It’s time to play some Monday Morning Quarterback (actually more like Monday Morning Head Coach) and breakdown that gut wrenching loss that the 49ers suffered.
I don’t want to say that Jim Harbaugh blew the win for the 49ers because well he didn’t play one snap but I will say that he made a questionable decision that if it had played out differently might have meant a different ball game.
The decision that I am talking about of course is the penalty that occurred on the David Akers 57 yard field goal.
Harbaugh faced the choice of the 3 points from the already made field goal or taking the ball first and 10 at the Dallas 22 yard line.
In the end he chose to have the penalty enforced on the kickoff and Akers boomed an easy touchback.
The question however is, was this the right choice?
I am fairly certain that it was not the correct choice even if that goes against the old football truism “never take points off the board.”
First let’s breakdown the expected values of the different situations.
We already know that the field goal was good, so that is 3 for sure points but then kicking the ball off with a near certainty of a touchback means that Dallas would get the ball at the 20 yard line which has an expected value of around -0.5 points. So the total expected value of enforcing the penalty on the kick was 2.5 points.
Now let’s look at the expected value of taking the penalty and moving the ball to first and 10 at the Dallas 22. That according to the research that I have done and the research published at Advanced NFL stats has an expected value of a little over 4 points.
At this point the expect value favors taking the penalty and keeping the ball but this is a context neutral statistic so let’s take a deeper look at what else was going on at this point in the game.
The clock was at 11:12 remaining in the game, so there was still a lot of time left in the game and even with an injured Tony Romo the 49ers defense had given up quite a bit of yardage to the Cowboys. I can’t say that I was comfortable giving Dallas the ball back with over 11 minutes to play and just a 10 point lead.
At the very least the 49ers could have run the ball straight into the line three times eaten up another two plus minutes and had a chance at a 35 yard field goal which has a fairly high success rate putting the team in nearly the same situation but with 9 minutes to play and not 11.
This decision while I think wrong wasn’t a horrible back breaker; the odds still heavily favored the 49ers at the time with a win probability of around 90 percent. I think that this does show that Harbaugh like oh so many NFL coaches before him is very conservative and risk averse, playing not to win but to try to not lose.
Maybe things will change as he gets “his guys” in place but with the rather conservative play calling and taking the safe route in his decisions (perfect example in the first quarter, 4th down and a short 2 from the 49 he takes a delay of game and punts for a touch back. Come on Harbaugh challenge your team to win at home and do this sort of thing on the road. Again the expected points favors going for it.) some of my optimism for the new coach is gone.