Why Ron Rivera made right call to go for two


Why did head coach Ron Rivera have the Washington Commanders go for a two-point conversion instead of kicking an extra point early in the 4th quarter Sunday in Detroit? Because math. Duh.

OK, this may be simplifying a situation that is a little more complicated than that, but not the truth is this is one of those situations in which it is not actually that complex of a problem.

Let's start with something everyone can agree on: The Commanders' chances of winning at the start of the 4th quarter down 29-15 were very small. (ESPN's win probability gave Washington just a 7.2% chance.) So, begin with this in mind: Rivera's decision is to slightly increase the possibility of a very unlikely event happening.

As Football Outsiders explains: The logic is pretty simple, "if you convert the two-point conversion, you will be able to win with a simple extra point on the second touchdown, and if you fail, you will still be able to tie with a two-point conversion on that second TD."

Before you rage about analytics and math remember this: The Commanders cutting the deficit from eight points to six after Antonio Gibson's touchdown run would slightly increase the chances the Commanders complete an improbable comeback because it would mean they would only need one additional stop on defense before scoring the game-winning touchdown in the final 10 minutes of the 4th quarter.

The increase in win probability Rivera was trying to earn by going for two: A whopping 1.9%, per FiveThirtyEight. Which is a big number for a single event of a football game comprised of 133 plays from scrimmage.

Now, football is an incredibly complicated game played by immensely tough individuals who spend sixty minutes each week showing off the fruits of countless hours of work in the weight room, practice field, and film study. And Rivera doing something that can increase their chances of winning by nearly two percent is a no-brainer.

Sure being down only seven after Joey Slye (presumably) makes a 33-yard extra point feels better than being down 8 after Carson Wentz's pass attempt failed, but feelings don't count for anything when it comes to winning or losing.

At the end of the day, football is a math problem: Outscore your opponent at the end of the game. And Rivera was simply trying to maximize the possibility his team would outscore the opponents after the sixty minutes of play.

For football's entire history, people believed in the conventional wisdom of kicking the extra point so you always "stay alive" for as long as possible. But doing that makes a win less likely because a tie at the end of regulation time isn't a win, it is a tie. And playing for a tie only keeps your opponent alive.

To go for two – perchance to win. Ay there's the rub! Had the Commanders overturned the 14-point deficit with two TDs and two PATs and sent the game to overtime, that is not an ideal outcome. The goal is to have your opponents be shuffled off this mortal coil. Not stick around for 10 minutes of modified sudden death.

Between 2001 and the 2016 season, away teams won in overtime just 45.5% of the time, per FiveThirtyEight.

And, so, on the weekend he was fired by Arizona State, the words of ex-New York Jets coach Herm Edwards must be quoted: "You play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don't play to just play it."

Rivera, by going for two, was coaching "to win the game" in regulation without the fuss of an extra period in which the random variable of a coin toss can all but determine the entire outcome.

The smart decision, the decision that maximized the Commanders' chances of pulling off an unlikely comeback win, was the one Rivera made. It did not work, but the decision was still the right one.

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