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Bills Mathia: Too Many Men on the Field

A hybrid analysis and math discussion

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While it may take a number of nails to seal a coffin, it’s the last one that gets remembered isn’t it? That’s my way of saying that the too-many-men-on-the-field flag on the Buffalo Bills, which allowed a retry on a failed field goal... really sucked. The flag was of course a thing that occurred after the Bills made substitutions to take off their defensive personnel and put their field goal blocking unit in. The decision to make substitutions has created a lot of ire with a fair few fans this week. Not me though. Prepare to yell at me in the comments as I defend the decision to sub.

Also a shout out to Hornell Fred whose debate sparked the math dive that led to this video. Love ya Fred and hope to be talking about this great game with you for a long time to come.

This is one of the longest videos I’ve done, over 11 minutes in length. I cover quite a bit more than the decision to substitute players and get the field goal blocking unit in. Right before the flag in question, the Buffalo Bills had called a timeout with 24 second left in regulation. Was that the right call too?

I argue it was. The Bills could have held on to the timeout. However, quarterback Russell Wilson had just knelt down on second down. That keeps the game clock running. It also resets the play clock. That means Buffalo sitting on their timeout would have allowed Denver to wait until there was five seconds or so on the clock and snap the ball for a spike. A spike counts as an incomplete pass. It stops the game clock and resets the play clock. Meaning Denver would have had 40 secondd to get their field goal unit ready. At the Buffalo 20.

Calling the timeout forced the Broncos to do something with that third down aside from burn clock. I don’t think this is likely at all, but what if Denver said “It’s third down, we have two chances to win the game” and took a shot at the end zone. Buffalo picks off the ball 3.14% of the time on passing attempts. Not a guarantee, but a chance. A sack would have been great. An incompletion would have acted like a fourth time out for Buffalo. Denver would have still kicked the field goal, but Buffalo would have gotten the ball back.

The likely thing is what occurred. The Broncos knelt the ball again to get the clock running. This did two things for Buffalo. It gave them another kneel-down to try and get a fumble. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa did burst through the line. Again, small chance, but better than zero. It also forced Denver to start the game clock again. Meaning yes, they get a field goal attempt but it’s a panicked one. For the record... that did work.

I need to keep some things strictly to the video so before I jump to the math, I’ll add that watching the video will provide you with some evidence that Buffalo’s coaching staff seemed to have already prepared their guys to do the quick subs (one person clearly was a bit confused).

For the Bills Mathia part of the day, I highlighted defensive end Shaq Lawson’s blocked field goal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With one blocked kick on 19 attempts, the Bills have blocked 5.2% of attempts against them. What the odds of them committing a too-many-men-on-the-field infraction? That would be one flag on 1,539 attempts, or 0.065%.

Want the league numbers? There have been 12 blocked field goals on 618 attempts for a 1.94% rate. For the flags, there have been 23 on 41,722 opportunities. The video breaks down how I arrived at the 41,722 number, but that rate comes out to 0.055%.

What does this all mean? The odds of blocking a field goal aren’t great. Let’s be clear on that. But they’re not so low as to be unreasonable to try. On the other hand, the odds of a too-many-men-on-the-field flag are so low as to be insignificant when considering outcomes of a play. Here’s another way to look at it. You see one of these flags once out of every 909 plays.

A major criticism of head coach Sean McDermott over the years have been claims he “plays not to lose.” Making a football decision out of fear that a too-many-men-on-the-field flag might occur is the definition of playing scared and not to lose. It’s an incredibly low risk and should never be used to justify giving up an opportunity that increases your chance of success.

Or looking at it another way: Leaving your defense in is nothing more than giving up and hoping the other guy screws up. McDermott hasn’t been flawless, but trying to do something about it was the right call.