The Green Bay Packers fell to the Seattle Seahawks in overtime, 28-22, in the NFC Championship Game. While this matchup offered many compelling story lines ‒ Russell Wilson’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, the Packers’ conservative play-calling, a fake punt, and an onside kick recovery ‒ one of the decisive moments remains one of the most puzzling: Why did Burnett go down?
In a decision that will forever infuriate Packers fans, after making a key interception of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett chose to slide almost immediately after the turnover despite having lots of space in front of him to run. At least enough to put Green Bay close to field goal range. Or to give his team better field position:
But he slid. And it makes no sense.
According to post-game interviews, Burnett made his decision after seeing fellow defensive co-captain Julius Peppers flash the stop sign at him. It appears that Burnett and his fellow defensive teammates were coached to slide, reflecting the generally conservative coaching philosophy espoused by the Packers.
Presumably, Burnett wanted to avoid a fumble that would give renewed life to the Seahawks. Leaving it to likely NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense to burn clock is not a bad plan. Was the risk-reward calculation correct, though?
According to Pro-Football-Reference’s Play Index, there were 450 interceptions in the 2014 NFL regular season. Defenders attempted to return 326 of those 450 interceptions and a mere eight of those returns resulted in fumbles. That’s a 2.5% fumble rate – and only half of the eight were recovered by the team throwing the interception in the first place.
For that 1.2% chance of losing the ball, therefore, Burnett gave up what could have been a huge potential gain. It was an example of the risk aversion that often permeates NFL thinking. Burnett’s slide was by no means the sole reason the Packers lost the NFC Championship Game – but it was among the accretion of overly conservative decisions that together brought down the Packers.
Ryan’s Patriot Games
By comparison, New England appears to have a more aggressive approach to advancing the ball after a turnover – but in a specific way. While the Patriots were less likely to run back interceptions in general (returning only eight of their 16 picks), they were the only team to attempt a lateral following any of the league’s 450 interceptions in 2014.
In fact, the Patriots did it twice: Jamie Collins turned the trick against the Jets following a Geno Smith pick, and, shown below, so did Logan Ryan against Detroit following a Matthew Stafford interception:
It’s worth mentioning that Collins also lateraled the ball to Alfonzo Dennard following a fumble recovery in a game against Cincinnati. Though officials ultimately ruled that play a forward fumble rather than a lateral, observers noted the play.
The fact that only the Patriots were willing to try lateraling after a turnover suggests New England’s coaches may have a different risk-reward calculation toward what other NFL coaches would consider a particularly risky or ill-advised move. Neither Ryan nor Collins appear to have faced any disciplinary consequences – such as being benched for a series – for trying to lateral the ball. That both players continued to play as usual suggests the Patriots staff sanctioned their attempts, and perhaps encouraged them outright. The statistics bear out the Patriots’ calculus: the Wall Street Journal, using the Expected Points Added statistic from Advanced Football Analytics, calculated that lateraling after a turnover is historically worth 0.92 points.
Bill Belichick has long shown a willingness to base in-game management and other coaching decisions on data rather than conventional wisdom, which is likely to be fraught with risk aversion. For example, his willingness to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking (Belichick famously read David Romer’s study on the subject). Coaching players to use laterals to advance the ball on turnovers – a case of following the numbers even when one’s gut and conventional football wisdom says no – fits the Belichick M.O. to a T. And it is those data-driven decisions that help explain in part why Bill Belichick is on to Arizona, while Mike McCarthy is on to next season.
Follow Daryl on Twitter @singaporesoxfan.
Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.