Week 1 Mike Munchak Strategy Analysis

It's been kind of forgotten what with how the rest of the game proceeded, but Mike Munchak briefly drew some plaudits for his decision to go for it on fourth down on the opening drive. That a good call, but it wasn't Munchak's only fourth down decision on Sunday. Here's a look at that one plus Munchak's other calls.

The situation: With 10:37 to play in the first quarter, Chris Johnson was stopped on third down to set up fourth-and-one at the Patriots 37.
The decision: Mike Munchak elected to go for it.
The result: Converted on a 24 yard pass from Jake Locker to Nate Washington.
The aftermath: The Titans got down to the 10 and kicked a field goal.
The analysis: The decision to go for it should be virtually automatic here. Advanced NFL Stats' 4th Down Calculator puts the break-even point at between 34 and 38%. Even with a very accurate distance kicker like Rob Bironas, a field goal is not a good option. Based on leaguewide -and-1 conversion rates, you'd have to make the field goal 86% of the time for it to be as good an option. Bironas is good, but not that good. 

Beyond that call, Munchak's decision that has received the most scrutiny came later in the game.

The situation: With 9:20 to play in the game, Matt Hasselbeck threw incomplete for Jared Cook in the end zone, and the Titans faced fourth-and-goal from the Patriots 6 down 28-10.
The decision: Needing three scores, Mike Munchak elected to kick the field goal.
The result: Rob Bironas hit from 24 yards out.
The aftermath: The Patriots took the ensuing kickoff down the field and kicked a field goal to re-establish their 18 point lead.
The analysis: Regardless of the decision Munchak makes here, the Titans were overwhelmingly likely to lose this game-the Win Probability model gives them a 6% even if they go for it and score a touchdown. Then again, that's a lot better than kicking a field goal for a 2% chance. The 4th Down Calculator puts the break-even point for going for it between 19 and 32%, with the Win Probability model rate the lower one. Leaguewide conversion rates for that distance are higher than both those numbers-the models put it at 36%, which seems reasonable to me. Kicking the field goal didn't work out and wasn't the best call, but this was not a major error.

Beyond those two prominent decisions, there was one that's fallen under the radar but drew my ire from my couch on Sunday.

The situation: Midway through the second quarter, Chris Johnson was tackled a yard short of the sticks to set up fourth-and-one at the Titans 38 with the Patriots already leading 14-3.
The decision: Munchak punted.
The aftermath: The Patriots took the ball 67 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown to extend their lead to 21-3.
The analysis: The key to this calculation is that it was and-1 to go for a first down. Leaguewide, it's easy to pick up one yard when all you need is one yard. The models put it at 74%. The Titans were great in Power situations last year. Keep in mind at this point the Titans were already pretty unlikely to win this game-punting gave them about a 13% chance to win. This isn't as much of a no-brainer to go for it as Munchak's first decision, but by WP the break-even is only 40%. The better decision here was to go for it. I'm not the least bit surprised Munchak punted here.

The joke among football analysts is that discussions of coaching strategy almost all boil down to "coaches should go for it more often on fourth down." I hate to live up to that kind of thing, but I fear I have in this post. Munchak's one choice to go for it is a pretty straightforward case where the math inarguably favors going for it. The other two cases are more moderate.

I've used the 4th Down Calculator in this post just to provide context to what would otherwise be mostly data-free arguments. Part of what NFL coaches do is make decisions that take into account game-specific features leaguewide models like that one do not. For that reason, I try to mentally split decisions into things like "clearly wrong" and "clearly not wrong" and "close enough a good coach can go either way." On his decision to kick the field goal, my personal preference given the Titans' extreme unlikeliness to win the game no matter what the decision is to take the decision with the highest upside, which would be going for it. That the math also thinks going for is a good, and in fact the superior, option just goes to support my opinion.

Overall, his strategic decisions Sunday tend to support my pre-existing belief that Mike Munchak is on the whole a moderately unaggressive coach, going for it in most clear-cut situations but otherwise making conservative decisions.

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