Which coach got it right? Untangling madness in Denver-Kansas City – ESPN

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Sunday was a weird day of football, ending with a bizarrely fascinating game between the Chiefs and Broncos in Denver. The AFC West rivals put on a defensive clinic for most of Kansas City’s 30-27 overtime win, led by two mostly unstoppable outside linebackers in Justin Houston and Von Miller. When these two teams went to halftime at 9-3 (which included a safety and a free kick return for a touchdown), who could have anticipated these two teams would somehow squeeze out 45 points after halftime?

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To get there, the pass rush had to tire a bit, and it would also require overtime and a series of questionable decisions along the way. Gary Kubiak and his Denver players faced a run of thorny propositions en route to nearly winning this game. None of those questions had easy answers, especially in real time. Some coaching decisions are obvious and should be easy to handle if a coach has drilled in decision-making during the offseason, but others — especially in games with particularly extraordinary contexts like this one — are harder than they seem.

Let’s run through those decisions and try to figure out whether the people in charge made the right calls. Of course, hindsight is 20-20, so we’re trying to figure out what the right decision would have been in the moment given the knowledge the players and coaches had at that time. And let’s begin, actually, with a call Kubiak watched his opposite number dial up …

Should Andy Reid have gone for two?

It’s lost in the shuffle because of what happened, but there’s a reasonable case to be made that Andy Reid made a mistake before Kubiak even had any options available. The Chiefs scored on a sweep from Tyreek Hill past a diving Miller to make it 15-10 with 37 seconds left to go in the third quarter. It came at the end of a drive in which Reid (correctly) took points off the board after a formation penalty on a successful field goal gave the Chiefs a new set of downs. It wasn’t just Kansas City’s first offensive score of the night; the Chiefs drove for 75 yards with five first downs after accruing a total of 38 offensive yards and four first downs on their first seven possessions combined.

Justin Houston accounted for three of the Chiefs’ five sacks of Trevor Siemian. Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When the Chiefs broke through for a touchdown, they kicked the extra point to go up six, which has its advantages: In a game in which points are at a premium, as they say, there’s some value in knowing the other team needs to score a touchdown to win as opposed to being able to win with two field goals, which would be the case with a missed two-pointer. Was that the right move? I consulted the two-point calculator built by ESPN’s Brian Burke, which is built off a win expectancy model similar to the one currently used in ESPN’s win probability data.

Burke’s model suggests that Kansas City’s odds of winning, given a 95 percent chance of converting the extra point and a 47 percent chance of converting the two-pointer, would have been slightly better if they went for the two-point try. But the difference is only about half of 1 percent, at 72.8 percent to 72.4 percent. The break-even rate at which point it’s better to go for two is 43 percent, which is where I start to wonder.

The league-average rate is 47 percent, but this was not a league-average game. The Broncos had basically terrorized the Chiefs up front for most of the game up to this point. Kansas City had two rushing first downs all game before the Hill touchdown. Both the Broncos’ defense and Chiefs’ offense have been relatively middling in power-running situations this season, but every 2 yards in this game also felt like more of a fight than it would be in a typical contest. It’s not difficult at all for me to believe that the numbers actually leaned toward the Chiefs kicking an extra point here, even if they would suggest going for it was the right call in a vacuum.

In either case, it’s difficult for me to believe that Reid’s call was definitively wrong, even if it wasn’t clearly right.

Should Bennie Fowler have fallen down?

It feels like the ultimate sitting-on-the-couch move to suggest, but we know that players are at least occasionally situationally aware that it can be better to just go down with a clear path to the end zone as opposed to running the ball in for a score. You remember Ahmad Bradshaw trying not to score at the end of Super Bowl XLVI and failing. The Giants won, of course, but the Patriots did get a minute-long drive from their own 20-yard line to try to win the game; had Bradshaw kneeled at the 1-foot line, the Giants could have bled the clock before kicking a chip shot to win.

Bradshaw had time to think about his plunge before deciding to score. That could not have been the case with Bennie Fowler, who couldn’t possibly anticipate this situation. The Chiefs sent a huge blitz at Trevor Siemian on third-and-2, and Siemian floated a deep out to his little-used backup receiver. With no safety help, cornerback Phillip Gaines appeared to lose track of the ball, and Fowler easily won a footrace to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown.

