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Breaking down Jim Caldwell’s decision to onside kick early in the game

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Did Jim Caldwell make the right decision to onside kick the ball with 2:53 left?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions lost to the Houston Texans 20-13. Their performance was all around bad, from offense to defense and even a little special teams thrown in there. However, the conversation following the game was all about Jim Caldwell’s unorthodox decision to try an onside kick with 2:53 remaining in the game and all three timeouts in tow. The decision was almost universally panned by fans, but let’s dive a little deeper into the strategy and see arguments for both sides.

First, here’s what Caldwell had to say about the play.

As for giving the Texans a short field, Caldwell said, "If you stop the run, no matter where you stop them, in that situation—if we get another stop early—we still would have had another chance at it."

Caldwell’s explanation has some merit to it, but let’s break down each side of the argument.

Why Caldwell’s decision was wrong

If the Lions would have kicked the ball deep, it would have afforded the defense a little breathing room, not only in field position, but also in margin for error. Presuming a touchback, the Texans would have had the ball with 2:53 left and the Lions had three timeouts. That means the Texans would have had to run at least two plays before the two-minute warning, and the Lions could have stopped the clock three additional times. In essence, the Lions could have given up at least two first downs—possibly three, depending on how many plays it took—and still had a chance to get the ball back.

By choosing the onside kick, he left the defense with no margin for error. The Lions had to force a three-and-out or bust. A first down would not only mean the Texans could drain all of the Lions’ timeouts, but would already put them in field goal range. Unless the Texans missed a field goal, Houston would go up two possessions, essentially ending the game.

Why Caldwell’s decision was right

The Lions defense is horrible, we all know that. If there’s an option that allows you to avoid relying on them at the end of the game, it’s worth considering. The success rate of an onside kick is about 20 percent, and given that the Texans didn’t appear to have their hands team in there, that percentage may even be a little higher—surprise onside kicks are recovered 60 percent of the time.

Even though the Lions didn’t recover the kick, they still had a chance to win the game. If Detroit could have held the Texans to a three-and-out, Houston would have either faced a very long field goal attempt—which would probably be too risky to attempt, given that the Lions would get good field goal position if missed—or punted the ball away. That may pin the Lions deep in their own zone, but Detroit would have well over two minutes left to score.

In the end, field position didn’t even end up mattering. The fact that the Texans were in field goal position was moot, as Houston was able to run out the clock because the defense couldn’t stop them. Caldwell bet on the Lions defense failing, and he was right.

Conclusion

Of course, just because Caldwell’s mistrust in the defense turned out to be right doesn’t mean it was the right decisions. This "correctness" of this decision comes down to math of several unknown probabilities. Here are the scenarios in which the Lions get the ball back in both situations.

Onside kick: Onside kick + defensive three-and-out

Normal kick: Defensive three-and-out + defense allows one first down + turnover + defense allows two first downs*

So in the end, this decision comes down to one very simple question: Do you believe the Lions were more likely to convert an onside kick or more likely to hold the Texans to just one or two first downs on defense?

To me, that answer is not as clear as some are making it out to be. I don’t think this was a huge blunder by Caldwell. In fact, it wasn’t even his biggest blunder of the game (see: not challenging the drop/fumble).

*This is only true in some scenarios, mostly if it only takes 3-4 plays to get two first downs, and even then, the Lions would only get the ball back with under a minute left or so.