The biggest decision made by a coach during Week 4 was covered in the Monday football recap, but there are still plenty of coaching decisions to cover in today’s Thank You for Not Coaching. As always, let’s start with the bright side of the ledger
The Best Decisions of Week 4
3. Marc Trestman goes for two down 40-22. It’s heartening to see a coach properly execute one of the obvious go-for-two scenarios, even as Brian Billick talked over the decision as one that “isn’t on the chart.” It should be if it isn’t. Trestman’s decision even took the Lions by surprise, which forced them to burn a timeout to get the right defenders on the field. And, as it turned out, making the correct decision actually did open up a slim window for the Bears that wouldn’t have otherwise existed; the Bears made the two-pointer here to make it 40-24, then made it again on the next touchdown drive to produce a 40-32 score, which gave them an opportunity to recover an expected onside kick in an attempt to get one final drive to tie the game. Had they kicked an extra point here, they couldn’t have been within one score after that second touchdown and wouldn’t have had even an opportunity to tie.
And, sure enough, a coach got a very similar decision wrong during Monday Night Football. Joe Philbin kicked an extra point down 35-16 with 13:54 left in the fourth quarter last night, leaving the Dolphins down 18 points. What’s the utility of being down 18 as opposed to 19? How could a situation unfold in which Philbin would be happy he kicked the extra point? Of course, a 17-point deficit actually has tangible benefits; the Dolphins could then theoretically tie with two touchdowns and a field goal (winning with three touchdowns either way). That’s basically a freebie decision that coaches are leaving on the table because they’re just not thinking about what to do in those situations. It was good for the Bears that Trestman had been, because it nearly got them back into the game.
2. The Falcons go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 7-yard line (and fail). Despite the hindsight-driven analysis from the commentators on Sunday night, the Falcons were right to go for it when they were down 7-3 in the second quarter. While the crew noted that the Falcons “could have used those three points” during their fourth-quarter comeback attempt, they could have used a touchdown a lot more. To be more specific, the Falcons were in a situation in which they needed as many points as possible to try to compete with one of the league’s best quarterbacks. The Advanced NFL Stats fourth-down calculator suggests that a team is right to go for it in that scenario if its chances of succeeding on fourth down are better than 39 percent. Atlanta’s surely above that, given the injury to Vince Wilfork and its relative skills on offense. That calculator estimates the Falcons would produce 3.1 points by going for it and 2.3 points by kicking a field goal.
Furthermore, it’s not like the Falcons ran a hopeless play. Their play call got Roddy White open at the marker for an easy first down, but Matt Ryan overthrew him. That’s on the execution of the players on a simple pass play, not on a coaching decision. I obviously had issues with Mike Smith’s late-game execution, but this was the right call.
1. 49ers go for it on fourth-and-1 (and score a touchdown). Most coaches would have taken the points. With a 7-3 lead and 44 seconds to go in the first half, at the helm of a sputtering offense and after being stuffed on third-and-1 for no gain, most coaches would have lined up for a 51-yard field goal and passed on the higher-risk, higher-reward opportunity. Not Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh lined up behind the strength of his team — that offensive line — and ran Frank Gore off tackle. The result was a 34-yard touchdown that gave San Francisco a 14-3 lead. The Niners should basically never forgo a fourth-and-1 with Colin Kaepernick, Gore, and that offensive line around, but this was a key moment for an offense that, honestly, needed a bit of a boost. A conversion would have been just fine, but the 49ers were undoubtedly happy to come away with a touchdown. Would they have gone for it had they been 10 yards closer to the uprights? Maybe not. But they should have.
