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Using Win Probabilities To Evaluate Jason Garrett’s 4th Down Decisions

The Cowboys fell to 5-4 with their gut-wrenching 28-24 loss on Sunday night. But while the Vikings are certainly a quality opponent, and they played an excellent game for much of the night, it's hard not to feel like it was the Cowboys who simply let this one slip away.

How did they beat themselves, you ask? Well, with poor play-calling on early downs and questionable fourth down decisions.

It's often said that is too conservative and needs to take more risks on fourth downs, but during Sunday's loss, these fourth downs can barely even be classified as risks. Punting the ball or kicking the field goal was the risk. Going for it was a necessity.

Let's take a look at the first of two super questionable fourth down calls by Garrett, using estimations for each situation.

The situation: 4th down and 4, ball on the Minnesota 40 yard line. 13:39 left in the second quarter. 

  • 15% win probability pre-snap.
  • 22% win probability if they went for it and converted with just 5 yards.
  • 9% win probability if they failed to convert.
  • 12% win probability after punting and pinning the Vikings at their own six yard line.

As you can see, the Cowboys likelihood of winning this game dropped significantly early on. They went from 2.5 point favorites with about a 59% chance of winning the game before kickoff, to just 15% during their first drive of the second quarter.

Talk about a slow start.

Regardless, the Cowboys could have tried to maximize whatever win probability they had left on this fourth down by going for the conversion. As you can see, a conversion would've raised their chances by 7%, while a failed attempt dropped them by 6%. This is about equal in terms of +-, but punting did just about nothing for them.

Punting lowered their probability by 3% instantly, and they didn't even give themselves a chance to convert. They just gave up, and only gained three percentage points over the worse case scenario by doing so.

With the way and this executed all night, Dallas shot themselves in the foot by punting here.

The situation: 4th down and Goal, ball on the Minnesota 5 yard line. 10:00 left in the fourth quarter.

  • 25.8% win probability pre-snap.
  • 49% win probability had they went for it and scored a touchdown.
  • 22.5% win probability after kicking the field goal.
  • 13% win probability if they went for it and failed with an incompletion.

Now this one is flat-out egregious.

Rather than go for a touchdown on what was effectively fourth and five, the Cowboys gave in and attempted a chip shot field goal. Yes, they gained points and cut the lead to 4. They also lost about 3% in terms of win probability. Congrats.

Going for it and failing might've meant the end of the game, but is the goal to win now or just lose later? Dallas kicked the can here and bet on a that had been getting gashed all night long, rather than allowing their to try and make a play.

The Cowboys would not see the ball again until the clock was under 5 minutes, still needing a touchdown to win. A touchdown needed to be scored at some point anyway, and sitting 5 yards out from the end zone was their best shot of the night.

Kevin Brady
Kevin Brady
Die-hard Cowboys fan from the Northeast, so you know I am here to defend the 'boys whenever necessary. Began writing for a WordPress Cowboys Blog, and have been with ITS since 2016.

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