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Ryan proves anything but aggressive on fourth-down calls

Before assessing what the Buffalo Bills did on fourth down Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, let’s rewind to January, when Rex Ryan was hired as coach.

On that day, Ryan was asked about his team’s offensive philosophy.

“We’re going to be aggressive,” he promised. “There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt that we’re going to be aggressive. I think that statement is going to be answered early with how aggressive we’re going to be. We will not build our offensive game plans around our punter. I can tell you that. We hope we don’t major in punting. You’ll see.”

Ryan continued … “We will definitely be aggressive. One thing you’ll never be able to say about our team is that we weren’t aggressive. Will we go for it on fourth down? Will we do those types of things? Will we fake a punt when leading by three with three minutes left to go in the game on a fourth and 13? Yes. The answer is yes we will.”

Let the record show that punting from the opponent’s 36-yard line – which Ryan elected to do Sunday during a 23-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles – is the exact opposite of aggressive. Ryan has simply not lived up to his word.

Against the Eagles on Sunday, the Bills faced fourth down nine times. Here is an analysis of what they decided to do on each one.

1. Fourth and 17 from the Bills’ 24-yard line, 0-0, 12:51 remaining in the first quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. Going for it would have dropped the Bills’ win probability from 53 to 46 percent.

Our call: Easy decision here to punt. When teams need 17 yards for a conversion, the success rate is only 10 percent.

2. Fourth and 3 from the Bills’ 42-yard line, 7-7, 4:36 remaining in the first quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. The chances of converting here are 52 percent, but to make going for it the right call, the Bills’ chances of converting would have to be better than 69 percent. Their win probability would have dropped from 55 to 53 percent had they attempted a conversion.

Our call: Punting is acceptable, but it feels like a closer call than the numbers suggest. Nevertheless, because of how good punter Colton Schmidt has been this season, the decision is defensible.

3. Fourth and 5 from the Eagles’ 36-yard line, 7-7, 12:48 remaining in the second quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Field-goal attempt or go for it. The Bills’ win probability would have stayed the same at 56 percent in either situation. A 53-yard field goal is given a 61-percent chance of success, while going for it is given a 41-percent chance. To make going for it the right call, that number would need to be 44 percent, so it’s close.

Our call: Where to begin? Dan Carpenter in his career is 59 percent on kicks of 50-plus yards, so a 53-yard attempt in good weather is not too much to ask. If Ryan’s confidence in Carpenter is that shaken, though, then the Bills should have run a better third-down play that got them closer to either a field-goal try or a conversion. Even after an incomplete pass on third down, though, the absolute right call here would have been going for it. At some point, a team has to try and assert itself in a game. This was the opportunity for the Bills to do just that, and Ryan punted it away.

4. Fourth and 15 from the Eagles’ 20-yard line, 14-7 Eagles lead, 6:24 remaining in the second quarter.

Ryan’s call: Field-goal attempt (good).

What the Times suggests: Field-goal attempt. The success rate for field goals is 90 percent. Kicking it slightly increased the Bills’ win probability (from 35 to 36 percent).

Our call: Given how many yards needed for a conversion, the Bills weren’t left with much choice but kick.

5. Fourth and 15 from the Eagles’ 43-yard line, 14-10 Eagles lead, 1:37 remaining in the second quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Nothing. Because of the time remaining in the first half, the paper’s statistical model does not have enough information to make a call.

Our call: Go for it! Punting it here made no sense. The Eagles had plenty of time left and timeouts at their disposal, so pinning them deep wasn’t going to prevent them from scoring based on time alone. The needed yardage for a first down was certainly a challenge, one that was set up by a penalty on second down by rookie guard John Miller. Nevertheless, the Bills should have attempted a conversion. Yes, the defense would have had a tougher job ahead of them if it failed, but the reward of more points before halftime far outweighed that risk.

6. Fourth and 3 from the Eagles’ 22-yard line, 20-10 Eagles lead, 5:19 remaining in the third quarter.

Ryan’s call: Field-goal attempt (good).

What the Times suggests: Field-goal attempt or go for it. Both options would have increased the Bills’ win probability from 19 to 20 percent. A field goal from this distance has an 89-percent success rate, while the Bills had a 53-percent chance of getting a first down, and needed a 52-percent chance to make going for it the right move.

Our call: In general, we’re in favor of cutting a deficit to one possession when the opportunity arises. That’s why we don’t have a problem with the field-goal attempt here. The Bills were going to need two possessions to tie.

7. Fourth and 3 from the Bills’ 20-yard line, 20-20, 9:31 remaining in fourth quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Go for it! The Bills had a 53-percent chance of converting. Going for it would have increased their win probability from 43 to 46 percent.

Our call: Here is a situation where we disagree with the math. Failing to convert would have given the Eagles the ball well within scoring distance. Schmidt has shown he can be counted on, so even though the Bills gave up a big return, this decision is still defensible.

8. Fourth and 4 from the Bills’ 26-yard line, 20-20, 5:36 remaining in fourth quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Go for it! An almost identical situation to the previous fourth down, although this one was a little closer, according to the math. The Bills had a 47-percent chance of converting the first down, and needed a 41-percent chance to justify going for it.

Our call: The reasons we favored punting on the previous fourth down are only strengthened at this point given the time remaining. At this point, it had become a question of whether you trust the Bills’ defense to stop the Eagles’ offense led by quarterback Sam Bradford. They had been able to do it on the previous try, but not this one.

9. Fourth and 14 from the Bills’ 16-yard line, 23-20 Eagles lead, 2:26 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Ryan’s call: Punt.

What the Times suggests: Punt. Going for it has only a 10-percent success rate. Doing so would have dropped the Bills’ win probability from 22 to 19 percent.

Our call: We’re actually open to going for it here, with the idea that the defense was going to have to hold Philadelphia to three plays anyway. If the conversion attempt fails, and the Bills do that, the Eagles likely get a field goal and are up six, meaning the Bills would have needed a touchdown. However, if the conversion was successful, the drive could have resulted in that, or a tying field goal. The Bills’ decision to punt worked out when the defense did its job, but the offense couldn’t convert and the game, and potentially season, was lost.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com