Fantasy Football: Frank Reich’s Fourth Down Decision Was Correct

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I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I read far more about poker than all of my college textbooks when I was getting my degree. School was easy but poker had so many layers to it that I found it fascinating, especially tournament poker. Factors such as your chip stack relative to another player’s, chip stack relative to the blinds and antes, the type of player you’re in a hand with, tournament structure, and table position can often be far more important than the actual cards that are in your hand. If you’ve watched much poker, you’ve probably seen a player act without even looking at their cards. Sometimes the timing of the hand and the situation is more important than the actual cards involved in the hand.

Without getting into a David Sklansky-like dissertation on tournament poker, there are circumstances where going all in with an inferior hand makes sense. It’s not that you know you have the greatest chance to win the hand, in fact, you may actually know you are a significant underdog to win the hand. The reason you often need to play an inferior hand is that it gives you the greatest opportunity to advance in the tournament.

Maybe I’m giving Frank Reich and the Colts more credit than they deserve, but I think going for it on fourth down in overtime was more about winning the tournament (making the playoffs) than actually winning the hand (game). A lot of people are picking up on the “I go for it 10 out of 10 times,” sound bite, but he went on to say “We were talking about a couple different scenarios.” They weren’t talking plays, they were talking win-loss-tie scenarios.

Keep in mind Frank Reich is coming from Philadelphia, which is an organization whose use of analytics played heavily into the player personnel and on-field decisions that created a Super Bowl team. Philadelphia has people on staff that communicate directly with Doug Pederson throughout the game to help with decision making in critical spots. I highly recommend reading this article about how analytics and ‘situational odds’ are used during the game (if situational odds doesn’t sound a lot like tournament poker, then I don’t know what does).

I’m certain Indianapolis is employing analytics in a similar fashion. It’s not that Reich or coaches like Pederson and ‘Riverboat Ron’ Rivera are just blindly more aggressive. They just know that over a long enough time frame, certain ‘risky’ calls have a higher expected value for their teams than ‘safe’ calls. A few risky calls that go right can propel a team into the playoffs, but sometimes the aggressive play ends in a colossal failure like we saw this Sunday. It’s just the nature of risk/reward.

Some coaches are unwilling to make aggressive calls despite what the odds dictate for fear of losing the game or getting fired.  The irony is, risk-averse poker players (coaches and organizations) are almost always fish and losers in the long run. Let’s remove all the “feelings” and all the other narratives that are being used and take a look at this from the analytical approach.

Game Situation

Indianapolis mounted a huge come back just to get to overtime with Houston. The game is tied at 34 with 27 seconds left in overtime. Indianapolis had just gained a massive chunk of yards on 3rd and long but were still 4 yards short on fourth down on their own 43-yard line. At this point, Indianapolis has a 22.49% chance of winning while Houston has a 28.08% chance according to Numberfire’s in-game statistical model. There’s still about a 50% chance of the game ending in a tie. Most people and articles are screaming that the smart decision was to punt.

We know the result, but what does the math say? We’re very accustomed to very conservative play calling in the NFL. Believe it or not, the down, distance, and field location put this right at the borderline for punting or going for it in regular game situations. This is where you have to consider factors like your QB, your offense, your defense, and the opponent among other things that we’ll talk about later.

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The probabilities change depending on the punt play, but this game almost certainly ends in a tie game with a punt. Indianapolis would have almost no chance of winning the game unless Houston fumbled the punt or turned it over on offense. A punt likely locks you into a tie.

