Going for 2 down 8? Ron Rivera makes controversial call in Panthers loss

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera once earned the nickname “Riverboat” for his daring coaching decisions.

The nickname has faded over the years, but Rivera’s fascinating decision in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ game against the Green Bay Packers might revive it a bit.

Tableau: The Panthers trailed by 14 points before scoring a touchdown with just under 12 minutes remaining. That made the score, 24-16, Green Bay. Just kick the extra point and turn it back over to your defense, right?

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Wrong.

Rivera called for a two-point play, and it failed. That was almost an afterthought. Twitter was ablaze with a slew of “what the heck?” type of reactions.

The numbers actually say Rivera made the right call, even if the conversion failed. Yes, the analytics community has been more embraced in recent years by the NFL, but even many open-minded fans can’t embrace this one.

In this case, the Panthers couldn’t muster enough for that second TD drive, ultimately losing to the Packers, 24-16. Christian McCaffrey’s fourth-down run came up just short as time expired in a thrilling finish.

And even had they scored, they still would have needed a successful two-point try to make it to overtime. Still, it doesn’t matter when you lose the game, and there are no bonus points awarded for making it to OT and failing to win.

When you consider one crucial number — expected win probability — Rivera made the math-savvy call.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera made a fascinating call against the Green Bay Packers — and ultimately the right one at the time. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera made a fascinating call against the Green Bay Packers — and ultimately the right one at the time. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

What the numbers say about going for 2

Just ask Herm Edwards. You play to win the game, right? Assuming that’s the case, coaches should err on the side of making decisions that give their teams the highest expected win probability — and the later in the game they are, the more crucial those decisions become.

Among others, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has perhaps embraced this as much as any NFL coach. He has been going for two after a touchdown for a few seasons now, and it’s the call that gives his team the best chance to win.

In that post-TD situation the Panthers found themselves in, there are four probabilities of how the game can play out, assuming Carolina’s defense could hold the Packers and the Panthers’ offense can score again:

Convert the two-point attempt on the first TD, then kick the extra point on the second TD — TAKE LEAD

Convert the two-point attempt on the first TD, then miss the extra point — TIE GAME

Fail on the first two-point attempt, but succeed on the second — TIE GAME

Fail on both two-point attempts — TRAIL

For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that extra-point attempts are roughly a 100 percent likelihood and two-point conversions are roughly 50 percent successful. (The numbers are closer to 95 percent and 48 percent, respectively, but stick with us.)

Let’s also assume that overtime games are 50-50 shots to win — although Rivera on the road might actually make it lower, which gives the coach even more credence. Add to the fact that Kyle Allen is going against Aaron Rodgers, and deduction might tell you that the longer those two players are on the field, Rodgers is the better QB and thus will have the higher chance of winning.

Now back to the actual call itself ...

Kicking two extra points on the final two TDs thus would, by our numbers, give the trailing team a 50 percent chance to win the game in overtime. Still with us?

But teams going for two on the first attempt give themselves a much better chance to win in regulation — especially late. The likelihood of scoring three times, kicking only extra points on touchdowns, is extremely remote. But getting that first two-pointer cuts the lead to six; now all they need is a stop, a touchdown and an extra point for a (likely) win.

Missing the first two-point try hurts, sure. But being down eight points keeps it a one-point game. This is where separating the end result from the process is important. People might still have yelped had the Panthers made it, but not as much certainly. The fact that the Panthers failed seemed to get Twitter’s dander up.

The math people, though, will tell you exactly why the two was the right call. Here’s 538.com’s explanation:

If you’re down 8 points after scoring a touchdown (with 10 minutes left), you should go for 2, because the difference between being down 7 points (if you make the extra point) and being down 6 points (if you convert the 2) is greater than the difference between being down 7 points and being down 8 points (if you miss the 2-point conversion). Note that this is backed up by the numbers but should also be apparent intuitively. If you’re down 8 points after scoring a touchdown (with 10 minutes left), you should go for 2, because the difference between being down 7 points (if you make the extra point) and being down 6 points (if you convert the 2) is greater than the difference between being down 7 points and being down 8 points (if you miss the 2-point conversion). Note that this is backed up by the numbers but should also be apparent intuitively.

And here are more data-driven explanations from ESPN and Predictive Football to back it up more. All three studies lead to the same conclusions.

Now back to those odds we mentioned earlier about kicking two XPs giving you a 50 percent shot of winning ...

We won’t go into all the intricate analytical details that these studies conclude but what they prove is that going for two on the first try raises your odds of winning to above the aforementioned 50 percent mark. Anything that gains an edge, even by the slightest bit, should be embraced by coaches in these situations.

We wish they would do it more often.

Football traditionalists might struggle with this

We get it: It goes against everything you’ve seen for years of watching football. It just doesn’t make sense, right?

Well, sometimes the old way isn’t the right way. And in this case, coaches such as Pederson and Rivera are ahead of the game.

Again, and this is crucial: You have to factor in the odds of the decision before the try was attempted. The numbers show a solid advantage toward ultimately winning the game by going for two after being down 14 points prior to the touchdown.

After all, winning is what you want, right?

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