The 2016 NFL season was officially launched with a Super Bowl rematch on Thursday night. Once again Denver prevailed, but this time it was a much tighter affair. The game will be remembered for the final field goal attempt of Graham Gano that hooked left. While he was certainly a favorite to secure the win on his 50-yard attempt, the average NFL kicker only succeeds from this distance about 69% of the time. In the eyes of the Carolina faithful, Gano will shoulder much of the blame for the loss. However his miss is simply the naturally occurring risk of a long and late field goal attempt. A failure that occurs nearly 1/3 of the time by NFL kickers. In addition to the late game drama, there were a couple of particularly interesting decisions by both teams that merit further analysis and greater scrutiny.
After Denver tied the score on Andy Janovich’s 28-yard TD run in the 2nd quarter, there was an offside call on Carolina during the successful PAT. Denver quickly declined the opportunity to attempt a two point conversion (now from the one yard line) and instead chose to use the additional 5 yards on the ensuing kickoff. While Denver forced Carolina into a poor starting position on the kick, on average the kick from the 40 has very little incremental value – especially at altitude where touchbacks occur at a high rate. A simulation with the Edj model shows the two-point conversion attempt from the one yard line to be the proper choice resulting in a small but significant gain of 0.5% game-winning chances (“GWC”).
The biggest blunder of the game occurred late in the 4th quarter when Carolina chose to kick a field goal from the Denver 18 yard line with 4:21 remaining with a 4th and 5 and trailing 21-17. We have seen this variety of error many times in the past as teams will routinely take the “guaranteed” points and hope they can get the ball back. This choice was no exception and it cost the Panthers a whopping 9% GWC. As we pointed out earlier, Gano still had a nearly 1/3 chance of missing the field goal after everything went favorable for the Panthers up to that point (they made the 36 yard field goal to get within one point, they stopped the Broncos on the subsequent possession, they got the ball back and made it into field goal range for the winning kick). This parlay of necessary occurrences helps to illustrate why the 4th and 5 attempt is so necessary in this situation and so costly to ignore.