Jim Harbaugh is a Very Careful Man

Last night’s Seahawks-49ers game had a very odd ending.  Not in that the 49ers won, or even in how they did it (although the whole game was less impressive than I thought it would be), but in that they had an option of how clearly to win and Jim Harbaugh was willing to split hairs over it.

I was hoping to use Brian Burke’s win probability calculator to work through some of this, but I’m getting an error right now.  I don’t think it’s overly important though, as we’ll see.  If you didn’t watch, the Seahawks were down to 4th and 17 at their own 4 with about 50 seconds left in the game.  They were also out of time outs.  As such, they had very little chance of winning.  They had to convert at least 17 yards on one play just to have the opportunity to go another 80 yards in 45 seconds, just to get the game to overtime.  And this was a game where neither team could pass; they spent the whole game beating each other with the run game.

On that 4th down, Russell Wilson completed a pass just next to the first down marker, but there was a penalty in the end zone on the offense.  Thus the 49ers had the option to take the penalty, which would result in a safety, or allow the play to stand.  Harbaugh decided to decline the penalty so long as the mark was short of the first down marker.  It seemed like crazy talk, but let’s take a look at the options.

The 49ers were up by 7.  If the pass is short of the marker, the Seahawks turn it over and the 49ers can kneel out the game.  Barring a fumbled snap, the game is over.  If the pass was a first down, they accept the penalty and go up by 9.  Seattle also then has to kick them the ball.  This sounds pretty good too.  But, in theory, the 49ers could have muffed the kick or Seattle could have even attempted an onside kick (I had to do some digging around, but apparently teams can onside kick after a safety, it’s just hard because you can’t use a tee).  But let’s say one of those two tragedies happened.  Since free kicks occur from the 20, Seattle would have had the ball around their 30 (if they onside kicked) or likely near midfield (if the kick was muffed).  At this point, they would have needed to go the rest of the length of the field, still without time outs, scored, then recovered another onside kick and scored again to win.  At least one of those two scores would have to be a touchdown.

So let’s work the math there.  Decline the penalty and 49ers get the ball immediately: 100% 49ers win.  Accept the penalty and force Seattle to kick: let’s say 5% chance of recovering the onside or muffed punt (I have no idea, but my guess is that percentage is generous to Seattle in this circumstance), 10% chance of Seattle scoring (again, probably high), 20% chance of recovering an onside kick (that’s the league average for expected onside kicks, according to Brian), and another 10% chance of scoring.  That means Seattle had something like a .05*.1*.2*.1 = .01%  (yes, a hundredth of a percent) chance to win, or the 49ers had a 99.99% chance of winning.  So given the option, Harbaugh picked 100% of 99.99%, which is obviously a reasonable thing to do but hardly seems worth the effort.  Maybe he just got tired of trying to figure out how likely all that stuff was and decided to take the 100% win.

Of course, the decision had some other repercussions.  For example, apparently some money changed hands.  More importantly for me, it turned a loss into a push for all my model picks.  Thanks for being anal, Jim!

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