Midway through the second quarter of San Francisco’s 10-9 loss to Carolina, the 49ers faced a decision-making opportunity. Up 6-0 and facing a 4th-and-1 on the Carolina 2-yard line, Jim Harbaugh had his men line up and attempt to draw Carolina offsides. When that didn’t work, they took the delay of game penalty, kicked the field goal and went up by 9-0.
Brian Billick, doing color commentary for Fox, praised the move, saying that they had to kick the field goal there and make it a two-score game.
Of course, as we know now, those were the last points San Francisco would score in the game. It was the last time the 49ers even got close to scoring. Looking back at it with hindsight, the risk vs. reward over trying to plow through those last two yards seems quite enticing. It’s not fair to judge the play via hindsight, however; with the information available at the time, was it the right call?
The fourth-down calculator on Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL Stats page is a good place to start looking when dealing with these fourth-down decisions.
Punching the situation into the calculator, we find out that, for average teams, going for the touchdown gives a team an 81 percent chance to win the game, while kicking the field goal results in a 79 percent chance. That’s well within the margin of error, and it’s hard to criticize Harbaugh too much in that situation, though he has shown a conservative streak in his tenure as head coach.
However, neither the 49ers nor the Panthers are an average team. The Panthers have one of the top rush defenses in the league, and San Francisco has one of the best rush offenses. Given the particular strengths and weaknesses, was kicking the field goal the right call?
Coming into this week, Carolina had faced nine plays on third or fourth down with one yard to go. Four times, its opponent managed to get the first down, three times on the ground and once through the air. That’s a success rate of only 44.4 percent, which aren’t the world’s greatest odds by any stretch of the imagination. That’s a bit of a small sample size, however, which could have just as much to do with random chance as with the Panthers actual skill.
Adding in 2012 to that situation, teams are converting against Carolina at a 69.4 percent clip, which is just about the league average. It’s fair to say that Carolina’s improved this year compared to last, however; Football Outsiders has it more than 10 percentage points better defensively this season than last.
Add it all together, and the odds of an average team succeeding against Carolina in this situation is likely somewhere in the 50 to 55 percent range.
Coming into this week, San Francisco had gone for it 13 times on third or fourth down with one yard to go. Ten times the 49ers succeeded, with six Frank Gore runs being the primary method. Add in last season, and you have San Francisco converting roughly 57.1 percent of the time. Against an average defense, then, you could reasonably expect San Francisco to convert these short-yardage situations well over half the time, if not quite at the 76.9 percent rate it's put up so far this year.
Add in all the intangibles, as well.
Vernon Davis had just sustained a concussion, knocking him out for the game, and along with him, the majority of the 49ers passing game. With him out, the offense quickly reverted to the form we saw in the Indianapolis game, which he also missed—a floundering pass game with no one able to stretch the field or get open underneath. Harbaugh said, after the game, that they opted not to go for it on fourth down due to “personnel issues,” yet those same personnel issues seemed to indicate that moving the ball would be difficult from that point out.
Add in the fact that Carolina simply does not give up very many long drives, and the possibility of going for it seems more and more palatable.
Remember, too, that even if the 49ers had not succeeded, Carolina would have been pinned back on its own 2-yard line, where it's already suffered two safeties this season. The added pressure from being pinned deep could have resulted in a positive San Francisco play, be it points or good field position after a punt.
Even the worst-case scenario from failing to convert on 4th-and-1 that deep brings with it a variety of opportunities.
The fourth-down calculator says that if a team thinks it can succeed more than 57 percent of the time, it should go for it in these particular circumstances. That number is probably a bit conservative when you consider game flow and the exact specifics of San Francisco’s situation at the time. With the success the 49ers had in short situations, even with Vernon Davis and Garrett Celek unavailable, everything points to the right decision being to go for it then and there.
It should be clarified that this certainly isn’t the only reason San Francisco lost—with two-and-half quarters left to play, there were plenty of opportunities for San Francisco to move the ball, but Carolina simply outplayed the 49ers.
The momentum and strategic decisions of the entire game would have changed if San Francisco had gone for it. It’s just an opportunity that could have significantly swung the momentum of the game, as well as possibly the outcome.