Matt Patricia has not had a successful tenure as Lions head coach. He took over a team that was 9-7 the year before and went 6-10 in his first year and is now 3-6-1 in his second. But after Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, Patricia took some unfair heat for a decision that was actually smart.
When the Lions scored a touchdown to cut the Cowboys’ deficit to 35-27 with 5:49 remaining in the fourth quarter Patricia did the smart thing: He kept the offense on the field and tried a two-point conversion. (The conversion attempt failed, but that’s immaterial. We’re analyzing only the decision to try to get two points, which was sound.)
Teams trailing by 14 points late in the game should always go for two if they score a touchdown to cut the deficit to eight points. Kevin Cole wrote a clear explanation during the 2017 season at PredictiveFootball.com: When you go for two you have about a 50-50 shot of making it, and if you do all you have to do after your next touchdown is kick the extra point and you win in regulation. And even if you don’t make that two-point conversion, you still have a 50-50 shot of making the next two-point conversion to force overtime, when you’ll have about a 50-50 shot of winning.
In other words, if you’re down 14 points and you score two touchdowns and kick both extra points, all you’ve given yourself is overtime, where you have a 50-50 shot of winning. But if you go for two after that first touchdown, you’ve given yourself a chance to win in regulation.
At the time Cole wrote that in 2017, NFL coaches didn’t understand this. In fact, only once in NFL history had a coach trailing by 14 points gone for two after scoring a touchdown to cut the deficit to eight in the fourth quarter — and that was during a blizzard in Philadelphia when both teams were going for two all game because the footing was too poor for kicking.
But coaches are starting to come around. Two coaches went for two while trailing by eight in the fourth quarter in 2017, and Patricia was the third coach to do it this year. The reasoning is sound, and coaches are learning.
Unfortunately, those coaches still get criticized for making the right call. The Detroit Free Press said Patricia gave a “baffling explanation” for his decision, but there’s nothing baffling about it. It’s the right move.