Sometimes it takes a really weird context to get coaches to be aggressive. I’m not going to be naming any of the myriad decisions to go for two from the Eagles-Lions snowstorm as candidates for good or bad calls in this week’s Thank You for Not Coaching, because the coaches were really choosing not to kick as opposed to choosing to try to succeed with an aggressive conversion, but it raised a thought for me: Is a team ever going to be that aggressive and go for two just about every time in a game that isn’t taking place in a snowstorm? That should happen at least once in a while, right?
Take last night’s Bears-Cowboys game. There’s little reason to think that the bitter cold would have affected Robbie Gould or Dan Bailey in terms of their ability to kick extra points, but that was a game between two teams that couldn’t tackle or do anything to stop the opposing offense at the point of attack. The four running backs who received carries combined to rush for 339 yards on 55 attempts, an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Theoretically, if your chances of succeeding on a two-point conversion are greater than 50 percent, that play should be your default choice in a vacuum at every opportunity, since you would expect to score more points on each average attempt by going for two than you would by kicking the sure extra point. I’m pretty sure that would have been the case in the Bears-Cowboys matchup had those teams tried to go for two each time. Alas, the Bears had to settle for a mere 45 points, aided by a lone two-point conversion along the way. Oh, speaking of …
The Three Best Moves of Week 14
3. The Bears make it a 21-point lead by going for two in the third quarter. Marc Trestman is unquestionably the best coach in the league in terms of knowing when his team should be trying two-point conversions in the context of a long-term lead or deficit. More than once this year, his team has trailed by multiple scores late in a game and has made serious runs toward a comeback by going for two at the right times. Take the first Bears-Lions game, in which the Lions were up 40-16 in the fourth before the Bears scored a touchdown with four minutes to go. Some teams kick in that situation, just because they’re not even thinking about formulating a realistic comeback. The Bears went for two and succeeded, and then did the same thing on their next touchdown with 47 seconds to go, which pushed them into a 40-32 deficit and created a one-possession game. Had they been able to pick up an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, Trestman would have created an opportunity to tie the game for his team by being smart.
It’s probably more fun to go for two at the right time when you’re winning, and Trestman did that Monday night. Rightly ignoring the arbitrary argument that it’s “too early,” Trestman’s Bears went up 33-14 on a Matt Forte touchdown with 17 minutes to go and then proceeded to go for two to try to go up 21 points, which they successfully pulled off via a pass to Brandon Marshall. The difference between a 20-point lead and a 21-point lead in that situation is significant; Dallas might very well have only three more possessions available in the game, and creating a situation where the Cowboys need three touchdowns to even tie the contest is a pretty meaningful opportunity. And the cool thing, of course, is that you don’t need to be a math whiz or rely heavily on analytics to get this stuff down. All you need to do is count. If a two-point conversion in the second half puts you ahead or behind by a key number — 7, 10, 14, 17, or 21 — chances are that you want to try a two-point conversion.
2. The Broncos kick an NFL-record 64-yard field goal to end the first half against Tennessee. John Fox must have skipped the Iron Bowl during his convalescence, because he rightly wasn’t afraid to try a long field goal at the end of the first half. While most football coaches would have had that lone bad outcome stuck in their mind and worried about the worst-case scenario, the Broncos play their home games in the appropriate context to attempt a record-setting field goal: Denver. The thin air there makes long field goals far easier to hit, so the 64-yard attempt from Matt Prater is really more like, say, a 57- or 58-yarder at a typical elevation. Still a hell of a kick, of course, but not quite as risky as it seems at first glance.
And, as was made clear here last week, the odds of a short kick being returned for a touchdown are far longer than you might believe. Tennessee’s return man, for one, watched Prater’s kick sail right past him for a make. In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, the Steelers tried to return a 52-yard field goal attempt by Caleb Sturgis at the end of the first half for a score, and while they were able to get their hands on the ball and begin a return, they made it only to midfield before being taken down. It was certainly less successful than their lateral-filled return at the end of the game.
