two or three plays to get into position for a hail Mary attempt. His math was too optimistic — Pittsburgh punted with 18 seconds left and the punt play itself took nine seconds — but even if it were correct, needing to go 80 yards in 17 seconds and no time outs rather than the nine seconds they had would still be a practically impossible situation.

Now the dumbest part of all this is that the downside of a failed onside kick in this situation is trivial. If the kick fails, Pittsburgh gets the ball around the 50 rather than on their own 30 after the kick through the end zone. If Pittsburgh makes a first down in either situation the game is over so that’s irrelevant. But what’s the downside of Pittsburgh punting from the Denver 44 instead of, as they did, from the Pittsburgh 36? This is a 20-yard difference, but, because the end zone serves as a constraint on punters since a punt that goes into the end zone comes out to the 20, the real difference in field position as a practical matter is probably more like ten yards, with the likely outcome being Denver getting the ball on its own 20 rather than its own ten. So Payton passed up a chance to get the ball back at midfield with nearly two minutes and a time out left — a very manageable situation if you need a TD — for a realistic best case scenario that would have required something tantamount to a miracle to result in a TD.

On top of all this, in his remarks after the game Payton did what coaches so often do in this situation, which is to simply assume that the defense is going to get the stop and the offense will get the ball back.

Note that all of this happened immediately after the two minute warning, so he and his staff didn’t have to make snap decision: they had three minutes of beer and ED commercials to figure out this statistical puzzle. So how did he screw it up so badly?

I think the main factors here are:

(1) When choosing between a course of action that creates a very slim chance of winning — onside kicks are rarely recovered — and one that creates a much slimmer chance, coaches tend to treat the decision in an irrational way, because what’s the difference between a one in 50 chance of winning and a one in 200? The answer is that the correct course of action increases your odds of winning by 300%, but when the baseline is low enough it’s like it doesn’t even matter. Now this is very likely true in this one particular instance, but it’s very much NOT true in the long run, when making many similar decisions over time.

(2) This brings us to the second thing that I believe is going on, which is that coaches have a strong and strongly irrational preference for *delaying the arrival of certain defeat for as long as possible,* even at the cost of greatly reducing the odds of actually winning. This factor doesn’t even really make sense here, as a failed onside kick barely reduces Denver’s odds of winning relative to kicking deep, but it does describe Payton’s mentality throughout this game, including the decision to kick a field goal while down 13-0 with ten minutes to go, and even more so the decision to punt on fourth and eight from the Denver 33 while down by ten with seven and half minutes to go. Such decisions are* both* more likely to cause the moment of certain defeat to arrive later than it would arrive otherwise, *and* seriously suboptimal in terms of increasing the chances of actually winning the game.

A third factor in such decisions is that coaches would prefer defeat while pursuing the conventional course of action to defeat while doing something unconventional, since the latter makes them prone to heavier criticism, even if the criticism is wrong. Until quite recently, for example, it was considered standard operating procedure to punt on fourth and eight from your own 33 while down ten with seven and a half minutes to go, even though, statistically speaking, that’s a terrible decision. (Only in the last few years have coaches begun to realize this). For example, neither of the announcers during the TV broadcast of the Denver game even raised the possibility that maybe Denver ought to have gone for the first down in that situation, so reflexive does the tendency to punt on fourth down remain, even in situations where it makes no sense.

On the other hand, the decision to kick deep rather than try an onside kick was so nonsensical that even the conventional wisdom found it inexplicable, which is why Payton, who Denver traded a first round draft choice to New Orleans in order to be able to sign him to a $19 million per year contract, is getting rightly roasted for it.

Anyway, I find it fascinating that somebody who gets paid $19 million per year to make these decisions, and has been making them for decades, could still get them so wrong. But that’s why Galbraith’s critique of the conventional wisdom — a phrase he coined in The Affluent Society (1958) — remains so relevant, in a lot of areas beyond football coaching strategy.