I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Fowler for running in for the touchdown, and I’m not going to, but what would the correct decision have been? As Fowler was sprinting toward the end zone, the Broncos were up 17-16 with the clock approaching three minutes, and the Chiefs were out of timeouts.

Trevor Siemian finished with 368 yards (a career high) and three touchdowns through the air. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Let’s give Fowler two realistic options. Option 1 is to score as he did, giving the Broncos a 24-16 lead (after the extra point) with 3:02 to go. According to Burke’s win probability model, the Chiefs were left with just a 4.7 percent chance of winning the game. If that seems low, keep in mind the Chiefs had to drive the length of the field for a touchdown, convert a two-pointer to tie the game, and then win the game as slight underdogs (they were 3.5-point underdogs before the game) in overtime.

In Option 2, Fowler gets a message from the scoreboard telling him to go down and he kneels at the 2-yard line. The Broncos can then kneel before attempting a field goal from the 2. In this scenario, the Broncos would plan on handing the ball back to the Chiefs with a four-point lead and, assuming Denver runs off 39 seconds of clock pre-snap and three seconds post-snap per play, 33 seconds left.

Burke’s model is even more dismissive of the Chiefs’ chances if Fowler kneels. Kansas City’s chances of winning after Fowler gives himself up with 3:02 to go are a lowly 0.7 percent. After three Siemian kneel-downs, the Chiefs’ odds climb to 1.3 percent, basically relying upon a botched snap, a blocked field goal or a kickoff return for a touchdown, and 11 of the 12 kickoffs in this game resulted in a touchback, thanks to the thin air in Denver.

Down four points with 33 seconds left and no timeouts, the Chiefs’ chances of driving 75 yards for a touchdown were basically nil: Burke gives them a 0.1 percent chance of succeeding. I can’t fault Fowler for scoring, but the Broncos would have been better off if he had fallen down.

Should the Broncos have gone for two after Fowler scored to try to put the game away?

I discussed this topic a few years ago, but it’s come up in recent weeks after Pete Carroll went for two in a similar situation against the Patriots. Here, the Broncos were up 23-16 after the Fowler touchdown pending the extra point, again with about 3:02 to go.

There’s two tantalizing benefits to going for two and trying to make it a nine-point game late. If you do it while there isn’t much time left on the clock, you’ve basically ended the game — the other team needs to find two possessions in an impossible length of time. The Chiefs could have scored twice in three minutes, but it would have required an expected onside kick recovery, which is somewhere in the 10 percent range.

The other benefit is that there’s little punishment given how opposing coaches are likely to react. If you go for two and succeed to go up nine, the game is basically over. If you go for two and fail, the downside isn’t all that bad. You’re still up seven, and if the other team comes down the field and scores, they virtually never go for two to end the game in regulation, which is about a once-per-decade moment of coaching gutsiness.

Chase Stuart wrote about some of the problems in that logic back in 2012, though, and he correctly distilled it down to a simple choice. It’s true that if you go for two and succeed, you win the game. It’s also true, though, that if you kick the extra point, and the opposition responds with a touchdown, and then you stop the two-point conversion, you win the game. The question you should ask yourself in the situation, then, is simple: Do you think your offense has a better shot of succeeding on a two-point conversion than your defense does of stopping a two-point try?

Yes, I understand that the Chiefs would later go for two and get it to tie the game up at 24. We didn’t know that with three minutes to go. In this case, Kubiak was right. Burke’s model suggests the Broncos would have needed a 57 percent chance of converting the two-pointer to justify the move, and the outdated (pre-extra-point changes) model from Football Commentary is similarly dismissive, at 64 percent.

Should Kubiak have asked Brandon McManus to attempt a 62-yard field goal in overtime?

This is one of the more difficult decisions I’ve seen a coach forced to figure out on the fly. It’s like Kubiak got to the final question on an exam and had five minutes to answer a question which was supposed to take a half hour. He basically had 40 seconds to answer a multilevel problem. This was not an easy call.

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