How NFL Teams Should Play the Field Goal Choke Hold

by Max Mulitz

Brian Burke coined the term field goal choke hold to describe the situation where a team that is tied or trailing by 1-2 points and has the ball near the opponents End Zone may opt to intentionally not score a Touchdown (and therefore have to kick off to the opponent) to instead run the clock down and kick a Field Goal as time expires. I’m going to break down this situation from the offenses’ perspective to  create a rule of thumb.

First, let’s consider the situation where intentionally not scoring is most attractive. Say we faced First & Goal at the opponents’ 1-yard line with the opponent having no timeouts coming out of the Two-Minute Warning trailing by 2 points. By kneeling three times, we can attempt a game-winning Field Goal as time expires from the opponents 5 yard-line. In this situation our win probability is simply the chance you convert our Field Goal Attempt. 22-yard Field Goal Attempts have converted ~98% of the time from 2011-2015. It is conceivable that end of game field goals could convert at a lower rate, as the opponent will be selling out for a block, so perhaps the probability is slightly lower. Kicks in clutch situations have done about 2% worse than in regular situations, so 96% is probably a reasonable estimate for Field Goal success rate in this situation (presuming the team has an NFL quality kicker and long snapper available). On the other hand, consider the case where we score on First Down, fail our Two Point Conversion, and have to kick off with 1:58 remaining leading by 4. Teams with one to two minutes remaining on their final drive needing a Touchdown have scored 10% of the time from 2011-2015 when starting inside their own 25. Because 96% is greater than 90%, we can see that barring unusual circumstances, it is better to kneel and kick a Field Goal to win as time expires rather than to give the opponent the ball with over a minute left.

On the other hand, consider the case where you face First and Goal at the opponent’s 1 with 0:15 remaining and three timeouts trailing by 1 point. It is at least reasonable to consider running to try to score a Touchdown. Drives starting on a teams own side of the 50 with under 30 seconds remaining when the team needed a touchdown scored 0/46 times from 2011-2015, and the touchdown rate is also less than 1% over a large sample for drives in the first half starting with under 0:31 remaining. Of course we would expect a teams chance of scoring to be higher in this situation than in the first half (when they were likely to kneel) but combined with the 0/46 statistic, it seems likely the opponents chance of going 75+ yards to score in less than 30 seconds is probably about 2%. The decision to kneel and kick in this situation or run and try to score a Touchdown (and attempt a Field Goal on 4th down if you fail) is a judgement call.

A team may also opt to play a mix of the two strategies. In our first example we could  choose to kneel on 1st and 2nd down and then try to score on our 3rd down play with about 0:38 left and then kick on 4th down if we fail to score. For teams that are unconfident in their kicking operation, this may be a preferable option to scoring on 1st down and giving the opponent the ball back with a lot of time remaining.

The more difficult class of situation is when kneeling and kicking a Field Goal will leave our opponent with time on the clock. For instance, if we face First and Goal at our Opponents’ 2 with 1:45 remaining trailing by 2 and our opponent has 1 timeout, then if we kneel three times, our opponent will get the ball back with about 20 seconds remaining after our Field Goal Attempt.In this situation, our chance of winning by kneeling and kicking is simply the chance our kick is successful and our opponent does not score on their ensuing drive.

For the situation where kneeling and kicking will give our opponent a final drive to try to score a game winning Field Goal of their own, win probability can be modeled as:

Win Probability (Kneeling and Kicking) = Probability (Kick is Successful) * Probability (We stop opponent after kicking successfully)

Win Probability (Kneeling and Kicking) = .96*P(Stop Opponent)

We earlier defined the Win Probability of scoring with 1-2 minutes remaining to take a less than 1 touchdown lead as being about 90%.

Therefore, for kneeling and kicking to be preferable to scoring and giving the ball back:

Win Probability (Kneeling and Kicking) > Win Probability (Scoring)

.96*P(Stop Opponent) > .9

P(Stop Opponent) > .94

So kneeling and kicking is only preferable to scoring if the probability of our opponent scoring on their ensuing drive is less than 6%.

As stated, drives with 1:00-2:00 remaining score  about 10% of the time and drives with less than 0:31 remaining seldom score. Due to small samples, it’s not really clear how quickly the probability changes with 0:59 to 0:31 remaining. A reasonable guideline that isn’t too cute might be to kneel and kick only if it will leave our opponent under 0:25 to score on their ensuing drive.

Implementation

From an offensive perspective, the decision to kneel and kick instead of trying to gain yards when tied or trailing by 1-2 points is only relevant when the offense is within five yards of the opponents goal line. A team facing First & Ten at the opponents’ 25 should still try to gain yards, even if they can kneel and kick as time expires, as  43-yard field goals convert considerably less often than shorter attempts.

On the other hand, that same team may break a long play from the 25 in a situation where it is preferable to go down at the 1 yard line and then kneel and kick. As seen above, these situations can occasionally have significant impact in terms of win probability.

It is not fair to the players to expect the to be able to derive when to and not to score in the end of a game. Instead, teams should have a one word call to add to the end of their playcall to alert players when it is preferable not to score on the next play even if they break a long play. This call could be used prior to any play where a first down inside the opponents five would allow us to kneel and kick a Field Goal to take the lead with 0:25 remaining or less, which could be derived from a simple chart based on time remaining and opponent timeouts.