This weekend saw the studio hosts of the world spread out in commentary booths around this great nation to remind us all of that one inviolable truth: Wouldn’t it have been better if this team just took the easy field goal in the first quarter? The NFL’s best and brightest spent the weekend counting scores and adding three to the total before realizing that x + 3 is better than x. It was the 650th consecutive great Sunday for hindsight.
Of course, that’s a really stupid way to look at things. As I noted in last week’s TYFNC, that sort of logic ignores how the game’s strategy would have changed, how later possessions that required a fourth-down conversion would have ended up producing a field goal instead. Even more naively, that logic doesn’t consider the impact a touchdown would have had in that earlier situation. You never hear about the team that scored a touchdown early and came to feel smart about it later. You also don’t hear about the team that takes the sure points early and comes to regret it later, as the Jets nearly did last week.
The early decision to go for it is the easiest “tough” call for a coach to make, because it essentially occurs in a vacuum. Your goal, early in games, is to score as many points as possible. That’s why coaches don’t kick a field goal on first down the moment they get into range of a sure three. Even when you account for the fact that you won’t always score, going for it on fourth-and-short early in games produces more points — and with it, more wins — on average than kicking a field goal does in the same situation. An anecdotal example isn’t enough to change that, no matter who tells you otherwise. And even when there are times when a team probably does regret going for it early because of how the game went afterward, there are others who are awfully happy about being aggressive. Ask Ron Rivera about that these days.
The Three Best Calls of Week 6
3. Seahawks go for it on fourth-and-1 and score a touchdown against the Titans. Give credit to Pete Carroll for staying aggressive in a situation when a fair amount of coaches would have simply taken the points and kicked a field goal. After three tries at the goal line inside the 5-yard line down 3-0 in the second quarter, Carroll didn’t try to create a meaningless tie with 33 minutes to go because it would give his team something to crow about heading into the locker room. He went for a touchdown because it was the more lucrative option available to him and because he has Marshawn Lynch and a very effective running game. Sure enough, the Seahawks punched the ball in and took a 7-3 lead.
Now, they didn’t feel great going into the locker room at halftime, but that was because this happened.
2. Bears go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 4-yard line in a 0-0 game and fail. Chicago ended up getting some kind of dump-off pass to Brandon Marshall that was ugly and dropped, but poor execution doesn’t make this a bad decision. Marc Trestman has consistently made the appropriate call in short yardage this year, but since this one didn’t work out, it started to attract the naysayers. It seems bizarre to consider this a bad move even without hindsight: The Giants’ defense is terrible, the Bears’ best asset is their offense, and even if they failed, they were going to hand the ball off to a team that turns the ball over on just less than 30 percent of its possessions. Even when they failed to convert on offense, the Bears still managed to pick up a criminally easy pick-six on a miscommunication, so they got the points anyway.
That made the second-guessing later even more absurd. When the Giants were driving in the fourth quarter down 27-21, conservative strategists pointed to the situation as a sign that the Bears should have kicked on fourth-and-2, since it would have put them up 30-21, giving the Bears an insurmountable nine-point lead. Well, no. When the Giants scored their touchdown at the end of the third quarter, they would have been down 30-20. Tom Coughlin would probably have gone for two, and given how bad Chicago’s run defense had been against Brandon Jacobs, it likely wouldn’t have been a problem. In any case, it would be far from a sure thing that the Bears would be up two scores. You know what would have ensured they were up two scores? Scoring a touchdown on the first drive.
1. Ron Rivera goes for it on fourth down twice during his opening drive, wins my heart after the game. In one of the most stunning turnarounds in league history, Rivera has somehow become the most aggressive fourth-down coach in football. Even though he was playing a Vikings team that was hungry or had nothing to lose or whatever other platitudes people use to describe a team that sucks, Rivera went for it twice on his team’s opening drive. A handoff to Mike Tolbert on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32-yard line produced a first down, and on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line, a play-action pass found a wide-open Steve Smith for an easy score.
After the game, things got even better. When asked about the decision to go for it on fourth down, Rivera told reporters, “It’s what we’re going to do now.”
You want to know how that quote makes me feel?
Look at those Jaguars! Covering the 28-point spread in their loss to the Broncos might not be much consolation, but Gus Bradley & Co. should be commended for approaching their game against Denver in the right way: trying about as many high-variance moves as they could. The Jaguars were rightly attempting to execute a David strategy, because they couldn’t compete against Peyton Manning and the Broncos playing conventional football.
And so, they tried things. They attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-4 on their own 26-yard line on the opening possession, which failed and had Shannon Sharpe muttering all day about how they would have been in the game if it weren’t for that fake punt. Jacksonville went for it on fourth-and-1 on its own 29-yard line down 14-0 later in the quarter and got it, a move that would have inspired national ridicule had it been stuffed and was otherwise never mentioned again because it succeeded. The Jaguars went for two down 14-12 after a Paul Posluszny pick-six because they had a better shot at picking up two points than they did of driving downfield. They concentrated virtually all their efforts on throwing to Justin Blackmon, who had 20 targets. They ignored conventional strategies because their only hope of winning was to be aggressive and try to create some luck for themselves. That bodes well for when Bradley is coaching a team that actually has a shot at beating Manning.
On Sunday, the Titans faced what seems to be becoming a weekly development: the choice to go for it down 10 points with a few minutes left in the fourth quarter. Here, the Titans faced fourth-and-3 from the Seattle 8-yard line down 10 with 2:21 to go. They chose to kick the field goal, and while Dan Dierdorf helpfully reminded us that the Titans had to come away with points there because the game would otherwise be over, Tennessee then kicked deep and never touched the football again.
