I’ve watched NFL games for over 20-years, and it never seems to amaze me that some coaches continue to choose risk over reward, often costing themselves winnable games at the end.
I have seen failed early two-point conversions and choosing to go for it on 4th down and short instead of kicking a field goal, come back to cost teams time and again. I’ve seen it several times this year already with one particular team- the Atlanta Falcons.
So I’ll start with the first example of just how curious, some of these coaching calls have been.
We’ll start early, back in Super Bowl 38 between the Patriots and the Panthers. The Patriots are up 21-10 in the 4th quarter when Carolina scores to cut it to 21-16. Instead of going for an extra point, the Panthers go for two, and fail. Carolina scores again, and now leads 22-21, and again, go for two points, to make up the first failed two-point conversion. They fail AGAIN…and instead of being up 24-21 had they just kicked those two extra points, they are up 22-21. Then there’s a barrage of scoring- New England scores, they convert on a two-point play, and are up 29-22; Carolina scores to tie it up late in the 4th, and then Brady drives the Patriots down the field for the eventual game winning field goal- final score: Patriots 32, Panthers 29.
Had the Panthers gone for those extra point kicks earlier in the game instead of two failed two-point conversions, the score actually would have been, Panthers 31, Patriots 28, when Brady got the ball on the final drive. At worst, Carolina cost themselves a shot at overtime in Super Bowl 38. But they chose early in the 4th to try to cut into the Patriots lead to make it 21-18, then tried to make up for it later, and both times failed, and in the end, it cost them.
Example #2- the 2015 AFC Championship game between the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, and the defensive minded Denver Broncos. The situation: Patriots 12, Broncos 20 in the 4th quarter. New England missed an extra point kick earlier in the game (remember, this is the first year they moved the extra point kick back to a 33-yard field goal), so the Patriots are down eight. They get not one, not two, but three drives deep into Denver territory in the 4th quarter alone. The first stalls on a failed 4th and 1 with six minutes to go. Instead of a FG and cutting into the Broncos lead, New England still trails by eight. The second drive ends with a failed 4th and 6 throw in the end zone with just under two and a half minutes left- Denver still leads 20-12 instead of perhaps 20-18, or even 20-15 (assuming one missed FG). The final drive ends with a touchdown pass and a failed two-point try, final score: Patriots 18, Broncos 20. Had the Patriots kicked those two field goals earlier in the game, or even just one of them, they would have won this game, and gone on to play the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, but they chose risk over reward, and cost themselves a trip to the Super Bowl.
There are a hundred other examples here, from other games, but I’m hoping just to set everything up for you here, and bring you to the current 2020 season, and a couple of games I’ve seen over the past two weekends.
Example #3- 49ers versus Cardinals, Week 1. San Francisco is up 10-7 early in the first half, and they get down to 4th and goal from the 1-yard line, and choose to go for it, and get stuffed by Arizona. Instead of going up 13-7, the score stays at 10-7. Late in the game, the 49ers now trail 24-20, and come up short on 4th and 5 inside the Cardinals 30-yard line, losing their first game of the season. Had the 49ers just kicked a chip shot field goal instead of going for it on 4th and goal, they would have been in prime position, to kick another game winner late in the game, instead of having to go for it, on 4th and 5. San Francisco would be 2-0 right now on the young season, instead of 1-1.
Example #4- Falcons versus Seattle, Week 1. Quick note, if you’re a Falcons fan who happens to be reading this, look away….look….away.
Falcons trail Seattle 28-12 late in the third quarter, and go for it on 4th and 2, from the Seahawks 12-yard line. Instead of FG and cutting into the Seattle lead, they fail, and still trail 28-12. It could have been 28-15, but nah, apparently this is a must convert with still over 16 minutes left to play. Atlanta comes back in the 4th quarter, about nine and a half minutes left, and put one in the end zone, but fail on a two-point conversion, the score is now- Seattle 31, Falcons 18…WHEN, it could have very easily been, Seattle 31, Falcons 21, pending an extra point. Say for argument sake, they go for it, and fail, that’s fine, with only 9 minutes to play, you’ve at least put yourself within two scores. So let’s go with 31-21 Seahawks. Roughly three minutes later, the Falcons have the ball again, and on 4th and 3 from the Seattle 35, fail to convert, and turn the ball over on downs. Now, HAD they kicked that FG earlier, the score is 31-21 at this moment, and now Atlanta, can go back, and kick another FG, and possibly make it, 31-24 with a little over six minutes left to play, but instead, the score sits at 31-18 Seahawks. The Falcons find the end zone again, with 33-seconds to play, and now trail 38-25. They recover on the onside kick, but its no avail, and they lose by the same score.
