With 1:40 left to play in Thursday night's game between the Panthers and Bears, Carolina faced fourth and 10 at the Chicago 41. Down 16-13, Panthers coach Frank Reich opted to attempt a 59-yard field goal in lieu of going for the first down.
The kick didn't make it to the crossbar. Eddy Piñeiro's reaction was perfect; he gave a shrug that conveyed, "Yeah, it was short. What the hell did you expect?"
So why the hell did Panthers coach Frank Reich do it?
"It was a tough decision, you know?" Reich told reporters after the game. "And, honestly, as far as percentages, I felt like the percentages — I listened to the analytics guys, talked to coach [Taves] — you know, there was mixed opinions about what we should do. That's my call. I've seen us make 60-yarders in practice. Felt like there was a little bit of a breeze at our back. If you just look at the pure percentages, I think the pure-percentage play is to kick it. A fourth-and-10 conversion is probably 30-percent conversion, and a 60-yard field goal is higher than that."
That might sound a little ludicrous, at first blush. However, MDS informs me that, since 2013, 26 field goals have been attempted from exactly 59 yards. Twelve of them (more than 45 percent) have been good. One happened at Soldier Field, courtesy of Matt Prater.
Alas, however, it didn't work out last night.
"Do I second-guess myself over it?" Reich said. "I mean, yeah, after we missed it, yeah, I did. You know what I mean? Because the one reason why maybe you go for it there, even though the percentage play is to kick it, if you're just going pure percentages is to kick it, is because if we make it we still have a chance to win the game and not just tie. There was still time left. It's not like there was 20 seconds to go."
He's also overlooking the fact that, if the kick had been good, the Bears would have had 1:35 and three timeouts to get in field goal range for a game winner. A first down by Carolina would have milked more of the clock, resulting in a closer field goal with less time left or maybe a game-winning touchdown, also with less time.
That's why it's important when considering analytics to look beyond the narrow question of relative percentage chance of success in the specific moment, as to the choice between going or it and kicking. The broader (and more important) consideration comes from the percentage chances of winning by kicking it and making it, going for it and making it, going for it and not making it, and/or kicking it and not making it.
Then there's perhaps the most important factor, which cannot be quantified. At a time when many are saying the Panthers picked the wrong quarterback, Bryce Young leading the Panthers to a late win would have done wonders for his confidence, and his reputation. It was his prime-time debut. Who knows what a last-minute win in that moment would have done for him?
Basically, if Young and the Panthers hadn't made it, big deal. If they had made it, big deal indeed. Potentially.
That's why the real world is, for many reasons, the water's edge for analytics. It's good to know the numbers. Ultimately, the coach has to make a decision that takes into consideration various layers and levels of factors, from the outcome of a given play to the outcome of a given game to the arc of the career of a quarterback who is facing relentless pressure to justify the investment the team has made to get him.