Well, apparently Sunday in the case of Ron Rivera and the Panthers. ESPN Stats and Info ran the numbers, and Rivera (and us, more on that in a minute) was wrong:
The Panthers had 4th-and-1 from Atlanta's 45 with about a minute left. They were clinging to a one-point lead. The decision: Go for it or punt. If you go and succeed, the game is basically over since Atlanta is out of timeouts. If you go and don't make it, you give the Falcons a short field. If you punt, you give Matt Ryan the ball, but against a long field with little time and no timeouts. Per ESPN:
By choosing to punt, the Panthers decreased their win probability by 26.1 percentage points.
That's a pretty shocking number. We argued with Phil Mackey about the right move on Sunday via Twitter. Whereas in past instances we had come down on the side fo going for it, in this case we thought playing it safe was the smart move given how little time was on the clock -- even though we imagined the numbers might be slightly in favor of going for it.
We had no idea the gap was that wide. Even less so, we have no idea how the ESPN writer can conclude punting was the right move even as he presents all the evidence saying it wasn't.
In this case, it comes down to two things: Carolina is particularly well-equipped to pick up one yard given Cam Newton and two exceptional running backs. The Panthers, like Liam Neeson, have acquired a certain set of skills that makes getting 3 feet of turf less of a big deal than it is for a lot of other teams. They also have an awful secondary. And Ryan is on fire. So you match the numbers with the personnel, and the evidence mounts.
The other thing, which sounds weird, is that Rivera probably didn't want the blame that would have gone with what seems like the against-the-grain move (going for it) had it backfired. Even though the move he made was actually against the percentages.
The crazy thing is the Panthers had an exceptional punt to the 1 ... but their lousy DBs let Roddy White get behind them, and the Falcons won the game on a field goal. Would Newton and co. have gained 36 inches? We'll never know.