This unpublished work was written in 2003. We start with parts 1 and 2. Part 3 to come in the second installment. I should add, in complete candor, that some of the writing here is cringe-worthy. Let that not prevent you from appreciating the wisdom of the fundamental insights that emerge in this book. -MZ
Friday Afternoon Quarterback: Re-Evaluating Fundamental Strategic Aspects of Football
By Matt Zemek
The Significance of the 2003 Sugar Bowl and the Wisdom of Accumulating Points
Monday Morning Quarterbacking is easy. It comes with the benefit of hindsight, after the games have been played. Sure, it takes nuanced analysis and an attention to detail, but at least the events of a particular situation have already unfolded, making them easier to identify and dissect. But ah, what about Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking? This is a decidedly harder enterprise. When the sports talk show hosts conduct their Friday afternoon “gear up for the big game” shows, they toss around a lot of keys, matchups, questions, either-or scenarios, and countless other tidbits meant for pregame consumption. Some of the keys are obvious, some less obvious. Some wind up deciding the game, some don’t. Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking lacks the certainty or clarity that Monday Morning Quarterbacking has; and yet, it’s precisely the kind of thing coaches need to do when they formulate their game plan, or even before that, when they formulate and modify their coaching philosophies over the duration of their careers as football lifers.
In this offseason period between the 2002 and 2003 campaigns, a little Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking is in order. Each new season, each new narrative, each new string of 16 Saturdays (12 per team, 13 for any team who partakes in a “preseason” game or a conference title game) offers enough food for thought to give football people—coaches, journalists and fans alike—reason to modify, if not significantly alter, their approaches to the sport. I’ll acknowledge this much up front: my approach to football has been slightly changed by the 2002 season. I wonder if it changed your approach, too.With respect to play-calling and game management considerations, what is the same about football, and what is different as 2002 recedes into memory and 2003 comes a’callin’? Before the first kickoff of 2003, let’s get a head start with some Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking, or as Lee Corso of College Gameday says, “first-guessing and not second-guessing.”
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If I were a coach, I would be a riverboat gambler kind of coach, a bag-of-tricks play caller, a fearless risk-taker, a go-against-the-grain kind of decision maker, a fervent believer in the power of the passing game and the hurry-up offense (not just the no-huddle). In other words, I don’t like being conservative one bit. But in the spirit of honest Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking, I must say that, going into the 2003 season, the 2002 campaign has changed my view of an important strategic component of any football game: early-game two-point conversions. I have to concede that—gasp!—I have become a convert to the more conservative position on this issue. Before the 2002 season, I was a vocal supporter of the contention that you go for two whenever you’re down by two points, and that you should always make decisions in line with the current scoreboard situation. Down 14-12 in the first quarter? Go for two. Down 21-19 early in the third quarter? Go for two—why do anything else… right? It’s so ridiculously simple—down by two, go for two; down by five, go for two; up by one, go for two. Come on—why have this discussion in the first place? But then came the 2003 Sugar Bowl between Georgia and Florida State, a game that has truly reshaped my outlook on the way coaches should approach football games through the first three quarters.
Georgia head coach Mark Richt had a pair of well-documented fiascoes in the 2001 season, a run against Auburn in the final seconds near the goal line that blew up in his face, and a decision to punton a 4th and 12 around midfield with a few minutes left against Boston College in the Music City Bowl. But in 2002, Richt was golden, and he capped off his season with one of the most subtly magnificent coaching performances you’ll see in a long, long time. The actual game between Richt’s Dawgs and (mentor) Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles was not a thrilling contest. There wasn’t a packed house in the Superdome, nor was the crowd a particularly electric one. (Yeah, the matchup wasn’t sexy, givenF lorida State’s many injuries and suspensions, but still—any pre-BCS Sugar Bowl was electric no matter what… oops! I’ve lurched into an anti-BCS riff—wrong article, wrong time… back to regular programming…) The way the game played out—a not-too-dramatic 26-13 decision in favor of Georgia—wouldn’t leave all that many commentators or scribes gushing about any strategic elements of the game. After all, Georgia was better and deeper, right? That was the long and short of it, correct? It was just a nice, solid win for a better team—nothing more, nothing less… wasn’t it? Oh, there was so much more to this superficially unremarkable game than meets the eye.
