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Review: San Diego Chargers on 4th down against the Denver Broncos

Jason Peters evaluates Mike McCoy's 4th down decisions in the Chargers impressive win against the Denver Broncos.

Justin Edmonds

Well that game was a lot of fun, wasn't it? There were quite the variety of 4th down decisions for Mike McCoy to make, so let's say a look at them, with help from the New York Time 4th Down Bot and the Advanced NFL Statistics 4th Down Calculator.

Chargers 0, Broncos 7 - 5:20 left in 1st quarter - 4th and 11 at DEN 20

NYT 4th Down Bot Says: Kick the field goal

Mike McCoy's Decision: Kick the field goal

Gaining 11 yards with only 20 yards of field to work with is a bit much to ask, kicking the field goal is clearly the correct decision here.

Chargers 10, Broncos 10 - 6:36 left in 2nd quarter - 4th and 14 at SD 41

NYT 4th Down Bot Says: Punt the ball

Mike McCoy's Decision: Punt the ball

The Chargers again faced a 4th and long, and punting was a good call here.

Chargers 24, Broncos 10 - 8:28 left in 3rd quarter - 4th and 4 at SD 7

4th Down Calculator Says: Punt the ball

Mike McCoy's Decision: Punt the ball

The NYT 4th Down Bot did not evaluate this decision as the Broncos lined up in the neutral zone and gave the Chargers a free first down.

The expected point difference between punting and going for it are not that different. This deep in your own territory, however, the consequences of going for it and failing are catastrophic. For that reason, I'm all right with McCoy's decision to punt here, and the 4th Down Calculator agrees.

Chargers 24, Broncos 10 - 1:40 left in 3rd quarter - 4th and 13 at 50

NYT 4th Down Bot Says: Punt the ball

Mike McCoy's Decision: Punt the ball

Later in the same drive (yes the Chargers went on an 8 minute non-scoring drive), the Chargers faced 4th and long at midfield. This again isn't a terribly difficult decision, and punting is absolutely the correct choice when you need 13 yards for the 1st down.

Chargers 24, Broncos 17 - 5:57 left in 4th quarter - 4th and 3 at DEN 37

NYT 4th Down Bot Says: Punt the ball

Mike McCoy's Decision: Punt the ball

When this play was happening in real time, half of the Bolts from the Blue staff, including myself, exploded on Twitter saying this was a terrible decision. And despite the NYT 4th Down Bot agreeing with punting, it could very well still have been a bad decision. Keep in mind that we did not know Manning would throw an interception on the next possession, we have to go based on the information available.

As I've mentioned before, the 4th down calculator uses two measures to evaluate whether or not to go for it on 4th down. The one generally used is expected points, as maximizing points is of utmost importance for most of the game. Sometimes, though, it is best to used the other measure, expected win percentage for each option. When it is late in the game, the NYT 4th Down Bot uses win percentage, as that is truly what you want to maximize late in the game.

Interesting fact about this decision is that the two measures absolutely disagree with each other on this decision. Going by win percentage, a team is expected to win 91% of the time when punting, 90% of the time going for it, and 85% of the time attempting a field goal. By expected points, punting averages 0.11 points, going for it 1.19 points, and a field goal 0.23 points. By one measure punting is the best decision, by the other it is absolutely the worst.

These numbers are averages in a vacuum, and don't necessarily account for specific situations. For instance, a field goal's chances and expectation are improved by the fact that the game is being played in Denver. The numbers also assume an average, normal offense, which Denver is anything but, despite the Chargers defense playing out of their minds last night. I personally still think going for it is the better decision, but after evaluating the numbers, I'm not entirely going to blast Mike McCoy for making the decision he did.

Chargers 24, Broncos 17 - 2:31 left in 4th quarter - 4th and 4 at DEN 17

NYT 4th Down Bot Says: Kick the field goal

Mike McCoy's decision: Kick the field goal

There is no question here, going up two scores is absolutely the right call here.

Final Take

The 4th down tools we have agree with all of Mike McCoy's decisions in this game. Most were clear cut with one that is ambiguous enough that I'm now having a hard time arguing too hard about it.

There is one other factor that favors Mike McCoy's decisions to punt so often this season: Mike Scifres. The Chargers punter has been playing incredibly this season. He has punted 50 times, 27 have landed inside the 20 with only one touchback. Returns haven't been much of a problem in that category, as his punts have allowed the 4th fewest return yards in the NFL among players with at least 30 punts.