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Lessons For Rick Neuheisel From The Super Bowl: Play To Win

I am sure many of you have written numerous articles in last two days about Sean Payton's gutsy calls in Sunday's Super Bowl. I imagine yours truly is not the only one who was thinking about our Bruins (and Kai Forbath) when Payton decided to go for it on fourth and 1 from the goal line from time running out in the second half. I thought it's worth revisiting some moments of that game and think about how it applies to our team heading into next season.

Payton of course went for it and he made three other aggressive calls (encompassing the offense, specials teams and his defense) that enabled his Saints to pull the upset. On the other end of the spectrum, Colts coaching staff at times appeared downright Donahuesque in their approach to not lose the game. I imagine Coach Rick Neuheisel was watching the game, and I really hope he takes the lesson about how it pays off to be aggressive not just in the recruiting arena, but all on the field.

So going back to Sean Payton, Brian Burke from the New York Times did a statistical analysis of Payton's "gutsy calls." Here was his look at that fourth and 1:

The 4th and 1

According to the expected points model, it's clear that a team should go for it on 4th down and goal from anywhere inside the 6. But with time running out in the 2nd quarter, it might be better to turn to Win Probability (WP). With just under 2 minutes to go and a 4th and goal on the 1, the WP analysis agrees with the go-for-it call. FGs are successful 99% of the time from there, and over all, a decision to kick gives the Saints a 0.32 WP (trailing by 10-6). A successful TD ties the game, giving the Saints a 0.48 WP. A failed attempt gives the Colts a 1st down at their own 1 with 1:55 to play in the half, giving the Saints a 0.26 WP. It was certainly a high-stakes play.

On the goal line, 4th and 1s are converted 68% of the time. This makes the overall decision to go for it worth:

0.68 * 0.48 + (1-0.68) * 0.26 = 0.41 WP

Going for the TD was clearly the better call, 0.41 vs. 0.32 WP. If you don't buy the 68% success rate, the break-even rate, where going for it yields an equal WP as trying the FG, would be 42%. In other words, as long as Payton believed his offense had a better than a 42% chance of getting the TD, he should go for it.

In fact, this is a great example of why going for it is often worth more than many people, including most N.F.L. coaches, believe. Pinning the Colts at their 1 is not such a bad thing. The Saints were able to get the stop and get the FG before halftime anyway. There's no guarantee that would happen, but combined with the possibility of a TD, it tilts the scales in favor of being aggressive.

The post also looks into Payton's decision to go for the onside kick and the two point conversion. I just want to focus on the 4th and 1 for now because it reminded me of four specific situations from this past season.

The first moment that sticks out to me was the one against Oregon at the Rose Bowl. We had a first down and goal in first quarter and an opportunity to take total control of the game in the first half. Remember that was the game in which Kevin Prince was just coming back from his injury and was noticeably out of sync. So the Bruins called two straight rushing play for no gain, and then inexplicably had Kevin Prince (who was just coming back from an injury) try to sneak in two straight downs.  So, statistically Rick Neuheisel made the right decision, but the calls for Prince to sneak just didn't make any sense. We made the right decision to go for it but if could have made a little more imaginative calls, we had a chance to go up at half time 10-0 with a completely different complexion to that game. It was a big opportunity lost.

The second moment that sticks out to me was the one against Oregon State. In that game we were down by a score of 16-0 after a very frustrating first half, in which we were being very sloppy with the ball. So to start the second half we drove down the field to their 14 yard line. Once again we called three straight rushing plays to get the ball to their 2 yard line and ended up with a 4th and 2. This time Neuheisel decided to kick it and take the easy points. I am not sure if we can characterize that decision as timid. Seems like it was the safe call to make and at least get points on the court. However, in the back of mind, I guess my instincts has always been to just ball out and go for it. If we had found a way to get 7 points in that situation, who knows the score would have been different.

The third moment came against the Trogans. The Bruins were down 0-7 in the second quarter. ATV had just picked off Barkley and the Bruins subsequently put a little drive to end up with a 4th and 1 on Southern Cal's 40 yard line. This time CRN elected to punt. I guess his calculation at the time was that our running game was not going anywhere and our receivers were not showing a lot of confidence to make big catches. Still he played it safe.

The fourt moment that sticks out to me was the one against Temple. This time the Bruins were down by a score of 10-21 in early 3rd quarter and were facing a 4th and 1 on the Owls 32 yard line. Bruins went for it as Prince Rolled out and completed a beautifully designed short pass to Austin, who housed it. It was perfect. Bruins grabbed momentum of the game from there on and never really gave it up.

So out of those four instances Neuheisel made the call to go for it twice. A well designed call paid for him against Temple. On other two occasions he decided to kick it and play it safe (ended up losing both of those games). Of course there are other factors in play such as availability of talent. We had a first year QB this past season, who was getting accustomed to playing after being out of the game for two seasons behind an entirely rebuilt OL. Our running game wasn't all that hot as our best runner had fumble issues, our dependable one wasn't explosive, and our most athletic one didn't have a command of the playbook.

Despite our personnel issues, we went for it on 4th down 15 times and converted on 8 of those opportunities (53.33%).  That is a better conversion rate than Carroll's Trogans, who went for it 17 times, converting on 7 (41.18%). I bring up Carroll because he is perceived to be the most aggressive one in this situation. The most he went for it on 4th was during the zenith of Norm Chow era in 2005, when they went for it 30 times and converted on 18 (60%). Yeah, it helps when you have a QB who is kept eligible by taking ball room dancing classes and a superstar QB, whose family is (allegedly) put up in million dollar home.

Now going back Sean Payton's decision to go on 4th, it told me couple of things. He was sending a clear and unmistakable message to his team that he was in it to win it. On the other side, he was also showing a lot of respect to Payton Manning (who deserves it) by realizing he had to get all the points he could to stay in the game. Still Payton's aggressiveness I am sure set the tone for the entire team.

Meanwhile, the Colts were being passive and it was really apparent in the way they just packed it in towards the end of the first half. The conservative play calling at the end of first half (even though they have one of the best QBs in the history of the game), enabled the Saints to stuff them and pick up another 3 and momentum to end the first half. Didn't work out too well for them.

Of course the playing to win mindset didn't just pay off on offense, it was the basis of the defining play on defense. I had to chuckle when Phil Simms was imploring the Saints not to blitz when Manning was putting on his drive towards the end of the fourth quarter. It was of course a blitz, that led to that game clinching pick-6, and it was that aggressive mindset that has paid off for the Saints defense all season long.

Why am I writing all this? One of the main reasons I was so excited about Rick Neuheisel in Westwood was because I thought his arrival would finally be the death knell of Donahue football in UCLA. Now given the personnel issues from last two years, I understand why at times Neuheisel has had to play it safe (not to mention how an aggressive call by having Prince roll out against Tennessee really backfired on all of us). However, I am hoping that this coming season, the influx of talent from last couple of seasons, will finally enable him to let loose a bit, and play on the aggressive percentages and play to win.

So at least on paper and according to data, it appears that it always pays off to be aggressive at certain times. Sean Payton proved it pretty emphatically on the field.Of course it sure helps that Payton has one of the best QBs in the game at his disposal so he has the luxury to be ultra aggressive.  What we can hope is that the continued upgrade of talent and the experience from this season for players like Kevin Prince and our rebuilt OL, will enable Neuheisel to take more chances next season.

We are not expecting Neuheisel to go out and win every game or even end up in the Rose Bowl. However, I think if we are going to take that next step - a winning record in the Pac-10 - coach will have to roll the dice a little more to win it on the field.