Speaking of That SNF Game
I was also a fan of Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 to try to seal the game on New England’s final meaningful possession, the one that ended with Tom Brady fumbling a fourth-and-1 snap for the second time this season and losing the ball. I’ve covered Brady’s success on these plays in the past, and while he’s not 100 percent, he’s about as close as an NFL player can be in short yardage. You don’t want to risk him on every short-yardage conversion, but sealing a game seems like a good time to pull that off. And just like with the Falcons, poor execution doesn’t negate a proper decision. Belichick’s playing to the historical strength of his team (offense) and avoiding its recent weakness (defense) while doing the same thing in terms of what Atlanta is and isn’t good at. You give Atlanta better field position by not punting, but the reward of possibly ending the game is very obviously worth the risk.
One place I would have hesitated to attempt a conversion was in Kansas City, where the Giants faced a fourth-and-1 from their own 30-yard line down 10-7 with 1:55 left in the third quarter. Big Blue punted and saw Dexter McCluster take said punt to the house, which created some dissension after the game. As Victor Cruz said in reference to the incident, “We’ve got to take a risk at some point and make something happen.”
That’s true, but that play wasn’t the place to take a risk. The Chiefs only led by three points in a game in which the Giants might possibly have expected to need one drive to grab a lead that could give them the game. There was a better place to take a shot and, though Cruz might not remember, the Giants actually did: During their two-minute drill before halftime, New York passed on a 52-yard field goal to try to convert fourth-and-2 from the 35-yard line, a move that came out of limited options in no-man’s-land, but one that also basically represents the risk Cruz was hoping to embody. The Giants did pick up the conversion with a seven-yard completion to Cruz, but they then let the clock run and Josh Brown ended up missing a 44-yard field goal on the stroke of halftime to keep the score 10-7.
And while I empathize with Cruz’s desire for a spark underneath the team (possibly shooting most of it to space), it’s hard to justify going for it on fourth-and-1 against a great defense when you’re missing your two best offensive linemen, as the Giants were Sunday. A spark is great, but a spark isn’t going to magically make a pass rush, a secondary, a confident running back, and competent special teams appear.
Field Goal Range
The patron saint of my “all field goals inside a kicker’s range aren’t created equal” argument is Jason Garrett, who has appeared to believe in the past that Dan Bailey’s leg is capable of turning 50-plus-yard field goals into chip shots. Bailey’s not bad from there at all, having gone 7-for-12 from 50-plus during his career, but like any kicker, he’s better from 35 than he is from 55. Garrett’s clock management once he gets into that maroon zone of field goal range, though, places more emphasis on avoiding turnovers altogether than it does on creating an easier kick.
Garrett made another curious choice Sunday in what amounted to a no-man’s-land situation. With the Cowboys facing fourth-and-6 on the San Diego 38-yard line in the middle of the second quarter of a tie game, he decided the best option would be to have Bailey attempt a 56-yard field goal, which the kicker pushed wide.
My initial suspicion was that Garrett had chosen the worst of three options, but let’s see. The aforementioned Advanced NFL Stats calculator suggests that going for it is best. By doing that, Garrett’s expected return is 0.71 points. If Garrett punts, by virtue of the expected gain in field position, he basically breaks even, with an expected return of 0.04 points. But if Garrett chooses to kick, as he actually did, the risk of great field position he would be gifting the Chargers with a miss (weighed against the possibility of making it) produces an expectation of -0.10 points; in other words, it’s possible that Garrett not only made the worst choice of the three by kicking, but that he actually made a decision that would cost his team points.
Now, the Advanced NFL Stats figures are in a vacuum and don’t adjust for the teams in question, but I have to figure that the personnel situation would make going for it a more obvious choice. Tony Romo’s a very good mobile quarterback with two excellent healthy receivers in Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, and while the Chargers still had Dwight Freeney at that point of the game, I don’t think their defense is so stout that it would make sense to doubt the numbers in terms of going for it. Bailey might be a better-than-average kicker (his 50-plus numbers are too small of a sample to say), but even if we assume that he has a better shot of making this long field goal than most, I think it’s pretty clear that the correct option was to go for it, and it shouldn’t have been much of a choice at all.
