Why Green Bay Should Have Chosen Boldness

It was an astonishing finish as Aaron Rodgers heaved a touchdown pass in the final seconds of regulation in the Packers-Cardinals game. But Green Bay chose not to go for a two-point conversion, and a possible victory, and wound up losing in overtime.

Green Bay lost to Arizona in overtime without getting a possession, marking the second consecutive season in which the Packers have taken a playoff game to the fifth quarter and then lost without touching the ball. But don’t blame the N.F.L. overtime format for Green Bay’s woes — blame the conservative tactics of Coach Mike McCarthy.

Last season in the N.F.C. title contest versus Seattle, the Packers faced four fourth-and-1 situations. Four times McCarthy did the “safe” thing by sending in a kicker: Green Bay lost a 16-0 lead and ultimately lost the game. Saturday, Green Bay recorded an improbable touchdown as time expired, making the score Cardinals 20, Packers 19. Had Green Bay gone for the deuce, a gain of two yards would have put the team into the N.F.C. championship game. Instead McCarthy sent in the place-kicker, and once again, “safe” tactics were followed by defeat.

This column wrings its hands about N.F.L. punting on fourth-and-short: if a coach orders a try that fails, he’s blamed; if a coach sends in the punter and the team loses, the players are blamed. Against the T.M.Q. fortune-favors-the-bold worldview, it can be argued that sometimes teams are glad they kicked in short-yardage situations. Certainly when a coach must decide whether to kick or try on fourth-and-short, he can’t know what the rest of the contest has in store.

But when a team records a touchdown as time expires and the coach’s choice is one point for overtime or a deuce to win or lose, there is less uncertainty. Teams have made around 48 percent of their two-point tries in the last three seasons. If you factor in that teams made around 94 percent of their extra-point attempts this season; that home teams tend to win overtime games (by a slight margin); that favored teams tend to have an advantage the longer things play out (Green Bay was a 7-point underdog); the math is on the side of boldness. With one of the game’s great quarterbacks, Green Bay has been 5 of 9 in two-point attempts in the last two seasons, and McCarthy could have put the ball in Rodgers’s hands to win the game. Another factor was that Green Bay’s defenders might have been tired heading into overtime, and that the Arizona defense was reeling at that moment, having just given up 96 yards and a touchdown in less than a minute. If the Cardinals had seen the Green Bay offense stay on the field, they surely would have felt very, very unhappy.

Instead McCarthy sent out the kicker. In the aftermath, the Green Bay defenders who turned Larry Fitzgerald loose in overtime, and the N.F.L. format that did not give the Packers a possession, took the heat. Had McCarthy gone for the win and the try failed, he would have been blamed.

A preference for extending the game — instead of taking a shot at one play to win or lose — is deeply ingrained in N.F.L. culture. For instance, in 2012, the Lions scored on the last play of regulation to pull within a point versus the Titans, and chose overtime rather than a deuce try. In overtime, Detroit lost. But Coach Jim Schwartz kept his job for another season, despite a 4-12 record; if he’d gone for two in this situation and the try failed, he might have been fired.

Not going for the win is deeply ingrained in announcer culture, too. As Green Bay sent out the kicker, the announcers Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth did not so much as mention that a two-yard gain would win a playoff game. They just assumed McCarthy would do the “safe” thing, and he did.

In quarterback news, there’s a small chance you will hear about Tom Brady facing Peyton Manning again. Eight of the last 12 Super Bowls have offered one or the other; barring injury, it will become nine of 13. During that span, the only A.F.C. starting signal callers have been Manning, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco, while 11 quarterbacks will have started for the N.F.C., considering whichever team wins the Arizona-Carolina game will field a Super Bowl novice.

On Sunday, Brady will start his 10th conference title game, a Bill-Russell-class number: he’s 6-3. (Brady started but Drew Bledsoe finished New England’s title win at Pittsburgh.) Manning will be starting his fifth conference title contest; he’s 3-1. Brady has been a dominant starter pretty much everywhere except Denver, where he’s 2-6, including a loss in mile-high conditions in November. For that game the Patriots’ inability to run the ball — 39 yards rushing — was decisive. In postseason rematches, teams that prevailed in the regular season (either 1-0 or 2-0 versus the opponent) are 58-44 in the postseason, and Denver beat New England in the regular season.