Go For It

There are a number of things that could happen, but we know what did happen. Obviously, Indianapolis failed to convert on fourth down. Their win percentage went down to 14.04% while Houston’s shot up to 65.55% following the unsuccessful fourth down attempt. Notice that even though they didn’t make it, there was still a 20% chance the game would end in a tie. That can’t be stressed enough. Reich made a decision that resulted in a loss, but the aggressive play gave his team a chance to win and there was still a good chance the game would end in a tie.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s all this talk about what it means to give your team a chance to win the game, but there’s actual math to support it. Over half of all NFL plays go for more than 4 yards. Reich and company probably gave themselves roughly a 50% chance at a successful play given the matchup between the two teams. Had they converted on the fourth down their win percentage would have likely popped up into the 30% range depending on how many yards they had gained and how much time was on the clock. We’ll obviously never know if they would have gotten 5 yards or 20 yards, but we know converting would have all but guaranteed a tie and given them a decent chance to win.

I’d guess Indianapolis was looking at a 50/50 situation or close to it with all of the information we have. It’s easy to say Reich’s decision cost them the game, but it was probably close to a coin flip for optimal game strategy. There’s another huge factor that should have weighed into this that no one is talking about: the playoffs.

Playoff Picture

It seems really early in the season to talk playoffs, but it’s not. Before Reich went for it on fourth down, division rivals Jacksonville and Tennessee had won and improved to 3-1. I was asked if I thought Indianapolis knew Tennessee and Jacksonville had won. If the Indianapolis organization didn’t know about the playoff picture in real time and that didn’t factor into their decision to go for it, they have a long ways to go. Let’s take a look at the three-game scenarios and what each meant for Indianapolis’ playoff chances.

A Loss

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Bad news Colts fans, you’re hurting for the playoff picture with the loss. There’s no sugarcoating it. Playoff odds change depending on how it’s calculated, but FiveThirtyEight puts Indianapolis at a 6% chance to make the playoffs with that loss. Indianapolis had to know they would be massive underdogs to make the playoffs if they failed to convert on fourth down. “See I told you. Now they’re almost out of playoff contention. They should have just punted and gone for the tie.” What if they had tied?

A Tie

There are currently three teams that own a 1-2-1 record. Pittsburgh and Cleveland happen to be in a division with two other teams that are 3-1 similar to the AFC South. Pittsburgh’s playoff chances currently sit at 29% and Cleveland only has a 4.3% chance.

A tie puts Indianapolis’s playoff odds right around 15%. That’s about 1-in-6 odds to make the playoffs even with a tie. It doesn’t sound bad, but how many coaches and GMs can last with one playoff appearance every 6 years?

It’s also important to note that there was still a 20% chance the game would end in a tie even after Indianapolis failed to convert on fourth. Reich’s decision didn’t make them lose. It just so happened that the worst case scenario occurred and Houston was able to move the ball into field goal range and won the game.

A Win

A win puts Indianapolis at 2-2. As good and playoff relevant as Pittsburgh still is, there are only two teams with 2-2 records that have worse playoff chances and they are Tampa Bay at 26% and Denver at 16%. Think about that. Right now Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh have roughly the same chances to make the playoffs.

You could probably guess that Philadelphia, New England and the Los Angeles Chargers at 2-2 have better odds to make the playoffs than Pittsburgh, but Dallas (38%) and Seattle (44%) are also well ahead. If Indianapolis had won and improved to 2-2, we could assume their playoff chances would have ended up around 35%. Going for it on fourth down gave them an opportunity to double their playoff chances had they gone for a tie.

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Here’s the big takeaway: a loss was the absolute worst case scenario. Indianapolis’s playoff chances went from about 25% after Week 3 down to 6%. A tie wouldn’t have been much better though. Indianapolis goes from a 25% chance to make the playoffs after Week 3 down to around 15%. Although Indianapolis’ playoff chances dropped by almost 20% by losing, their chances would have still dropped by 10% by playing it “safe” and going for the tie. Even with a tie, they would have been long shots to make the playoffs at around 1 in 6.

A win to improve to 2-2 historically increases a teams playoff odds by 21.5%. Reich’s “coin flip” optimal game strategy gave his team a chance to go from a playoff long shot with a tie to a team that had a desperate, but respectable 1-in-3 chance. You might look stupid, but sometimes you just have to go all in.

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