From potty-mouthed Cordarrelle Patterson polluting Nickelodeon’s supposedly G-rated airwaves (earmuffs!) to living legends Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers potentially taking their final NFL snaps, Wild Card Weekend was memorable on many fronts. Lamar Jackson turning on the jets like Michael Vick was a highlight for some, but for others (myself included), the inaugural “Super Wild Card” slate will most be remembered for its punts.
You may be familiar with the Surrender Index, a football metric masterminded by Google software engineer Andrew Shackelford. Essentially, Shackelford’s algorithm (which he says was inspired by Jon Bois of “Scorigami” fame) measures punts by how “cowardly” they are based on a variety of factors including score, field position and time remaining.
As football has evolved, we’ve seen teams—particularly those that embrace analytics—attempt fourth downs on a more frequent basis, trusting their offenses to maintain possession. But coaches largely abandoned that trend Sunday, inexplicably punting on a number of plays when the offense should seemingly have stayed on the field.
For instance, the Titans, who were trailing Baltimore 17-13 with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, opted to punt on fourth-and-two from the Ravens’ 40-yard-line. The call from coach Mike Vrabel registered an astronomical 138.87 on the Surrender Index, placing it in the 99.92nd percentile of cowardly punts since 2009 (that’s as far back as the model goes). With their season on the line, the Titans decided they’d rather play the field-position game than give quarterback Ryan Tannehill a chance to convert on fourth and short. Had Tennessee tried for a field goal instead, Stephen Gostkowski would have been on the hook for a 58-yarder, four yards shy of his career-long.
Facing an early four-touchdown deficit Sunday night, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin played it entirely too safe, signaling for punter Jordan Berry on fourth-and-nine from Cleveland’s 38-yard-line. While not as egregious as Tennessee’s head-scratcher hours earlier, punting from an opponents’ 38 is still mighty cowardly, especially when the scoreboard reads 28-0.
Apparently, Tomlin didn’t glean much from that experience because he dialed up another questionable punt in the fourth quarter, this time summoning Berry on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers’ 46. Pittsburgh was still within striking distance—the Browns held a 35-23 advantage at the time. But Tomlin’s conservative approach proved costly with Nick Chubb’s subsequent 40-yard touchdown burst stretching Cleveland’s lead to 19 with 12:32 remaining.
Even the Saints got into the act, landing in the 98th percentile of cowardly punts by booting it from the Bears’ 38-yard-line. New Orleans would ultimately dispatch Chicago in relatively stress-free fashion (21-9 was the final tally), but it was still jarring to see Sean Payton call on the punt unit when Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time leader in virtually every passing statistic, needed only four yards for the first down.
Was what we saw Sunday a case of playoff coaching jitters, a sudden aversion to analytics or some messy concoction of the two? In any case, as a football consumer, I’d much prefer coaches let loose, allowing offenses to do what they do best instead of turning the playoffs into an anticlimactic punt-fest.