I’d dare to say that there aren’t many football fans in the world who haven’t heard of the legendary 1994 matchup between Plano East and John Tyler.
The game featured seven touchdowns in the final four and a half minutes of the game, and it’s been billed by sportswriters across America as the greatest high school game ever played. There was added pressure in this matchup as well, the winner would move on to the Region II Finals. If you lose, you go home. It was a heavyweight bout, Plano East was ranked second in the state with John Tyler following up in third.
It’s the most improbable game of all time, as far as football probabilities go. Through Pro Football Reference’s Win Probability Calculator, we have the means to calculate nearly exactly how improbable it was. Since there were no Vegas lines for this game that are available, we’ll be running at a flat 0 for that variable.
Before all this had happened, John Tyler had forced two fumbles that were ran back for scores, making a narrow-ish 27-17 lead balloon into a 41-17 blowout. Plano East fans were exiting the stadium, and the John Tyler starters were taking their pads off, sure that the game was over.
“Bingo, Bango, Bongo”
As the Panthers took the field down 41-17, the probability of Plano East winning the game was at a paltry .31%. John Tyler was up by 24 points, there’s less than three minutes in the game, and the Panthers need some serious magic to come back. Jeff Whitley hit his receiver in stride, making the score 41-24, and now we’re on to the first onside kick of the night.
In the 2015 NFL season, there were 66 onside kicks attempted. Only 9 were converted. That’s good for a .134 onside kick completion rating. When you factor in that surprise onside kicks are more likely to be converted as opposed to ones the defense sees coming, that number dips even further towards 0.
Regardless, Plano East recovered the onside kick, and was now driving the field again, down 42-24.
The chance that John Tyler wins the game was still extremely high. Terence Green made an acrobatic catch, and Whitley threw for a first down practically from his back.
The Panthers converted a 4th and Goal with 1:31 remaining to bring the score to 41-31. The Lions had begun putting their starters back in. Before the score, the probability sat at a still insanely low .39% chance of Plano East winning the football game. After the second converted onside kick, that number would increase.
“If they can slip some Vaseline on that football, now’s the time to do it.”
The ball squirted loose from Rod Dunn’s hands, and the Panthers were on the march again. At the beginning of the drive, the probability of the Panthers winning was a tad bit higher at 2.08%. Plano East drove the field, scored, and attempted a two-point conversion that failed. The scoreboard read 41-37. The probability of converting three onside kicks in one single game, according to the 2015 NFL numbers, is .046%.
The Panthers converted their third onside kick thanks to Rod Dunn mishandling his second onside kick in the past ten minutes, and were in a position to drive the field and win the game.
“I’m out of words, I’m just gonna sit back and watch it happen.”
The probability of winning a game when you’re down four and have 50 yards to go is 24.32%. The Panthers deftly cut through the Lions defense thanks to a Whitley-to-Green connection. With the Panthers at the 22 yard line, the probability meter jumped up to 43.40%, not in the Panther’s favor yet, but certainly closer than they ever had been.
To put this in perspective: Plano East was down by 24 points with less than three minutes left in the game. They had just scored three touchdowns and converted three onside kicks in around two minutes and thirty seconds of game time, and likely around ten to fifteen minutes of real time.
The Panthers hit a throwback pass, and took the lead 44-41.
“God bless those kids. I am sick, I want to throw up.”
Among the top 25 return men in the 2015 NFL regular season, there were nine kickoffs ran back for touchdowns. Those 25 men were allowed to return the ball 533 times.
Rod Dunn, the man who had bungled the last two onside kicks and allowed the Panthers back into the game, returned the kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
In a matter of minutes, the probability of the Panthers winning the game went from 2.08% to 99.67% back down to 14.52%. They would not win.
John Tyler would go on to win the state title. No team would get within ten points of them for the rest of the season.
Obviously, the numbers are not perfectly exact. The generator used is intended for professional football, and the reference numbers for onside kicks and kick returns are taken from specific sample sizes during the 2015 NFL season, a game that is completely different from that at the high school level, especially over 20 years later. However, when you look at the numbers that went into this game, the swings of emotion, and the things that numbers can’t account for, it’s easy to see that this was the greatest football game of all time.