1. Baltimore tries to convert fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Lost amid the crazy end to Sunday’s Ravens-Vikings game was the call of the week. Before all the lead changes, Baltimore was looking at a key scoring opportunity and had to make a critical call. John Harbaugh’s team was down 12-7 with 2:07 to go while facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. They had been stuffed on second down and had thrown an incomplete pass on third down from the same distance, and given how bad the Ravens have been running the football this year, you could forgive them for thinking the yard felt like a mountain. Baltimore also still had two timeouts, so it could theoretically kick the field goal to go down 12-10, kick deep, produce a stop with the two-minute warning (if the kickoff moved fast enough) and two timeouts, and leave itself enough time on the clock to drive for a game-winning field goal.
Those are a lot of things that have to go right, and Harbaugh rightly saw a different scenario ahead of him. By going for it on fourth-and-goal, he left himself with two chances to take the lead. If he failed on the fourth-down try, he would pin an Adrian Peterson–less Vikings team on the 1-yard line, a move that would likely produce a three-and-out. Unless the Ravens ran eight seconds off the clock with their play, that three-and-out would be accounted for by the two-minute warning and the two remaining Baltimore timeouts. A Vikings punt would likely move the ball to midfield, where the Ravens would take over with nearly two minutes on the clock in need of a touchdown. It was very clearly the right call, and Harbaugh was rewarded when Joe Flacco found a returning Dennis Pitta for a one-yard score. He then correctly went for two to go up 15-12 and succeeded, but, of course, there were still four more touchdowns to go in the game. You know, like normal football.
Strike the Narrative
You may have heard the stories about how Peyton Manning can’t handle the cold weather, both before and after Denver’s loss to New England in Week 12. You may also have read after the game that Manning’s purported issues with the cold were mostly mythical and subject to some very questionable manipulation of the numbers. It seems like a waste of time to criticize one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history over something that isn’t really an issue, but hey, whatever floats your boat, right?
The Broncos weren’t taking that for an answer, man. When the Titans showed up to town last Sunday in a game that featured an opening temperature of 18 degrees with the wind chill pushing it down to 11, well, the Broncos struck. Manning threw a whopping 59 passes during the contest, producing the sort of gaudy numbers you might expect from a Manning performance in balmy temperatures: 39-of-59, 397 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions. In conditions that were worse than the ones that supposedly bothered him in New England, Manning faced an above-average pass defense and torched it. After making Marcus Cooper look every bit of the seventh-rounder he is the previous week, Manning took on All-Pro hopeful Alterraun Verner and left his candidacy in pieces. It was a triumphant performance from the likely league MVP.
Interestingly enough, a picture started to form after the game. Manning was asked about the cold-weather problems, and he let off steam with what basically counts as a string of expletives for him: “Whoever wrote that narrative can shove it where the sun don’t shine,” Manning told a Denver radio station. Ross Tucker of NBC suggested after the game that it was an organizational plan:
Never seen a total organizational effort from play-calling to PR to change narrative like Broncos & Peyton/cold weather
— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) December 9, 2013
I don’t know whether the Broncos actually wanted to get rid of the cold-weather argument for Manning, but I think their pass-run ratio was atypically skewed in the pass-heavy direction for a game in which Denver led for most of the contest. The more interesting question, I think, is whether the Broncos should really care one way or the other.
On one hand, it’s probably good to keep your players happy. If Manning’s fuming that he’s being perceived as a player who can’t handle the cold, there probably is something to letting him shine in the chilly weather, just to prove his point. On the other hand, though, if Manning really thinks there’s no difference between how he plays in the cold as opposed to more comfortable climates, isn’t it better for the rest of the league to think there’s a problem with Manning? It might be an entirely academic exercise, since I don’t think teams are going to be pumping nine men into the box in cold weather and daring Manning to throw, but there’s probably some slight benefit to be had if a team thinks there’s some tiny impact in creating space or time for Manning.
I don’t know that there’s a right answer or a wrong one to take away from this whole debate, but I do think it’s an interesting angle with regard to coaching. If you have a player who is popularly perceived to have a problem, is it incumbent upon you as a coach to create an opportunity for that player to prove the story wrong? And while the Broncos were lucky to have a cold-weather game pop up on their schedule, how does a coach like Bill Belichick create a situation to prove that Stevan Ridley doesn’t have a fumbling problem? That’s the coaching stuff that is harder than counting whether it’s time to go for two.