However, once again, HAD Atlanta kicked that FG earlier when they were down 21-12, and assuming the game played out the same way, they could have kicked a second FG at the six minute mark, meaning that at the end of the game, instead of a 38-25 loss, Atlanta could have recovered the onside kick, possibly trailing 38-31, with an actual chance to tie the game, but noooooo, let’s choose risk over reward instead.
Ehhhhh…I’m tired, but I have one more to go.
Example #5- Falcons versus Cowboys, Week 2. Here we go again with the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta is rolling, big time- they are up on Dallas 20-7 with just under six minutes to go in the first half, when Matt Ryan throws his 3rd touchdown pass, increasing the Falcon lead to 26-7. Instead of going for the extra point, the Falcons, for whatever reason, go for two, and fail. Nobody will talk about that, because they’ll remember the failed onside recovery instead, and how their players looked at the ball rolling around, but they should go back, and discuss that two-point conversion call. Because in the end, the Falcons should have been up, 40-37, when Dallas recovered the kick. Instead of having to fly back home with such a deflating loss, Atlanta is playing in overtime in a 40-40 game instead. But no, let’s go for two, when we are already up 26-7, with this still roughly 36-minutes left to play.
Okay last one, a bonus of sorts, just so it seems I’m not picking on Atlanta. We’ll go to last year’s game of the year between the 49ers and Saints. The Saints are rolling on the 49ers at this time, Drew Brees is shredding one of the best defenses in football to the tune of two first quarter TD passes, and an early 13-7 lead. Instead of going for an extra point kick, and a 14-7 lead, the Saints chose to go for two, and fail, so the score is Saints 13, 49ers 7. And this was a wild game, with an even wilder finish. 49ers are up 45-40, when the Saints score with just under a minute to play, to take the lead, 46-45. Now they have to go for two to make this a field goal game, and they fail, again. The 49ers come back, Garoppolo hits Kittle, and a FG later, the 49ers walk away, winners of the game of the year. However, had the Saints simply kicked the extra point back when it was 13-7, at the end of the game, the Saints, when they scored with under a minute to play, would have actually been up, 47-45, pending the kick to make it 48-45, meaning the 49ers FG at the end of the game, would have just tied it, instead of won it.
Now who cares about a regular season game right? Who cares about Week 1, or Week 2, or a game in early December, blah blah blah. In the Saints case, overtime against the 49ers could have meant, a win for the Saints, a first round bye, and home-field throughout the playoffs, instead of having to play a Wild Card game like they did, which they eventually lost.
It’s as simple as that. Coaching calls can make the world of difference for a football team, between winning, and losing. Yes, the players play, and have to execute, but the coaches make the decisions and the calls that put their teams in positions to win or lose ballgames. And it’s not just at the professional level, it’s goes all the way down to college, high school, middle school, and Pop Warner games too.
Yes, there’s a time for risk, and a time to play cautious, and in just these six examples, you’ve seen coaches, even some of the best, make some very curious calls that came back to cost their team, and in some cases, a Super Bowl. Bill Belichick chose to go for it on 4th and 13 from the Giants 32-yard line in Super Bowl 46, passing on a possible 49-50 yard field goal. The pass fell incomplete, and the Giants ended the Patriots bid for an undefeated season. Had they gone for a FG, perhaps the Patriots, the TD pass to Plaxico at the end of the game would have only tied the Super Bowl, instead of won it.
I can go on and on and on, but I think you get the point here. Will the coaches get it? I doubt it for the most part, but I hope some do. People will remember the end of a game, the interception, the recovered onside, the game winning touchdown pass, but they’ll forget the mistakes earlier that honestly, might have never put their team in the position they found themselves in.
It indeed, is one of the curious cases of coaching in football.