Former Kansas City offensive coordinator Doug Pederson is receiving a ton of flack in NFL circles for his passive approach to the end of Saturday’s Divisional Round contest at New England.
Down a pair of touchdowns, Kansas City, with Pederson calling plays, methodically moved the ball down the field midway through the fourth quarter, eventually scoring with less than two minutes remaining. Throughout the drive, the Chiefs took their time.
“It took us time because No. 1, we did not want to give [Patriots QB] Tom Brady the ball back,’’ said Pederson.
The Chiefs preferred strategy, it appears, was to score a touchdown, recover an onside kick, and score the equalizer. This was preferred over an earlier touchdown and a traditional kickoff.
In the aftermath of Kansas City’s loss, Pederson’s comment has been ridiculed as the worst answer ever, as well as senseless. That was my instinct, too, until an old friend asked me to look up some data.
Using Armchair Analysis‘ play-by-play, I looked for every game in which the Patriots possessed the ball with between 2:00 and 4:00 minutes left, while holding a 6 to 8 point lead. This roughly reflects Pederson’s alternative – kicking the ball back to the Patriots, while still needing a touchdown to extend the game.
Of the 31 games since 2000 that meet this criterion, New England’s won 29 of them (94%). The lone losses came against Seattle and Indianapolis, both road games for New England, and in both contests the lead was 6 points. Indeed, of the 25 games when New England’s held the ball with a 7 or 8 point lead and 2:00-4:00 minutes left, the Patriots haven’t lost a single one of them.
Given these numbers, perhaps Pederson’s explanation makes some sense. Onside kicks boast about a 20% recovery rate when the opponent is expecting it, according to Brian Burke’s research. Relative to how rare it is for the Patriots to surrender a lead, that 1 in 5 shot may have been Kansas City’s best chance after all.
Postscript 1: Obviously the Chiefs could’ve attempted an onside kick with an earlier score. But even if they did (and that’s a big if), their win probability with an onside kick a minute earlier is probably not all that different from their win probability with an onside kick with a minute and twenty seconds left.
Postscript 2: Kansas City should have gone for two after the first score. See more from Ben here.