The Week in Halftime Draws
Sadly, this was coming. The only player I had known was injured during a pre-halftime draw play in an NFL game this year was Bengals safety Taylor Mays, who was hurt defending a meaningless handoff in October, suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season. There have been a couple of college football players who have been hurt on halftime draws (according to my spies, at least), but no offensive player had been injured because of a halftime draw at the pro level this year.
That changed on Sunday. The Packers — a team riddled with injuries on offense — lined up on its own 32-yard line with four seconds left in the first half and handed the ball to rookie halfback Eddie Lacy, who promptly gained a yard before suffering an ankle injury. The ankle problem wasn’t enough to keep Lacy from returning to the game later in the third quarter, but it slowed him noticeably and bothered him throughout the rest of the contest. Lacy said after the game that he couldn’t push off the ankle when he needed to during the second half. He gutted his way through the contest, but his availability for a crucial Week 15 game against the Cowboys remains in question. Sigh.
The other notably naive halftime draw came from a trusted friend. Ron Rivera did see his team convert a fourth-and-17 for another fourth-down touchdown late in the game, but he was wrong to let DeAngelo Williams get off a halftime draw with 18 seconds left in the first half from Carolina’s own 20-yard line. The Panthers had already lost Jonathan Stewart to a knee injury earlier in the game, and Williams has had injury issues of his own throughout his career. There was nothing the Panthers could do that would make them feel better about themselves after allowing the Saints to score a touchdown with 22 seconds left in the first half. They should have kneeled and moved on. They were luckier, fortunately, than the Packers.
The Three Worst Decisions of Week 14
3. Dallas punts on fourth-and-4 from the Chicago 41-yard line in the third quarter. Chicago-Dallas wasn’t exactly the SEC championship game, but it wasn’t too far off, either. The Bears and Cowboys were basically able to run the ball at will on one another, which makes punting seem like an ill-advised decision given the context. That’s why it was frustrating to see the Cowboys, down 27-14 without having forced the Bears to punt once during the first half, punting on fourth-and-4 relatively deep inside Chicago territory. The punt produced 31 yards of field position, which the Bears promptly wiped off the board six plays later. Dallas never ended up forcing Chicago to punt, which is a bad way to win a football game.
In a way, I guess the bigger problem here is with the call to pass on third-and-4. The Cowboys’ greatest success all night came on the stretch play, with DeMarco Murray doing his niftiest Terrell Davis impersonation in making one cut and bursting upfield for big chunks of yardage. Chicago’s run defense is in shambles, and it wasn’t likely to be much better in the second half. The Cowboys probably should have run on third down knowing that they would likely run again on fourth down if they didn’t pick up the four yards required for a conversion. In either case, a punt was suboptimal given the offensive context of the game.
2. The Giants go for one while down 31-13 to open the fourth quarter. You know, because 15 minutes of game time is too early to try a two-point conversion. Eli Manning would probably have his mind incepted and think he actually wanted a trade from the Giants to the Chargers if Big Blue went for two that early. Alas, despite the possibility to turn an 18-point lead into a 16-point one and turn a three-possession game into a two-possession contest, Tom Coughlin kicked the extra point and just assumed his defense would stop San Diego for three consecutive drives. That didn’t happen. Coughlin should have gone for two if he thought his team had a 39 percent chance of succeeding or better.
1. Sean Payton turns down a holding penalty that would have given him a first-and-10 in favor of a second-and-3 situation. I really like Payton, and I know this isn’t exactly a game-changing decision, but I just can’t make any sense out of this call. His team started a drive with a seven-yard completion from Drew Brees to Robert Meachem, but Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson was whistled for holding on the play. If Payton accepted the holding call, he would have left his team with a first-and-10 on its own 21-yard line. Instead, he mysteriously declined the call, giving New Orleans second-and-3 on its own 23.
Of course, that’s a trade that makes no sense. You would always trade two yards for a new set of downs; no team would prefer, say, second-and-8 to first-and-10. But that’s the trade Payton made, keeping the two extra yards gained by the play while keeping the lost down. You’d make that trade only if New Orleans’s expectation on the ensuing first down was below two yards, and while Mark Ingram lurks dangerously around this conversation, that’s clearly not the case. Payton is one of the league’s best in-game coaches, but this was a bizarre decision.