In the very early going, with the game scoreless, Georgia faced a 4th and 1 at the FSU 6. With the power running of Musa Smith, a powerful and experienced offensive line, the ability to use super scrambler D.J. Shockley at quarterback, and a load of speedy skill position players, Georgia had a team supremely well-suited to convert a 4th and 1. And with Florida State having to play with third-string quarterback Fabian Walker, one could have said—with much justification and legitimacy—that going for it inside the Noles’ 10 was worth the risk, given that FSU would have an extremely long field. Yet, Richt ultimately chose to kick the field goal and take three points. One could have reaffirmed the wisdom of going for it in this situation by saying something to the effect of this: “Hey! When you’re the superior team, you flex your muscles and use every chance to demonstrate your superiority, thereby deflating the other team! The San Francisco 49er juggernauts and dominant Dallas Cowboy teams would always go for it! That damn Steve Spurrier is an arrogant prick, but he was smart enough and had enough guts to go for it in this kind of situation! Heck, Mark Richt, your mentor Bobby Bowden would go for it here! You coward, you! Why aren’t you going for this thing? It’s the SHUGAH BOW, fuh crahn out laad! First time Jawja’s been in the Louisiana Superdome since Herschel Walker, and you’re going for a wimpy field goal inside the 10 in the first quarter? Geez… some bang for the buck…sheesh!”
But Richt resisted this easy emotional temptation and took his three points to the bank. This was part of an emergent trend that would continue to show itself throughout the game. With about 4:30 left in the third quarter and the Dawgs having just settled for a field goal and a 20-7 lead, a sack of Fabian Walker produced a fumble recovery for Georgia at the Florida State 17. At this point, both emotions and logic would think one thing: dagger! Three-possession lead (20 points instead of the two-possession lead that is 16 points). As a coach, fan or journalist—or even as a player, fer cryin’ out loud—getting a turnover in someone else’s red zone late in the third quarter of a game where you’ve slowly been expanding a modest lead cries out for a knockout punch, a decisive blow. It’s a legitimate and, moreover, accepted truism in football and all sports: when you have a chance to knock someone out, you do it—you pounce, you go for the jugular, you don’t allow the game to be decided in the fourth quarter. It’s both emotionally appealing AND logically compelling to go for a touchdown in this kind of a situation. Yet, when faced with a 4th and 1 again at the FSU 8, Richt calmly assessed the situation and sent out Billy Bennett to pop through another chip shot for a 23-7 lead. Yeah, the Dawgs must have felt frustrated to a man at this point. Yeah, the Georgia fans in the Superdome must have felt like FSU was still hanging around with a few minutes left in the third quarter (when the field goal was registered). And sure, the average college football fan watching at home must have felt cheated, to the extent that this Sugar Bowl wasn’t as explosive a game as one might have hoped. Indeed, as your ordinary Joe probably mowed down his tenth taco (or fifth piece of chicken, or fourth slab of pie, or sixth cookie) in front of the television on a long New Year’s Day, he probably cursed the lack of gutsy decisions and dramatic fourth down plays in the contest.
But you know what? After all the tumult and theshouting, Richt had made the right decision. Juggling the numbers and weighing the scoreboard-based considerations, it’s clear he did. When the Noles got a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, the fact that FSU was operating with a quarterback who was fourth on the depth chart—regular starting receiver Anquan Boldin had replaced Walker by this point in the game—made it difficult for Bobby Bowden to expect that his offense could generate two more scoring drives in the fourth quarter. This forced Bowden to make the only decision he could—an unquestionably smart decision to go for two, with the lead at 10 points, 23-13. Bowden had to try to get the lead down to one possession—eight points—at the beginning of the fourth quarter. However, the two-point conversion attempt failed. About five minutes into the fourth quarter, Georgia added yet another field goal for a 26-13 lead.
The interesting thing about this field goal was that it came off a two-yard running play on 3rd and 8 from the FSU 20. Before an earlier field goal—a kick that did not take place on 4th and 1—Richt had also called for a running play on third down. Viewed in isolation, those run calls on third and long in scoring territory were stupid, but when viewed within the context of the entire game, those decisions by Richt become more understandable and acceptable because they were consistent parts of an overall game plan from Richt that clearly came into focus. One can criticize certain decisions and even whole philosophies; however, you have to give coaches their due, right or wrong, when they display a reasoned and authentic consistency in their play-calling and decision-making throughout the course of an entire game. Richt was nothing if not consistent with his strategic decisions in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Seeing FSU labor without a lot of its big-name skill-position players, Richt made a concerted effort to drain clock, secure and accumulate points whenever and wherever possible, and amount a slow, steady stack of scores that represented a Chinese Water Torture method of execution for the Seminoles.
Oh, sure, Richt could have gone for it on each of those 4th and 1 plays inside the FSU 10. And yeah, Richt could have called pass plays on two other forays deep into Seminole territory. But ya know what? If Richt had gone for it on those two previously mentioned occasions and failed, Georgia would have carried a mere seven-point lead (20-13 instead of 26-13) into the final minutes against an FSU team that, for all of its offensive limitations and weaknesses, had unmistakable big-play capability. And if Richt had called pass plays instead of runs on those other two aforementioned third downs, FSU might have had an additional 70 seconds to work with, down by just seven points in the late going. Richt’s plan worked to perfection. It wasn’t sexy, but it was overwhelmingly effective and successful. And in the end, coaches are paid to win games by doing boring but shrewd things such as that. Some situations will inevitably call for a riverboat gambler, but coaches also need to bite the bullet, swallow a bitter pill, and think in terms of 60 minutes, beyond immediate situations in isolation. Mark Richt did that in the 2003 Sugar Bowl, and the set of decisions he made was a central reason why a game that, on the surface, seemed deceptively uneventful was actually one of the best and most impressive coaching clinics I’ve seen in a very long time.
