Fooch's Note: Neama put together a breakdown of the math of win probability based on the decision. Definitely worth a look.
I watched the 49ers - Cowboys game at a pizza place in Davis called Woodstock's (the pizza there is delicious, bt-dubbs). My friend joined me for the game at Woodstock's. For the sake of my story, let's call my friend Jimi. Also, for the sake of my story, let's pretend that Jimi is short for Jimi Hendrix.
Jimi is a sports guy, but primarily a baseball guy. He gets football and likes it, but only superficially. So, when David Akers kicked an incredible 55 yard field goal (let's not lose sight of how awesomely awesome he is in the midst of this controversy; and did I mention that he is awesome?) he was cheering alongside of me. But when there was a flag for a leverage penalty, I cheered and he just said that the Niners should keep the points.
Follow me after the jump to find out what I said right back to him.
"Jimi," I said, "put down the guitar; we have something serious to talk about. Oh, Jimi," I said, "your guitar is still on fire. Got it out? Awesome. Now listen up.
"Here's the thing, Jimi, three points are pretty good, and if we end up with only three points, I would be super pumped. That's a two possession game right there and our defense is pretty good.
"But, the fact of the matter is, Jimi, that if you think that three is as good as seven, you must be thinking in a purple haze. That just ain't right. We have an incredible opportunity here to score a touchdown and really put this game out of reach. Remember earlier, right before the second half? Remember how the Cowboys got some bull crap neutral zone infraction and turned that into seven? That's what good teams do. That's what they do as sure as the wind cries mary."
Okay, so it was super condescending and the random interspersions of Hendrix song titles didn't make sense in real life, but the point still stands.
The fact of the matter is that good teams do find ways to turn penalties in to more points. Call it what you will, but in a weird way, it's an attitude thing. I want my head coach to be cut throat. I want my head coach to score points at every opportunity - the more, the better. I want a coach who has no problem going for two up by like thirty points. I think this style of coaching leads to good teams. Moreover, even just an average team can surely find ways to turn a fifteen yard penalty that brings them down to the 22 yard line into points. I mean, come on. This should be a no brainer.
After the game, a few people in the comments brought out an interesting stat - one that I think bears some scrutiny. Apparently, teams who are at a first and ten on the 22 yard line, on average, should expect to score four points.
This is a combination of the worst teams and the best teams. The 49ers, I would argue, are probably in the middle. They have a pretty ho-hum tweedle-dumb offense right now, but with a lot of talent. I would expect them to meet the average.
So, here's the thing, I get that we are discussing actual points vs. expected points. It may seem like the actual points are more valuable. And heck, there is no four point in football. I get the argument - take the ten point lead into the end of the game and lean on your defense. Harbaugh himself even said that "the thinking behind it at the time was to have the two score advantage at that point."
But the fact of that matter is that when you unpack the stat, it really makes more sense to go to the 22. To average four points, the stat has to mitigate five distinct and very real possibilities: that a team will score a touchdown and a two point conversion (8 points), that a team will score a touchdown and kick a field goal (7), that a team will score a touchdown and miss a field goal (6), that a team will kick a field goal (3), or that the team will score no points.
For that sake of the 49ers situation, let us say that the stat has to mitigate three real options, seven points, three points or no points. By taking the penalty, a head coach would be hedging his bets that his team could accomplish the two advantageous possibilities.
As such, the four expected points are more valuable to shoot for than to just keep the three real points because the statistical likelihood is that the 49ers will score more points than they would have by just kicking it. Moreover, the statistical likelihood that they would score no points is fairly slim in comparison to the likelihood of scoring at least three points.
But what I find even more upsetting than letting the possibility of more points slip by is the assumption that any defense of any quality could hold off a team from scoring twice with 11 minutes left in the game. I get that it is totally possible, but way too much can happen in football. If Harbaugh learned anything from watching tape of Montana, it should be that.
Thus, the time management options of taking the penalty come into play. Even if the Niners ran the ball up the gut three times, which would have been stupid, they would still have knocked a good two minutes off the clock. That is a lot of time when trying to preserve the lead.
Run it up the gut and trust that Akers can kick a field goal for 22 yards out. Pro-tip: he is super good at kicking field goals. This way you don't really run the risk of a turnover.
As I draw this piece to a conclusion, I just want to say that I think Jim Harbaugh is a really good coach so far. And thus far, he seems really smart. He has a great grasp of strategy: even in his more conservative play calling (which I don't necessarily mind too much since, well, Alex Smith and all) utilizes a lot of shifting and movement. That is just one of the little things that Singletary / Raye did not use, and thus lead to their downfall.
I trust Harbaugh. A lot, actually. I've been impressed. But, that doesn't make yesterday's decision a good one. Not at all.