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Thoughts on the Titans decision to go for two and the play call they used to do it

The Titans late game aggression backfired this time, but was it the right call?

NFL: International Series-Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stats are dangerous things. They can be isolated and taken without context to support false narratives or previously held biases. They can be represented as fact when in reality they only tell a very small portion of the overall story. However, they can also be highly instructive and help clearly define things that our minds struggle to comprehend objectively. It all depends on how you use them.

With regards to two-point conversion attempts the stats certainly tell a story, but as always, context is important too.

What the stats say

First, let’s define what we are looking at from a decision-making standpoint. The Titans were down 1 with 31 seconds left and the Chargers had two timeouts remaining. Regardless of the decision the Titans made, LA was going to get another shot to drive down and attempt a game-winning field goal.

So let’s start with the kickers. Since the extra point was moved back to it’s current position in 2015, Ryan Succop has connected on 94.6% of his extra point attempts, right around league average. The Chargers kicker during this game was rookie Mike Badgley who was kicking in his second NFL game. Badgley was off to a pretty good start though, connecting on all 3 of his career field goal attempts and all 7 extra point tries. However, his longest attempt to this point was a 44-yard field goal that he hit the previous week against Cleveland. For a 44-yard attempt, the Chargers would have had to drive to roughly the Titans 27 yard line, though its certainly possible that he could connect from further out. The average NFL kicker hits from 40-49 yards roughly 75-80% of the time.

Now let’s look at the two-point conversion stats. According to this study from Noah Riley that looked at 506 two-point conversion attempts across the NFL from 2011-2017, teams are converting on about 48.8% of their attempts. The Titans as a franchise, however, have not had a great recent run with conversion attempts. They’ve now failed to convert 7 in a row with their last successful conversion coming in 2015.

They have also passed the ball on all 7 of those failed attempts. Riley’s study also looked at the types of plays and found that teams passed on 78.9% of two-point conversions despite having a success rate of just 44.9% on passes compared to a 63.6% success rate on run plays.

Let’s say that the odds of winning in overtime are roughly even (in reality it depends largely on the coin flip as teams that get the ball first are 9.6% more likely to win), but we also have to factor in ties. Since the NFL shortened it’s overtime period to 10 minutes before the 2017 season, 15.4% of overtime games have ended in ties (small sample size, but it’s all we have to work with). That means that theoretically your odds of winning the game if it goes in to overtime are 42.3%. After you factor in the chances that Ryan Succop misses his extra point attempt, you end up with the odds below if you kick the PAT:

Win: 37.8%

Tie: 14.6%

Lose: 47.6%

That breakdown means that if you’re goal is to win the game — not tie — you’re much better off going for two.

What the context says

There is all sorts of context that can be worked around those raw stats above though. For one, as I mentioned above, this team does not have the greatest history with two-point conversion attempts. However, the 2018 Titans have a different coaching staff, different offensive design, and different personnel compared to those teams of the past. I don’t buy in to the idea that a franchise can be “cursed” when it comes to two-point conversions.

What about momentum? I’ve seen lots of fans and analysts arguing that the Titans should have tried to take it to overtime because they had the momentum. There are stats that suggest momentum could be a factor. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there have been 148 games that went to overtime after a team trailed by at least 10 points heading in to the second half (the Titans only trailed by 4 at halftime, but quickly found themselves down 11 after another long touchdown pass). The team that trailed by double figures won in overtime 56.1% of the time, tied 3.4%, and lost 40.5%. So there could be some argument to be had there, though I tend to discount momentum as a concept in general.

One piece of context that can be argued in favor of going for two is defensive fatigue. The Chargers defense had been on the field for 22 snaps in the 4th quarter, including 13 on the drive that had just ended in the endzone. The Titans had also dominated time of possession during the game, holding the ball for over 35 minutes of game time and running 71 plays compared to just over 24 minutes and 44 plays for the Chargers offense. Keeping that defense on the field for a 14th play with just 2 yards to gain sounds like a pretty appealing idea to me if I’m Mike Vrabel.

There is also an argument to be made that taking the lead would make the Chargers more aggressive with their final drive. With two timeouts and 31 seconds, I don’t think the Chargers are just taking a knee and going to overtime. Philip Rivers is a veteran quarterback who is playing at an extremely high level and it would have been coaching malpractice to put the reigns on him with a chance to go win the game.

