Jim Harbaugh 49ersWith the struggles of David Akers this season, I had hoped Jim Harbaugh  would elect to go for more first downs, rather than settle for field goals.

To see if this has happened, I decided to go back and look at what the 49ers’ 4th downs this season. I then evaluated whether these were good choices using the 4th down calculator tool from Advanced NFL Stats.

The calculator measures whether the punt/field goal was worth more in either expected points in the first half (I figured it was more important to just try to score points) or in added win probability in the second half.

Game
Good Punts
Bad Punts
Good FG
Bad FG
Good Go For 1st
Bad Go For 1st
1
3
1
1
2
0
0
2
0
3
1
2
0
0
3
1
2
0
3
1
0
4
3
1
1
2
1
0
5
2
0
0
1
1
0
6
4
0
1
2
2
0
7
3
2
2
0
0
0
8
4
1
0
1
0
0
9
4
2
2
0
2
0
10
1
3
2
1
0
0
11
2
2
2
1
0
0
12
4
2
3
0
0
0
13
2
2
1
1
1
0
14
4
1
2
1
1
1
15
2
1
2
1
0
0
16
4
1
4
0
2
0
Total
43
24
24
18
11
1

 

I was pretty surprised by the number of “bad punt” calls from Harbaugh. In all, 36% of punt decisions were considered bad strategy. I remembered a few of these calls that made me scratch my head, but after going back and looking at things, I was surprised at the number of punts that were called when there was less than five yards to go and the 49ers had the ball within their own 40 yard line in.

There were several times in the game against the Lions where Harbaugh elected to punt from the Lions’ side of midfield. In doing so, Harbaugh eschewed the high potential of a 4th-and-short conversion and chose a net gain of around 30 yards of  field position. The other thing I noticed is the 49ers allow long sacks on 3rd downs, which essentially pushes them back into 4th-and-impossible situations.

Field goals present a similar story. I did not look at the actual result of the field goal, just how it affected the expected points or expected winning percentage. The analysis assumes an average kicker, which Akers has not been. And so, we can further assume that electing for field goals in certain situations was not the optimal choice.

Nearly half of the 49ers’ field goal tries were non-optimal. The biggest driver of this was kicking a medium to long field goal with just one or two yards to go for a first down and kicking short field goals inside the opponents 10-yard line. Given how badly Akers performed this season, some of these choices look even worse.

When Harbaugh did elect to go for it on 4th down, it was often in the correct times. The one time Harbaugh wrongly attempted to convert on fourth down was the fake punt against the Patriots. This scenario could be the exception, as it was a trick play designed to catch the opponent by surprise.

Overall, Harbaugh did well when he decided to go for it, but looking at the other numbers, I just wish that he bucked conventional wisdom and actually went with the true high percentage play that would give the team a better chance of winning games. In the playoffs against teams that will match up with 49ers talent wise, little things like optimal strategy could be the key to winning games. With the 49ers looking for new kickers to try to solve that problem, I hope that Harbaugh will lean less on his special teams and play for the first down when the numbers and situation are in his favor.