In March, the Denver Broncos traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks and three other players to acquire Russell Wilson. Then they reaffirmed their commitment to Wilson earlier this month with a five-year, $245 million contract extension.
Those are massive investments to make in a quarterback just to take the ball out of his hands with a game on the line.
Rather than allow Wilson to try and convert 4th and 5th Monday night in Seattle, new Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett brought in strong-legged kicker Brandon McManus to try and win the game with a 64-yard field goal. McManus’ kick drifted left, condemning the Broncos to a 17-16 season-opening loss, ruining Wilson’s attempt to brag against his former team and exposing Hackett to a torrent of criticism over his curious decisions end of game.
In 2021, NFL offenses went there 47 times on 4th and 5th and converted 23 of those attempts to first downs — a success rate of nearly 50%. By contrast, only two NFL kickers have made field goals for 64 yards or more in a game, Matt Prater in the air in Denver in 2013 and Justin Tucker in a domed stadium in Detroit last October.
There are several reasons why it’s difficult for NFL analysts to quantify exactly how much impact Hackett’s decision to go for a field goal impacted Denver’s winning chances. Not only do win probability models struggle to offer accurate projections during the final minute of matches, but estimating the probability of kicking over 60 yards only adds to the guess because there aren’t many fore kicks from that distance to continue.
Aaron Schatz, a pioneer of advanced NFL statistics and the creator of Football Outsiders, described Hackett choosing to throw a field goal as “a mind-blowing decision”. Schatz’s win probability model suggests that with 20 seconds left, the Broncos had a 36.1% chance of winning when going for 4th and 5th compared to just 7.4% when going for the field goal.
“If the basket had been 58 or 59 yards, our model has it more like a coin toss decision,” Schatz told Yahoo Sports. “But that difference of 6 or 7 yards is a big difference. They get really tough after 60 yards. There’s a reason there were only two field goals from 64 yards or more.
Football data scientist and economist Ben Baldwin offers a slightly more optimistic picture of Hackett’s situational decision-making. Because he assumes McManus had a 20 percent chance of scoring a 64-yard field goal, his model gives Denver a 34 percent chance of winning with 20 seconds left versus 18 percent on a kick attempt.
Michael Lopez, senior director of football data and analytics at the NFL, considers Hackett’s decision to attempt a field goal the most justifiable. The main reason is Lopez giving McManus the best chance for 64 yards.
While NFL kickers are just 2-for-41 all-time from 64 yards or more, many of those attempts are products of a bygone era. Today’s kickers are more powerful and more accurate. Not only are they better athletes, but they often specialize in kicks as early as college and enjoy increased access to kicking coaches, private lessons, and instructional camps.
In NFL history, there have been 20 baskets scored from 61 yards or more. Sixteen have come in the past decade. Since 2017.
McManus has scored just one field goal from beyond 60 yards in eight NFL seasons, but the fact that he attempted kicks as long as 70 yards says a lot about Lopez.
“His coaches clearly trust him to do those kicks,” Lopez told Yahoo Sports. “It gives me more insight into what he does in training and how far they think he can do it.
During his postgame press conference Monday night, Hackett told reporters that as they advanced toward Seattle’s 46-yard line, the Broncos were in a “strange place” on the edge of the end range. by McManus. He noted that the offense spat and that he trusted McManus.
“We just made the decision to try our luck there,” Hackett said.
McManus tweeted Monday night that the 46-yard line was his “hit line”.
“They got it there,” he wrote. “Need to do the kick.
There are a wide range of opinions on Hackett’s decision to go for the 64-yard field goal, but there can be little debate about his dismal clock management before this play. After Javonte Williams caught a 9-yard pass to set up Seattle’s fateful 4th-and-5 from the 46-yard line, Hackett opted to let more than 40 seconds pass before calling Denver’s first of three timeouts with 20 seconds remaining in the regulations. .
While Hackett’s decision would have left Seattle with minimal time to respond had McManus scored the field goal, it also left Denver with no outs. With three timeouts remaining and just over a minute on the game clock, the Broncos could have quickly run a fourth down. If that succeeded, it was time to set up a chip shot basket for McManus. If that failed, the defense still had a chance to get a quick save and give Wilson one more possession.
“An epic failure of situational coaching and game management,” tweeted Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com.
As popular as Hackett’s late game decisions are, it’s fair to say that they weren’t the only reason the Broncos suffered an upset loss. Denver could have been up two points in the final minutes had they converted their previous red-zone opportunities.
A promising second-half drive ended with Melvin Gordon fumbling over the goal line in 4th-and-1. Another ended with Williams spitting the football inside the 5-yard line. A third produced only one field goal even though the Broncos at one point had Seattle’s first and first 3-yard line.
Yet despite those failures, the Broncos had the ball in Wilson’s hands late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game — historically a pretty good place to be.
During his decorated NFL career, Wilson crafted 32 game-winning drives and 24 fourth-quarter comebacks. On Monday night, upon his return to Seattle, his new coach opted to take the ball out of his hands rather than let him try to add to those tallies.