Football is complex. Players and coaches are faced with countless choices on each and every play, and they pare this infinitely forking map of possibilities down to a final result over 60 minutes of intense action. As such, no game comes down to a single decision.
OK, with that out of the way, we can all agree that some games are defined by single decisions, even if they’re not totally decided by them. Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a 31-26 Packers loss, will be remembered for one very silly choice (and, I guess, for Tom Brady making his tenth Super Bowl).
With Tampa Bay clinging to a 31-23 lead, quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers into the red zone late in the fourth quarter. After three consecutive incompletions, Rodgers and the Pack faced a fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line. Down 8 points with 2:05 left in the game, Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur weighed his options. His team was eight yards shy of the end zone (bad) but his quarterback was a surefire Hall of Famer and the probable 2020 MVP (good). Should the Packers have failed to convert, they’d give the ball back to Brady (scary), but he’d be at Tampa Bay’s 8-yard line (hope). A field goal, meanwhile, would cut the deficit to 5 points (stupid), and the Packers would give the ball back to Brady anyway (still scary).
Guess what LaFleur chose to do?
Here’s a hint: The Packers would not get the ball back.
Here’s another hint: The Packers are not going to the Super Bowl.
And here’s a third and final hint: What the hell were you thinking, Matt LaFleur?!?!?!?
They kicked the stupid field goal.
Why go for 3 when you are down 8 points? In LaFleur’s defense, the analytics suggest that going for it wasn’t a total no-brainer. Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down model calculated that kicking the field goal was only modestly cowardly.
But those top-line numbers don’t really do justice to the situation here. Making the field goal gave Green Bay 9 percent odds of winning, which … isn’t great. Let me say that again, for emphasis: If they made the field goal, the Packers’ absolute best-case scenario was that they’d lose 91 percent of the time. If they scored or converted the first down by penalty? In that case, they’d lose only 76 percent of the time. So … go for it!
By going for it, the Packers could have tied the game with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. A difficult task, sure, but why employ the best quarterback in the known world if you’re just going to let your kicker chip away at the percentages? Or, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell succinctly put it:
That’s not hyperbole. The Packers’ red zone offense really was the best in history, ever since Harold P. Red Zone invented the area in 1853. (OK, that last bit about Mr. Red Zone is disputed.) This season, they scored touchdowns on 78.5 percent of possessions that got within 20 yards of the end zone, thanks largely to Rodgers’ superhuman ability to throw a football. The 37-year-old quarterback threw 48 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions during the regular season. He was having a very good game against Tampa Bay (346 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception) and a splendid second half. And while the last drive was vintage Rodgers, he got pulled off the field without getting the chance to finish it off.
On third down, right before the now-infamous kick—which the Packers’ Mason Crosby made; congratulations to him—Rodgers looked like he had a chance to run it, but instead opted to attempt a pass into tight coverage. The incompletion would be his last snap of the game, though he didn’t know it at the time because he, like everyone else in the world, assumed the Packers would go for it on fourth down.
And that’s why, after a game between two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, we’re talking about Crosby’s 26-yard field goal. But congratulations to the Packers, I guess, for giving themselves a 9 percent chance to win. In their honor, I promise to think about LaFleur’s dumb move for 9 percent of the Super Bowl they won’t be playing in.