- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

When does the statue of Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden go up outside Raymond James Stadium? Does the Pro Football Hall of Fame waive the five-year rule and offer Gruden immediate induction? How about sainthood?

Words like “gutsy” and “courageous” rained like confetti after Gruden eschewed overtime and went for a successful (at least according to the officials) two-point conversion from the 1-yard line that enabled the Bucs to beat the Redskins 36-35. “Jon Gruden cornered the market on chutzpah,” one scribe wrote.

Gruden did buck the tide of conservatism. NFL coaches embrace risk, and apparent risk, as they do agents, sportswriters and obstreperous wide receivers. But evidence shows the appropriate adjectives instead might include “smart” and “logical” and “correct” because the Bucs had a much better chance of winning by going for two than they did by going to overtime.

“To be honest, it didn’t seem that controversial to me,” said William Krasker, who writes for his statistics-intensive Web site, footballcommentary.com. “It seemed like a very straightforward decision. This one didn’t require a lot of fancy modeling. In general, teams score from the 1-yard line on fourth down more than half the time.”

How much more? Try seven of 11 times when running the ball this year, not counting Mike Alstott’s conversion for the Bucs. But when you go to overtime the odds are 50-50, unless you lose the coin toss, in which case your chances are much worse.

Krasker knows about fancy modeling. A former professor of economics who taught at Harvard Business School, he is among a small coterie of academics and other numbers crunchers who debunk or confirm football’s conventional wisdom through complex statistical analysis and mind-bending formulas. Although not in this case.

“What people have to ask themselves is very simple,” he said. “Do you think Tampa Bay had better than a 50-50 chance to score? If you think so, the conclusion is inescapable.”

Conclusion: Gruden did the right — if not necessarily the bold — thing.

The same was true for Dick Vermeil’s Kansas City Chiefs, who the previous week scored the winning touchdown on fourth down from inside the 1 with five seconds remaining instead of kicking the tying field goal. As with Gruden, Vermeil was cited for bravery under fire even though “that one was simpler,” Krasker said. “They were a foot away.”

But why take some brainy, non-football person’s word for it? Even guys nicknamed “Jaws” are clued in. Monday night on ESPN, former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski noted that teams have successfully scored 67 percent of the time on fourth-and-goal from the 1 over the last four seasons.

“I like those odds a lot better than flipping a coin and maybe losing the game on a coin toss,” he said.

According to Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief and head writer for another stats-heavy Web site, footballoutsiders.com, the odds are even better when teams run instead of pass. From 2002 through 2004, he said, teams scored on fourth down from the 1 at a 74 percent clip when they ran.

Yet what Gruden and Vermeil did still is considered an aberration, mainly because compared to the mind-sets of their peers, it is. Perhaps coaches don’t know the numbers. Or maybe it’s that, fearing fallout from the media and fans if such calls fail, coaches prefer playing it safe — or think they are.

“I always go for the tie first,” ABC broadcaster and former coach John Madden said Monday on ESPN.

Said Schatz: “When you take a chance like this and lose, you’ve drawn attention to this one decision. If you go to overtime, there are numerous plays that can be blamed for the loss. … It’s just a lot easier to go to overtime and hope you get the coin toss. It’s not just the press blaming you, it’s blaming yourself. Coaches play not to lose.”

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