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Lindholm: The Numbers Behind Gould’s Second-Down Field Goal Attempt

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Bears kicker Robbie Gould. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Bears kicker Robbie Gould. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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By Scott Lindholm-

(CBS) Lost among all the discussion regarding Marc Trestman’s puzzling decision to have Robbie Gould attempt the game-winning field goal on second down are some very interesting facts, facts that I will guarantee were not part of his decision-making process.

Since 1999, there have been 363 field goal attempts on second down—the vast majority (319) were with less than 20 seconds left in the game—the situation was forced on the team. In 44 instances, there was more than 20 seconds left, implying the coach made a conscious decision to kick even with additional down(s) available to him.

Of these 44 instances, there was one field goal attempt the same length as Gould’s 47-yard attempt—on Oct. 16, 2005, the Titans made a 47-yard field goal with 37 seconds left to move the score from 31-20 to 31-23—they did it in order to set up an onside kick, which failed. No other team has tried a field goal from this length on second down, at least in the past 14 years.

Why is this significant? Because this particular play will be the play people will look back on to evaluate the Bears season. Going into the game, the Bears had two very different possibilities:

  • Win and move their record to 7-5 — 7-5 teams have made the playoffs 54.7% of the time since 1978.
  • Lose and have a 6-6 record— 6-6 teams have made the playoffs 26.2% of the time since 1978.

This was the Bears season, down to one kick from a man who one field goal attempt earlier was poised to become the best field goal kicker in NFL history. Unfortunately, his two misses on Sunday means he’ll have to make his next 14 field goal attempts to overtake Mike Vanderjagt, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I’ve heard some interesting talk on metrics and analytics the past couple of days on 670 The Score. There are two very important distinctions that need to be understood when viewing data:

  • Trends are trends
  • Individual data makes trends. In baseball, players attempting to steal home were successful around 41% of the time in 2013, a fairly high number historically. If a manager were to play strictly by the odds, he’d never attempt this, since it fails more often than it succeeds. However, to misquote Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) in “Anchorman,” “41% of the time it works 100% of the time.”

Sometimes coaches and managers buck trends for any number of reasons. If Gould had made that kick, we’d all be lauding Trestman and also calling it the play of the year.

You want data—this chart shows field goal success rate since 1999 by yardage:

(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

This is known by every coach in the NFL, but look at the implications—another five yards would increase the likelihood of success by 10 percentage points, 20 points with about 13 yards.

Distance matters.

When the epitaph of the 2013 Bears is written, several items need to be understood:

  • The starting quarterback was injured for a significant part of the year
  • Injuries decimated the defense
  • The defense regressed in a manner no one saw at the beginning of the season

And it’s still going to come down to this one missed field goal, right or wrong.

Scott Lindholm is a columnist for CBSChicago.com and 670TheScore.com and frequent contributor to The Boers and Bernstein Show, known affectionately as Scott from Davenport. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

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