Rivers himself is the main reason that I thought going for two was the right call. The Chargers offense has been outstanding all season, and while the Titans defense did a good job late in the game, it’s not as if they were shutting the Chargers down. They had scored on 4 of their 7 drives (not counting the kneel down before the end of the first half) at that point.

Another small piece of context is the condition of the field for kicking. Ryan Succop missed a 51-yard field goal earlier in the game and there were lots of comments from the broadcast crew about how slick the field was. After a full game of wear and tear, the field conditions likely weren’t great which could have increased the odds of a miss from Succop if the Titans did choose to kick it. Maybe that just reduces the chance of making the kick from 94.6% to something like 90%, but when you look at the effect that has on the odds, it just pushes the needle further in the favor of “go for it”.

What the Titans should have done

Taking all of the above in to account, I still believe that the Titans should have gone for two. I like the idea of playing aggressive and think the odds are in your favor trying to score from the 2-yard line against a tired Chargers defense.

The play call on the other hand, I disagree with. I think the stats above pretty clearly favor a run in that situation, and I think that’s especially true when you consider the fatigue factor with the Chargers defense and the fact that the Titans had run for 102 yards in the second half on 16 attempts.

One of the biggest reasons that a pass play is at a disadvantage on two-point conversion attempts played out on the Titans first try. There is no other game scenario where defenses are punished less severely for committing pass interference or defensive holding penalties. If you’re beat or think you might get beat, just grab the guy. Worst thing that can happen is they call it and put the ball on the 1 for another try.

The first play call wasn’t terrible, though again, I think a run would have been better. The holding call appears to actually be on Derwin James (No. 33) — though they announced it as Casey Hayward live — as he grabs Corey Davis and throws him down. Davis is actually setting a pick for Dion Lewis in the flat. Marcus Mariota looks to Lewis first, but Melvin Ingram — who was phenomenal all game — pulls off his rush to take away the clean throw. Mariota would have had to float that ball over the top to Lewis which is a much tougher throw and catch along with giving James the chance to recover and close while the ball is in the air.

Mariota chooses to move on to his second read, but nobody is open. Ingram, again, does a great job of pushing him deep to keep him from getting the angle to the endzone.

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The play call on the second attempt is even more egregious. With the ball moved to the 1 yard line, I have a real hard time understanding why the Titans chose to come out in an empty set and throw the ball, especially when they had opened up a giant hole for Derrick Henry on a 1st and goal from the 1 play early in the game by spreading the Chargers out and running it at them.

Mariota looks right towards Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis first, but chooses to move on to the backside. He had a couple options there. Tajae Sharpe had his man on his back, but a low, outside throw would have given Sharpe a chance to make the play. Taywan Taylor has inside leverage and I understand why Mariota decided to throw there even if he’s probably not the target he would have preferred to go to. He also didn’t have much time to look elsewhere because Corey Liuget beats Corey Levin at left guard and is bearing down on the quarterback. The pass gets tipped by Adrian Phillips who makes a great play and falls incomplete to end the game.

NFL Game Pass

There’s plenty to second guess here, but I think the biggest mistake was the decision not to run the ball. I think my preference would have been to spread the Chargers out with 11 personnel and then run Mariota on a QB Power call towards the tight end with Henry clearing the way as a lead back.

EdjSports — the analytics firm that the Eagles have partnered with to help them with situational calls in recent seasons — ran the simulation in their model and found going for two with a run call would have been the right call.

The EdjSports model clearly favored the 2PAT (rush) by 44.0 percent Game Winning Chance (GWC) to 42.2 percent GWC for the PAT. Historical conversion rates for 2PAT, league wide, are around 47 percent. The Titans break-even 2PAT conversion rate in this situation is about 38 percent, and although we have them as an underdog to succeed, we believe they clear that benchmark and produce about 2 percent more wins on average with their choice to go for the win.

It’s easy to second guess in hindsight, but I think the stats and context point towards the Titans making the right decision to go for two. However, the call to throw the ball, especially on the second attempt was the wrong one. They should have listened to Quinton Spain and run the ball.

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