Mapping out Strategies for Conversions, Field Goals, and Fourth-Down Gambles
So I’ll come right out and say it: I am now a believer in accumulating points for the first two and a half or three quarters. I used to be a two-point conversion advocate regardless of the stage of the game, but now I believe in kicking more extra points. By extension, I also am now more supportive of a strategic approach that kicks more field goals and eschews more fourth-and-short situations. Points add up, and there’s no worse feeling as a coach than entering the fourth quarter—or worse, the middle or end of the fourth quarter—only to realize that the field goal you passed up in favor of a failed fourth down gamble is the difference between a one-possession lead (six points) and a two-possession lead (the nine-point deficit you’re currently staring in the face). Let’s go through some time-and-score situations outside the fourth quarter (let’s say, anytime in the first 40 minutes of a football game, before it gets down to the nitty-gritty), when there are legitimate decisions to make concerning two-point conversions (versus PATs) and field goals (versusf ourth downs).
First off, how about a typically tough and vexing situation relative to two-point conversions: being down by two. The issue that sneaks up on coaches who naturally and instinctively go for two when trailing by two (just like I would have done in every college football season up until now) is that if the conversion fails, you open yourself up to trailing by two possessions if the other team gets a touchdown. If you kick a PAT, you’re down by one, meaning that a touchdown will still keep you within one possession at an eight-point spread. However, if you go for two and fail, a subsequent touchdown by your opponent will put you in a nine-point hole, a two-possession deficit. Then, when you enter the fourth quarter down by this same nine-point total,you’re really going to kick yourself for not kicking a PAT back in the first or second quarter. Upon further review, it really does stand (to reason) that kicking a PAT, even down by precisely two points, is the smart coaching decision in the first 40-odd minutes of a football game.
Here’s a less appreciated but still quite relevant scoreboard consideration when it comes to going for two when down by two: a failed two-point play, coupled with a subsequent field goal, creates a five-point deficit as opposed to a four-point deficit. Given that we’re talking about the first 40 minutes of a football game, it’s entirely possible—one could even go so far as to say “normal” or even “extremely likely”—that more points, including and especially field goals, will be tallied in 20 clock minutes of a football game. Based on this reality, prudence dictates going for one. If you trail by five instead of four as a result of going for two and failing, you will be up by one point instead of two if you score a touchdown (and then think about your conversion decision). If you find yourself as a coach in a late-game situation, you’ll have to go for two with the one-point advantage. In the early or middle stages of the game, however, a coach might want to kick the PAT with a one-point lead to set up the possibility of going from a two-point spread to a nine-point (two-possession) spread. If you’re up 1, you basically face a really tough choice. If you’re up by 2, however, you have a no-brainer decision to kick the PAT, with the added bonus of having your lead at 3, where a field goal cannot beat you and can only tie you. The moral of the story is this: in the first 40 minutes, go for one when you’re down by two. The various scenarios that can unfold with one-point and two-point spreads can basically be boiled down to the following: with a PAT, you will remain down by just one possession (8 points) after an opponent’s touchdown instead of two (9 points). Secondly, if your opponent kicks a field goal, your decision to kick the PAT will enable you, with a subsequent additional touchdown, to be assured of a three-point lead, stemming from a deficit of only four after the opponent’s field goal, as opposed to having to seek another two-point conversion in order to build back a three-point advantage (stemming from a five-point deficit after the opponent’s field goal). Let’s use some simple math, okay?
These are the most important equations one has to consider when mulling over a one- or two-point conversion after atouchdown. Negative numbers refer to any deficits you face and/or create, while positive numbers represent any leads that you possess and/or increase.
