Monday, November 06, 2006

Was Tommy Bowden Too Conservative?

As a Clemson fan, the loss to Maryland this past weekend is just frustrating. I've heard a lot of excuses and Sunday morning quarterbacking, and there is one coaching decision that most people keep pointing to...Should Tommy Bowden have played it safe and run up the middle after having the touchdown called back for illegal formation, or should he have risked the interception and passed into the endzone? At the risk of completely butchering probability theory, let's look at some numbers.

Bowden played it safe. He knew that he would probably not score a touchdown by running Davis between the tackles, but he also knew he was less likely to give up a turnover or lose yards. He basically settled for a field goal, having faith in his defense to stop Maryland from marching down the field. One crucial piece of information he needed in making that decision was how good he thought his defense was going to be at stopping Maryland. Lucky for us, we have pretty reliable data from the market that suggests the probability of Maryland winning, after Clemson scored a field goal, was around 25%. This is essentially the same as the probability of Maryland driving down the field and scoring any points. Now since we are looking at the difference between forcing Maryland to only have to kick a field goal and forcing them to have to score a touchdown, we are interested in how many points Maryland will score on average, assuming they get some points. Now there are not a lot of data for Clemson vs. Maryland, and it doesn't make much sense to use data for Maryland against other opponents; but by looking at two extreme cases we can get a range for the expected number of points Maryland would score. Lets suppose that Maryland scores only field goals. Then the expected score for Maryland on that final drive would be 0.25(3*1.0+7*0.0)=0.75 points. Now lets suppose Maryland only scores touchdowns. We would expect 0.25(3*0.0+7*1.0)=1.75 points. So even at our extreme cases, the expected value of Maryland scores on the final drive are between 0.75-1.75 points, both of which are below the 2 point advantage that Clemson gained by kicking the field goal.

So while it would have been "better" to score a touchdown, on average, the field goal would have been enough to secure the victory. Thus, if Tommy felt that throwing for the touchdown was more likely to result in a game ending turnover than running it up the middle, it made good sense for him to just play it safe and kick the field goal. Yes it is frustrating. Yes it ended Clemson's dreams of a ACC championship. But it may not have been as bad a call as we all want to think it was.


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