>> Sunday, February 07, 2010
Sean Payton made two great unconventional calls in this game: going for it on fourth and a long yard at the goal line late in the second quarter, and of course the onside kick to open the second half.
The first call didn't "work" but what happened illustrates why it's the right decision in that situation. After the play failed the Colts played conservatively since they had the ball at their own two and they were trying to just run out the clock. The subsequent punt gave New Orleans great field position. One first down later they were in FG position, so they ended up losing no points by not kicking the FG initially. Indeed if they had kicked the FG initially, Indy would have gotten the ball back with two minutes to go and probably pretty good field position. The game could easily have been 17-6 at the half.
The onside kick was brilliant -- surprise onside kicks are so rare that the recovery rate for them is far higher (55%) than for conventional situation onside kicks. Coming out of the locker room a fresh Peyton Manning was primed to slice the New Orleans defense apart on Indy's first possession, as indeed he did. But instead of giving the Colts a 17-6 lead midway through the third quarter, the TD ended up merely giving Indy the lead back they had by then lost. The kick fundamentally altered the shape of the game.
Update: Nate Silver does the math. (The value of the surprise onside kick leads to an interesting game theory dilemma -- surprise onside kicks are clearly an under-used strategy but they're underused because they're underused -- if they become too common their value will drop quite a bit because the recovery rate will fall as teams anticipate them).