What do most coaches choose in this situation? As you might suspect, the most conservative choice of the three. In relatively similar situations — game within 14 points, between five and seven yards to go, ball between the opposition’s 37- and 39-yard lines — teams since 1999 have punted nearly 74 percent of the time. They were twice as likely to go for it as they were to kick a field goal, though. Somehow, Garrett chose the least conventional and, quite possibly, the least optimal decision of the three available to him.
The Three Worst Decisions of Week 4
3. Arizona kneels on third-and-goal to get the ball on the proper hashmark for a lead-taking field goal in the fourth quarter. Let’s start the bottom three in Tampa Bay, where the Cardinals made a very curious kneel-down. Facing third-and-goal from the Arizona 7-yard line in a 10-10 game with 1:37 to go, the Cardinals chose to abandon any attempt to try to score a touchdown, instead choosing to run Carson Palmer over to the hashmark for a kneel-down and loss of two that set up a 27-yard field goal, which Jay Feely put through the uprights for the game-winning score.
Now, I have a Bruce Arians decoder hat (it comes with the Irsay kit), so I can understand what his thinking was here. The Cardinals want to accomplish a few things at once: They want to ensure they come away with the lead, they don’t want to risk very much (especially after throwing an interception in the end zone earlier in the game), and they want to keep the ball in play to either get the Buccaneers to use their final timeout or burn 40 seconds off the game clock. With all three of those goals in mind, kneeling makes some sense; it’s very low-risk, keeps the clock moving, and allows them to set up the easy field goal.
All that’s great. The problem is that you would really like a touchdown. It greatly increases your chances of winning in regulation, it puts way more stress on Mike Glennon in moving the ball downfield with no timeouts, and trying for a touchdown doesn’t prevent you from kicking a field goal whatsoever. I don’t blame the Cardinals for not wanting to run the ball given the fierce Tampa run defense, but there’s a pretty obvious call here: a safe bubble screen to Larry Fitzgerald. You can even throw it to the side of your choice to ensure the ball ends up on the hashmark Feely prefers. It’s going to be a completed pass, and you have to trust one of the league’s best players to stay in bounds and hold on to the football while trying to score. If — for some reason — the throw isn’t there immediately after the snap, Palmer can just fall down and take a sack and lose a couple extra yards, turning a 27-yard field goal (with a kneel) into a 30-yard one (with a five-yard sack). That’s a negligible difference in terms of success rate, and the upside is much bigger. If Arians doesn’t trust Palmer and Fitzgerald to pull this off, Arizona might as well not bother showing up.
2. Mike Tomlin runs two end-of-the-half draws with Le’Veon Bell. If anyone should know about the fragility of running backs and offensive linemen, it’s Tomlin. His running game finally showed up for the first time in Week 4, thanks to the arrival of rookie Le’Veon Bell, who delivered the first bit of competency Pittsburgh has seen from a halfback all year, despite the best efforts of team leader Ben Roethlisberger. Bell missed the first three games of the year with a Lisfranc sprain, so it’s important to manage his workload as he returns to full speed.
So why, then, is Tomlin running Bell on draws twice to end the first half against the Vikings? And here’s how you know Tomlin didn’t care about actually moving the ball. On the first draw, Bell actually ran for 11 yards. Even though there were 33 seconds left and the Steelers could have used their final timeout or let the clock run to halftime without running another play, the Steelers didn’t call timeout or let the clock run. They instead lined up and ran another draw to Bell. Why would you have such an aggressive disregard for your players’ health that you’d risk an injury when you have no desire to actually try to score? If the argument is that you don’t want to disrespect the game or show weakness by kneeling, which is still an impossibly stupid argument, run one draw and go to halftime. If you think you actually have a prayer of moving the ball, call a timeout and try to throw the ball. That was infuriatingly stupid.
1. The Falcons kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter to go down seven points. More on that in yesterday’s column. I think Mike Smith does a lot of things very well, but there are cracks showing in his endgame management.