Last week’s column noted the high rate of victories by divisional-round home teams; all four home teams wound up winning the divisionals. Home teams in the title round have won 62 percent of the time since the current playoff format started in 1990, which is somewhat better than home-team victory share in regular-season contests in the same period. The Broncos are 4-1 at home with the conference title on the line; the Panthers have never hosted an N.F.C. championship.

Sweet Play of the Divisional Round. Arizona facing second-and-goal on the Green Bay 5 in overtime, Larry Fitzgerald lined up as a wingback left. At the snap Carson Palmer sprinted right, drawing linebackers toward him, then flipped a shovel pass to Fitzgerald going up the middle behind pulling guard Mike Iupati, touchdown. The inside shovel to a wingback at the goal line was perfected by Urban Meyer at Florida: when Fitzgerald lined up in the backfield, Green Bay should have suspected something. Sweet.

Sour Play of the Divisional Round. In Seattle’s regular-season loss to the Panthers, the normally stout Seahawks defense — four consecutive years allowing the fewest points in the N.F.L. — inexplicably gave Cats tight end Greg Olsen a free pass. He had 131 receiving yards and was not covered by anyone on the game-winning touchdown reception. Surely Seattle coaches and defenders would have remembered that! Apparently not; in the divisional contest, Olsen had six receptions, all for first downs, and was uncovered by anyone on three of the catches, including a 27-yard reception that positioned Carolina for a touchdown. Sour.

Stats of the Week. The Patriots are 15-3 at home in the postseason under Bill Belichick.

The Cardinals are 5-0 at home in the postseason.

Tom Brady is 10-2 in the divisional round; Peyton Manning is 5-6.

Arizona averaged a league-leading 420 offensive yards through its first 15 games, and since then has averaged 300 yards, barely above the league-worst 297 yards averaged by the Rams.

The Panthers are on a 21-2 stretch.

Bill Belichick’s 23 playoff victories are the most for an N.F.L. coach.

Jack Lew Seen in Convenience Store Trading T-Bills for Powerball Tix. Last week at the peak of Powerball mania, lotto billboards around the nation jammed at $999 million, not being equipped to go higher. Reader Ben Rosenfeld of New York City writes to say he hopes the National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan never jams at $999 trillion.

My lottery folk wisdom: Winning $1 million would be really great, winning $1 billion would ruin your life.

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! Arizona leading 20-13, Green Bay had the ball on the Cardinals’ 41 with five seconds remaining in regulation. Blitz-addicted Arizona could not resist, sending an all-out blitz at Aaron Rodgers: touchdown as time expires. Now it’s the beginning of the fifth quarter, hosts’ ball on their 20. Green Bay cannot resist, sending a big blitz that leaves no one covering Larry Fitzgerald, one of the sport’s best-ever receivers. Fitzgerald legs his catch out 75 yards and soon the Cardinals are victors.

Arizona ought to be concerned that its defense had the Packers pinned on their 4-yard line with 55 seconds remaining in regulation and allowed a touchdown. Hosting Cincinnati in the regular season, the Cardinals had the Bengals pinned on their 16 with 2:45 remaining and allowed Cincinnati to fly down the field for a score against all-out blitzes. T.M.Q. has been warning, “Frequent blitzing may be the Cardinals’ personality, but could bring Arizona to woe.”

“My Fellow [APPLAUSE] Americans [APPLAUSE], I Come Before [APPLAUSE] You [APPLAUSE]…” Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address was interrupted 77 times by clapping and 30 times by standing ovations. One standing ovation should make a speaker proud. Thirty standing-Os should make a speaker embarrassed, since such a large number obviously is staged.

Till the Reagan years, aerobics-class up-down-up reactions to State of the Union addresses were unknown. Then the word APPLAUSE was sprinkled liberally through speech texts distributed to members of Congress, and it’s gotten worse with every president since. A former stage actor, Reagan should have known that if the audience needs to be told when to applaud, the speech must be pedestrian — as, arguably, pretty much all contemporary State of the Union addresses have been.

Next year some network should drive home this point by showing the speech text side-by-side with the House chamber, making obvious to viewers that members and the cabinet are not reacting spontaneously but following cues. Here’s more on State of the Union canned responses, including quotes from a “clapping expert.”

The constant cheers and standing ovations reduce the State of the Union address to a muddle of one-dimensional applause lines and call-outs to special interests. Members of Congress should agree to hold all clapping and ovations to the end. That would make for better speeches — and make the United States Congress seem less fake.