This one isn’t all that much different from Atlanta’s choice to kick early two weeks ago. The issue of the game being over with a stuff is irrelevant: The game is over with a failed conversion either way. Tennessee’s only chance of winning in regulation is by scoring two touchdowns, and if it wants to tie, it has to decide whether this drive will be more likely to produce a touchdown than the next one. Given how the Titans had struggled to move the ball on offense, it’s pretty clear they needed to try to score a touchdown eight yards out of the end zone.
I heard from some folks who had qualms about them kicking deep after the field goal, but that doesn’t bother me quite as much. The Titans still had three timeouts and the two-minute warning when they kicked deep, so they weren’t really desperate enough to justify an expected onside kick, which succeeds only about 15 percent of the time. When they kicked the field goal, they were basically dependent upon preventing the Seahawks from picking up a first down, and if you’re going to do that, you might as well do that deep and try to pick up better field position from the ensuing punt than you would with the unlikely-to-succeed onside kick.
The meaningless pre-halftime draw this week came in Kansas City. The Chiefs handed the ball to Jamaal Charles once to start a pre-halftime drive before Alex Smith threw an incomplete pass. On third down inside their own 30-yard line with exactly one second left on the clock, the Chiefs handed the ball to Charles up the gut one more time; he gained two yards.
This is infuriatingly dumb. Charles needs to score a touchdown or somehow be face-masked by four defenders to justify running the ball here. The Chiefs are utterly dependent upon him; Charles is fifth in the NFL in carries and has been thrown more passes than any other back in football. His backup is Knile Davis, who had major fumbling issues in college and fumbled on his only touch of the game on Sunday. Why are you giving Charles a carry with no upside and notable downside? Just let Smith kneel and go into the locker room. That’s what you pay Smith for, right? Kneeling to close out successful halves? No? You sure? In any case, cut out these useless draws before somebody gets hurt.
The Three Worst Calls of Week 6
3. The Jets kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line. They technically took a delay of game and kicked from the 7-yard line, but the Jets could have tried to either score or pick up a first down early in a 0-0 game against the Steelers. As Bill Cowher explained how important it was to “come away with points now,” Phil Simms added that this game might “end up being a race to 10.” Beyond the fact that the Steelers had played four contests with an average total game score of 45 points before Sunday, why do football people convince themselves that field goals are more valuable in low-scoring games? In a low-scoring game, touchdowns become more valuable! Field position — the kind of field position you settle for when you go for it and fail — becomes more valuable. You need to be more aggressive with a precious chance to score a touchdown in a low-scoring game, not less so. If it’s a race to 10, think about how much closer you are to finishing the race with seven than you are with three.
The Jets kicked, and when they were down 19-6 in the fourth quarter, nobody even thought to mention how they sure would have been better off having scored seven in the first quarter.
2. The Chargers try a 50-yard field goal to seal their win over the Colts. Congratulations to kicker Nick Novak for hitting a long kick under pressure to wrap up San Diego’s impressive victory over Indianapolis. But he never should have had the opportunity.
Why did Mike McCoy send his field goal unit out to even attempt this kick? It doesn’t follow. Punting shouldn’t be an option. You give the Colts good field position with a stuff, but you give them even better field position with the extra eight yards provided by a missed field goal attempt. Even ignoring that, there’s one simple question to consider here: Is it easier to convert on fourth-and–1 foot than it is to kick a 50-yard field goal?
Of course it is! On third- or fourth-and-1 over the past five years, teams have converted 68.8 percent of the time. That’s almost surely a conservative estimate, since the Chargers didn’t need the full yard and had been gashing Indy on the ground all night. The Chargers probably convert on a Philip Rivers sneak or a Le’Ron McClain handoff about 75 percent of the time in that spot. Kickers have hit field goals between 50 and 52 yards over that same time frame 64.7 percent of the time. Novak had been 6-for-12 on kicks of 50 yards or more, but he was playing in calm conditions at home, so maybe 65 percent is the estimate. The move worked out for McCoy, who has done a great job with the San Diego offense this year, but it wasn’t the right call.
1. John Fox produces one of the worst challenges of the year. It was jaw-droppingly bad. Fox threw out his challenge flag in the first quarter on a 23-yard catch-and-run by Justin Blackmon, thinking he had gone out of bounds after picking up a mere 16 yards.
Now, this was a third-and-5 on Jacksonville’s side of the field — Blackmon had clearly picked up the first down in either case. Fox was using one of his two challenges during this game to pick up seven yards with 52 minutes of challengeable football left. Seven entirely meaningless yards. Even worse, Fox lost the challenge. Given the impossibly low reward and the outcome, this was probably the worst challenge in the history of the NFL replay system.
Sure, it was a game against the Jaguars in which Fox probably wasn’t going to need his challenges anyway. Why does it matter? Because Fox might very well make a stupid challenge in a much more important game. If he doesn’t understand that the flag never should have come out of his pocket in this situation, I wonder what Fox is thinking about whenever he decides to use his challenges. If those seven yards in the first quarter seem worth it, he just doesn’t understand what the challenge flag is good for, and that might end up costing his team in a spot when the challenges really do matter. Last year, I wrote that a Pat Shurmur challenge was akin to having two wishes and using one of them to take out the trash. This was like using a wish to throw a can of beer into the trash and missing.