Why Ron Rivera’s late two-point attempt vs Lions was the wrong decision

Sep 18, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera watches a play from the sideline against Detroit Lions during the second half at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Junfu Han-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera watches a play from the sideline against Detroit Lions during the second half at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Junfu Han-USA TODAY Sports /

I read several interesting pieces about Ron Rivera’s decision to go for two, trailing by eight points in the fourth quarter of the Washington Commanders loss to the Detroit Lions last week. I also read a lot of comments which basically said “game’s over – move on.” So I want to clarify right up front that though this will briefly sketch out the decision, I am more concerned with what that decision says about a major flaw in the current coaching staff. Please bear with me.

The decision to go for two is based on math. My Riggo teammate Jacob Troutman explained this to me when it happened, and several others, including 106.7’s Ben Krimmel, have gone into even greater detail in spelling out the analytics. Basically, NFL teams convert at just under 50%, so when you are two touchdowns behind, there is a strong likelihood you will convert at least of your two tries. (If you don’t get two tries – i.e. you don’t score a second touchdown – it is a moot point. You have lost.) So, convert after the first score and you can potentially win with an extra point later. Fail to convert, and you still have a good chance to tie with a conversion after the second TD.

That’s the math. That’s the analytics.

Why Ron Rivera’s decision to go for two in the fourth quarter of Commanders-Lions was the wrong call.

But this is … I don’t think I allowed to use the word I would like on a family website … so I’ll just say, this is poppycock. It fails to understand how analytics works in practical application. This is not an insurance actuarial table, where you have massive amounts of data and you are never too concerned with any single specific outcome.

Let me tackle two minor points in Krimmel’s analysis first, and then get to why this matters for the Washington Commanders.

First, Krimmel makes the point that going for two is the best way to try and WIN the game – not simply tie the game. But that is an oversimplification of the math. In a vacuum, the analytics do suggest that going for two is the best way to TAKE THE LEAD in a game. That by no means guarantees a win. Just ask the Buffalo Bills about that. If you were assured of the win, perhaps it would change the analysis.

Second, I do not have data on this, but I wonder how many times a team has come back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter, and then gone on to lose in overtime. I know it happens, but my gut tells me it doesn’t happen often. That’s because momentum – and more specifically, tired defenses – matter late in games. Obviously, the team that has come back has been playing better toward the end of the game, and there is no reason to assume that would not continue in overtime. If I’m right about this, then extending the game into overtime gives you a better than 50% chance of winning, which again, shifts the analysis.

But you don’t have to buy either of those arguments. Here’s what you have to accept.

That 50% (or near 50%) success rate is a LEAGUE AVERAGE. It is not specific to any team. And do you know what the Washington Commanders success rate on two-point conversion has been during the two years Ron Rivera has been the coach? 25% in 2021 and14.29% in 2020.

The Commanders, under Ron Rivera, have had neither the personnel nor the coaching acumen to convert at anywhere near the league average. And that, on the surface, makes this an extremely poor risk, and the incorrect decision.

Here’s why it matters. Rivera, who I have always respected as a quality leader and motivator of men, makes a lot of poor in-game decisions. His decision to challenge a Trevor Lawrence incompletion in the fourth quarter of the Jacksonville game could have proven costly, but ultimately did not. This was another case where a cost/benefit analysis might have suggested the team had a lot more to gain if that call was overturned than the timeout it would lose if the call was confirmed. But anyone with even a modest understanding of NFL rules knew that particular call had absolutely zero chance of being overturned. So he simply ended up sacrificing a timeout in the fourth quarter of a close game.

The two-point decision last Sunday is even more troubling. It has seemed at times during Rivera’s regime, that he is coaching the players he wishes he had, and not the players he actually has. You see it with Jamin Davis. You see it with William Jackson III. You are starting to see it with Cole Holcomb. To be sure, there have been some success stories. But really – how many players have come to the Washington Commanders in the last two years and shown noticeable improvement in their play?

In 2021, the Indianapolis Colts, with Carson Wentz at QB, converted two-point tries at the 33% clip. This is not one of Carson Wentz’ strong suits. Based on the last two seasons, this is not one of Scott Turner’s strong suits. We know that. Ron Rivera HAS TO know that.

If you’re as old as me, you probably remember Ken Beatrice, the sports radio icon who dominated sports talk in DC for 25 years late in the last century. That included the Joe Gibbs years, and Beatrice always used to say that what made Gibbs the best coach in the league was that he got his players to perform at or near maximum capacity more than any other coach in the league. Beatrice was right.

Gibbs understood his players. He had been a disciple of Don Coryell’s prolific air attack in San Diego before coming east. He initially tried to mimic that offense. He lost his first five games. He came to understand that his personnel wasn’t suited for an Air Coryell attack. So he looked at John Riggins, his mammoth offensive line and his potent blocking tight ends, and developed his one-back running attack based on the counter trey – as far removed from Air Coryell as possible.

It worked. Joe Gibbs knew his players and played to their strengths. That’s exactly what Ron Rivera needs to begin doing.

dark. Next. Is Ron Rivera fostering an accountability crisis?