Just Another Belichick Playoff Win. Andy Reid is a successful coach, but his clock-management decisions long have been puzzling. Coaching the Eagles and facing the Patriots in the 2005 Super Bowl, Reid’s charges took possession with 5:40 remaining, down two scores. Reid did not have the Eagles go hurry-up and did not have them snap just before the two-minute warning — this tactic creates an extra down in the endgame. Scoring at 1:48, the Eagles tried an onside kick and did not recover. An expected onside kick is a low-percentage play: Had the Eagles gone hurry-up, there might have been time left for a regular kickoff and a defensive stand.

Reid is now the Chiefs’ coach, and on Saturday his charges were again facing New England, again down by two scores when taking possession with 6:29 remaining. Again Reid did not order a hurry-up and again did not have his quarterback snap before the two-minute warning to create an extra play. Scoring at 1:13, again Reid’s team failed to recover the onside kick, and lost. Had the Chiefs gone hurry-up, there might have been time for a regular kickoff and a defensive stand. The final minutes of the Philadelphia-New England Super Bowl and the Kansas City-New England divisional game were so similar it was spooky.

Botched clock management hurt the Chiefs in the first half as well. Trailing 14-3, Kansas City reached first-and-10 on the Flying Elvii 9 with 25 seconds before intermission and spiked to stop the clock. In the first quarter, Alex Smith twice called timeouts on third down, perhaps surprised to see the Patriots in a press front. Reaching the New England 9 with timeouts expended not only forced Kansas City to waste a down spiking the ball, but also made it very unlikely Kansas City would run, allowing the Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to send in his dime unit. The Chiefs went incompletion, incompletion, field goal, leaving four points on the table.

For his part, the Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had Tom Brady open the game with 15 consecutive passes, including twice converting third-and-long against a Kansas City big-blitz. Kansas City didn’t big-blitz again, but the easy-seeming touchdown New England recorded on its opening possession got the crowd to max intensity and set the tone for a day on which the Chiefs, who allowed just 11.6 points per game during their 11-0 winning streak, gave up 27 points while forcing just three punts.

Kansas City ran two sharp-looking rushing plays, a third-down conversion on a triple-option flip to the tailback and a 17-yard run with seven offensive linemen on the field. But New England knew it didn’t need to honor the run because Reid would call so many passes. In the 2005 Super Bowl, Reid called 55 passes and 17 runs. That’s not the sort of thing Belichick or Ernie Adams would forget. Predictably, Reid went pass-wacky: adjusting for sacks and scrambles, he radioed in 57 passing plays and 26 runs. The backup center Zach Fulton had a horrible game; in the second half Alex Smith often used a seven-step drop, an action that has nearly vanished in the contemporary quick-release N.F.L., in order to back away from pressure up the middle.

Of course the Patriots are pass-wacky too, McDaniels radioing in 46 passes and a mere 10 runs. When the Flying Elvii took possession on their 2-yard line after one of Reid’s fraidy-cat punts in New England territory, on first down McDaniels sent out an empty backfield set, daring the Chiefs to try to sack Tom Brady, which they didn’t. New England drove from its 2 to the Kansas City 1. McDaniels put six offensive linemen in the game, one reporting eligible and lined up as a fullback. At the snap the fullback and tailback went left, drawing the defense, as Brady simply leapt straight ahead for the touchdown.

Belichick likes to “take away” the opponent’s best receiver and see if the other receivers can beat him. No matter where Kansas City’s best receiver, tight end Travis Kelce, lined up, someone jammed him to prevent a clean release. The result: Kelce was targeted nine times for just 23 yards gained.

For its part, Kansas City did not jam New England’s best receiver, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the result was two touchdown catches. New England leading 14-6 in the third quarter, the Patriots reached the Chiefs’ 16 and split Gronkowski wide. This is exactly the field position from which Gronkowski went to the end zone for touchdowns versus Seattle in the Super Bowl, and versus Pittsburgh in the 2015 season opener. Yet Kansas City safety Eric Berry seemed surprised as Gronkowski sprinted to the end zone, touchdown. Watching Belichick and his staff outcoach Reid and his staff was like watching Itzhak Perlman show a beginner how to hold a violin.

Fun note: Once, when Brady saw Kansas City in the wrong defense, he pointed at the hole in the coverage and simply shouted to Gronkowski, “Move over there and get out wide!”

