When the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury and drafted Kyler Murray this offseason, they did it with a vision of putting the most forward-thinking, progressive, modern offense in the NFL on the field. Through two games, Arizona has done that, with a high-tempo approach that features empty sets, quick throws, an enormous pass-run split, and other Air Raid concepts.
But this week was a reminder that even offensive wunderkinds aren’t always up to date on analytics. Through two games, Kingsbury has been as conservative as any head coach in the league when it comes to fourth-down decision-making. Four times in the first two weeks, Kingsbury’s offense has made it inside of the opposing 5-yard line before stalling. And four times, Kingsbury has made the decision to kick a field goal.
Kingsbury decided to kick three such field goals on Sunday, in a game that eventually ended as a 23-17 loss to the Ravens. Each one was more unjustifiable than the last:
- The first was on a fourth-and-1 at the 4-yard line, with Arizona trailing 7-0 toward the end of the first quarter.
- The second was on a fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line, with Arizona trailing 10-3 in the second quarter.
- And the final one was fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line, with Arizona trailing 17-6 in the third quarter.
All together, these decisions reduced the Cardinals’ chances of winning the game by 4.1 percent, per Edj Sports. That’s a lot, since Arizona didn’t have a very good chance of winning the game in the first place.
The #Cardinals have kicked 3 field goals inside the #Ravens' 5-yard line today for a total of -4.1% GWC lost. This may not seem like much, but considering they were big underdogs coming in, these are big decisions. #ARIvsBAL— EdjSports (@edjsports) September 15, 2019
The three field goals came one week after the Cardinals kicked a field goal on a fourth-and-goal from Detroit’s 2-yard line while trailing 17-0 in the second quarter of that contest. Arizona went on to tie that one at 27. All of these field goal decisions came on scenarios in which The New York Times’s 4th Down Bot recommends that teams go for it.
You don’t need a fancy win-probability model to understand why the Cardinals should be going for touchdowns and not field goals. Arizona was behind in both games and was also a big underdog—a roster this depleted has to take risks to win. A touchdown with an extra point is worth more than twice as much as a field goal, so the reward for getting one is enormous, and there is a sneaky added benefit to going for it: If the offense fails to get into the end zone, the opposing team takes over deep in their own territory. Teams have understood this since long before anyone was even thinking about the word “analytics,” which is why even for the notoriously risk-averse NFL, Kingsbury’s conservative decisions stand out:
Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals are now the first team since the NFL moved the goal posts in 1974 to attempt 3 field goal attempts in a game, while trailing, from inside the 5-yard line.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) September 15, 2019
Conservative NFL coaching decisions make a lot more sense when you realize that the goal of many coaches is to delay losing for as long as possible rather than to take a risk and potentially win. Kliff was supposed to be different, but through two weeks, he’s not only more of the same, he’s in the running for the most risk-averse coach in football.