Moms and Dads, Do Not Let Pre-Teens Play Any Kind of Football Other Than Flag Football. Last week there was a legal settlement in the heartbreaking case of Donovan Hill, a Los Angeles teenager who, at age 13, was paralyzed in a Pop Warner game.

The National Football League can buy its way out of any courtroom problem. But youth leagues and public high schools are not rolling in money, and this points toward the ticking bomb in football economics. Lawsuits regarding neurological harm from youth and high school football began roughly a decade ago, and are becoming common. Class-action claims may extend litigation to large numbers of prep players. The N.F.L.’s concussion settlement with former players will pay most of them less than $100,000. Awards to injured high school players are starting to come in at the million-plus level, since minors generally can’t assume risk in the way adults can. Few public school systems will be able to sustain million-dollar legal settlements stemming from football, or be able to afford athletic insurance if big awards proliferate.

The N.F.L. has made baby steps toward caring about traumatic brain injury. Last weekend, the star receiver Antonio Brown was held out of the Steelers-Broncos game because of a concussion, while starting Kansas City offensive linemen Mitch Morse and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif sat because of concussions, their absence a factor in the New England win. During the regular season, stars including Luke Kuechly missed games for concussion protocol.

But if the N.F.L. really meant what it says about making football safer, it would be focusing on the high school version of the sport — where there are 500 players for each one professional, and where the time bomb ticks. The N.F.L. will be playing football for a long time. This may not be true for youth organizations and public school systems, which would deprive football pro of its free minor leagues, taint the name of the game, and turn off many fans.

Hill will now receive the lifetime medical care he requires. He was injured in 2011 at the Midget Orange Bowl, a Pop Warner championship held on a turf field before spectators with cheerleaders dancing and screaming coaches along the sidelines. Events like this are not staged with children’s interests in mind; they are staged to stroke the egos of the adults involved.

Youth full-pads football simply shouldn’t be played — outlawed if necessary. But don’t take my word for it, take Archie Manning’s. He did not let Peyton and Eli put on helmets till they reached seventh grade. In youth, these two future Hall of Famers learned football by playing flag — which is how all kids below middle-school age should learn.

Disclaimer of the Week. Recently I renewed my passport. The form was preceded by four pages of disclaimers, including one headlined PAPERWORK REDUCTION ACT STATEMENT.

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk. Underdog Kansas City punted twice in New England territory, and of course went on to lose. The second Preposterous Punt came from the New England 37. Sure it was fourth-and-11. Two years ago in the N.F.C. title game, Seattle faced fourth-and-7 on the San Francisco 35 and didn’t launch a fraidy-cat punt; rather it went for it, scoring the key touchdown of the contest. Bold tactics bring wins; punts in opposition territory shift blame away from the coach. Outraged by the punt from the New England 37, the football gods caused New England to stage a 98-yard touchdown drive.

Leading 13-12 at the start of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin sent in the punt unit at the Denver 34. (Delay-of-game moved the spot back five yards.) The punt boomed through the thin Colorado air into the end zone for a touchback and a net to the Steelers of 14 yards of field position. Possession of the ball is a crucial factor in football; Pittsburgh exchanged possession for just 14 yards. Sure the down was fourth-and-20, but what did the punt accomplish? Outraged by the punt from the Denver 34, the football gods caused the Broncos to pass the point where the ball would have been, had Pittsburgh gone for it and failed, on their first snap.

Let’s Go to a Replay of the Gorloks Using a No-Huddle Sokolsky Opening. In 2014 there was controversy in college chess as the Webster University Gorloks began spending freely, hoping to oust the perennial champ, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Now U.M.B.C.’s nightmare has come true as for the first time in 16 years, the Retrievers failed to reach the final four of the Pan-Am Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. It may not be long till Rivals, citadel of the recruiting wars, ranks chess prospects, or forged visas are employed to recruit Danish chess prodigies. Note: when the Retrievers play, fans should chant, “Fetch! Fetch!”

Worst Crowd Reaction. Denver home fans booed loudly when Broncos receivers dropped passes, and booed lightly when on two occasions Peyton Manning badly missed uncovered receivers. Manning completed only one deep pass, which New England coaches are sure to notice: The Steelers generally had only one safety high, daring Manning to go long. Manning hasn’t thrown an interception since returning to action, after heave-hoeing 17 picks in his first nine starts. Whether Peyton can resist the heave-ho urge may determine whether the Broncos return to the Super Bowl.

Isn’t It Good, Estonian Wood. Your columnist marvels at hawkers on street corners selling flowers imported from South America at $10. One would think bouquets of wadded-up cardboard could not be flown from South America to a United States city profitably at $10. Obviously exploitation of labor is a factor. Perhaps the other factor is that flowers weigh so little.

In recent winters, really nice white birch firewood has been showing up at Washington-area supermarkets at $8 to $9 for a bundle sufficient for two evenings sitting by the fireplace. This is about the same price as two evenings of ho-hum firelogs. The birch is kiln-dried, smells great, burns beautifully — and comes from Estonia. A bundle weighs about 20 pounds. Even if the wood cost nothing to harvest, split and dry, how can 20 pounds move from Estonia to Washington at this retail price?

Castoff Title Game. Twice-let-go Carson Palmer will start at quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, while the Carolina Panthers field a lineup heavy on what Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk calls “misfit toys.” Cats left tackle Michael Oher was waived by the Tennessee Titans, the league’s worst team. Right tackle Mike Remmers went undrafted, then was let go by the Broncos, Buccaneers, Chargers, Vikings and Rams. Guard Andrew Norwell was undrafted. The star tight end Greg Olsen was given the boot by the Bears for just a third-round draft choice. The star corner Josh Norman got no scholarship offers out of high school, becoming a walk-on for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, who play in the lower-tier F.C.S. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. was let go by four N.F.L. teams, safety Kurt Coleman released by three N.F.L. teams. Safety Roman Harper was waived by New Orleans, and looks like a new man in the much better Panthers defense.

“If Nobody Had Tackled Him, He Might Have Gone All the Way!” One of the many annoying habits of TV football announcers is declaring that exciting things “might” have happened. It’s worst on claims that a pass “might” have been intercepted, which announcers may say of throws a defender barely tips with an outstretched hand.

Kansas City at New England, the CBS color man Dan Fouts declared of an Alex Smith passed that caromed off a receiver’s chest, “If that had bounced up into the air more, it would have been intercepted and returned for a touchdown.” No defender was even near the caroming ball. Later a defensive back bobbled and dropped a pass, leading Fouts to enthuse, “That was almost an interception returned for a touchdown!” Incompletions are not exciting, so announcers declare them to have been near-touchdowns.

Defenders are more likely than receivers to drop passes in the first place. The receiver knows where the ball is supposed to go, the defender doesn’t. The receiver is trained to catch a pass, the defender to break it up. Even the best defenses drop potential interceptions.

Adventures in Officiating. Denver fans wanted a safety when a Pittsburgh return guy muffed a punt on the field of play, then another Steeler fell on the football in the end zone. “It was still a kick,” the referee Terry McAulay announced somewhat cryptically. Neither Steeler had possession outside the end zone, meaning the impetus that took the ball into the end zone was the kicking impetus. Thus Pittsburgh took over at the 20. Had either Steeler possessed the ball even briefly, the result would have been a safety.

Don’t expect a lot of kickoff return action during the A.F.C. title game. In the Pittsburgh at Denver contest, discounting for an onside kick, 10 kickoffs sailed through the thin air for 10 touchbacks.

Memo to Seahawks: The First Quarter Counts. Last season in the playoffs, the Seahawks fell way behind Green Bay, then stormed back. Sunday the Seahawks fell behind 31-0 at Carolina and nearly pulled out a win. Seattle does not seem to take the first quarter seriously. In fact…

Single Worst Play of the Season — So Far. The Panthers jumped to a quick 7-0 advantage, then Seattle faced second-and-13 on its 11. Defensive tackle Kawann Short blew past guard Justin Britt and hit Russell Wilson’s arm as he attempted to throw to Marshawn Lynch over the middle. The Cats’ Luke Kuechly, covering Lynch, intercepted. Lynch came to a full stop and simply stood there, watching Kuechly run for a touchdown.

Football is a team game, and everybody on the Seahawks played poorly in the first quarter at Charlotte: The law of averages had to catch up to the Blue Men Group someday. But Lynch — who expects special treatment, who throws hissy fits with the media, whose mother demands that Seattle coaches be fired — stood doing nothing as an opponent ran for a nearly uncontested touchdown in a game the Seahawks would lose by seven. Marshawn Lynch, you are guilty of the single worst play of the season. So far.

In Other News

© 2020 US News. All Rights Reserved.