(-1 + -7) = -8
(-2 + -7) = -9
(-1 + -3) = -4
(-2 + -3) = -5
(-4 + 7) = 3
(-5 + 7) = 2
(-5 + 6) = 1
Now that we’ve gone through the most excruciating situation coaches face in connection with two-point conversions, let’s go to the second-biggest scenario involving two-point tries: when you lead by one point. We’ve already touched on this, but let’s flesh it out a little more: when you’re up one, the inclination is to go up three by trying for two. But as mentioned earlier, that temptation must be balanced against the possibility of extending a two-point lead—a spread gained by kicking the PAT—and being able to extend to a nine-point, two-possession bulge. Basically, when you’re up one, you’re in the opposite position of the team that is down by two. When you’re down by two, the temptation to want to tie the game must be balanced against the worry that you might fall behind by nine points. When you’re up one, the want to go up by three points must be balanced against the desire to be able to consolidate a lead of nine points, that magical two-possession threshold. Based on this overarching reality, prudence aimed at accumulating a nine-point lead should carry just as much weight as the similar decision to want to avoid trailing by nine. Whether you’re down two or, as in this immediate discussion, up one, a recognition of the importance of a nine-point spread (whether ahead or behind) should lead a coach toward a decision to kick the PAT. Since we’ve started with the smallest possible spreads—one, two, four, five, eight and nine points—we need to go up the ladder to double-digit spreads and the two-point choices they dictate.
Having talked about the significance of a nine-point spread, let’s start with the decision faced by the coach of a team that trails by 10. Yes, the easy temptation in this situation is to want to get within one possession at eight points. And if this decision is faced midway through the third quarter, right around the 40-minute mark in the game with the home stretch not too far away, going for two might be an absolute necessity. This would be especially true if your opponent is an extremely good ball-control team that could make a two-possession lead seem like a four-possession lead.
Knowing Georgia’s ability to control the ball with its imposing line and exceptional skill people, Bobby Bowden of Florida State, with the game 45 minutes old, made the right decision to go for two when he trailed Georgia by 10 points (23-13). Any situation approaching the one faced by Bowden should require going for two. Early in the third quarter? No. Late in the third quarter against a bad ball-control team? Probably not, but with wiggle room. But late in the third against a good ball-control team? Yes—you have to try to get that lead down to one possession as soon as possible.
Getting past the boundaries involving this decision in terms of the stage of the game, let’s once again assume this decision is faced early in the game. Despite the want to get within one possession, it really does make sense to kick the PAT, boring and gutless though it might seem. Let’s not use any specific situation from the 2003 Sugar Bowl, but just consider the spreads that game acquired. Georgia had a lead go from 10 to 13 to 16 to 10 to 13. When leading by 10, a field goal extending to a 13-point spread is significant for the following reason: a team trailing by 13 will not go for two after scoring the first of the two touchdowns it needs. No team, down by 7 after scoring a TD, will go for two to get the lead down to five. The team will kick the PAT and go down by 6, the smart decision not only because it is a low-risk decision, but also because it would stand to win outright with a touchdown and extra point. It wouldn’t aim to get a minimal reward in exchange for a very big risk. But then, with the lead at six after the trailing team’s touchdown, a mere field goal can extend to a… guess what, everybody? Yup—a NINE… POINT… LEAD, the magic margin.
Why is this discussion so significant in relationship to teams that trail by 10? Three points: 1) You get put in a box strategically when a 10-point deficit gets extended to 13. You’re basically forced to go for one and keep the other team off the scoreboard; if you give up a subsequent field goal, you’ll trail by nine.2) If you kick the PAT down 10 and get the lead to nine, a field goal by your opponent would put you down 12, meaning that your next touchdown would cut the lead to 5, not 6, meaning that your opponent’s next field goal would put them up only by 8, and not 9. If coaching is all about thinking a few moves and sequences ahead (and it most certainly is, by golly!), then kicking PATs will pay dividends later on. 3) If you settle for the one-point conversion and go down 9 points, a touchdown by your opponent would keep you within two possessions (at 16 points) as opposed to three possessions (a 17-point deficit, which marks the three-possession threshold just as nine points marks the two-possession threshold).
In the end, what I’ve learned by studying the 2003 Sugar Bowl and revisiting the strategic considerations of two-point conversion attempts in the first 40 minutes of a game is that each individual point matters a great deal. Yes, it has tremendous value to go from a 13-point deficit to an 11-point deficit with a two-point try, but what if you fail on that two-point try and see your opponentkick field goals (as in Georgia’s case against FSU) to build a 16-point lead? Instead of having kicked the PAT to put one precious point on your side of the ledger, creating a 15-point deficit in the process, your desire to go for two has put you down by 16 points. This means you have to try for two TWICE, instead of just once. Considering how difficult it is to convert a one-shot deal from the three-yard line, you don’t want to enter the fourth quarter needing a maximum of two-point plays.
Consider this from the Super Bowl between Oakland and Tampa Bay: if the Raiders had kicked the PAT after all three of their late-third quarter/early-fourth quarter touchdowns, what was a 34-21 deficit (13-point spread) could have been a 34-24 deficit (a spread of 10). That was an obviously huge difference, something that—when the Raiders penetrated the midfield area with about two and a half minutes left in the game—could have enabled the Raiders to kick a quick field goal, go down seven, and possibly have enough time to get the ball back from the Buccaneers the old-fashioned way: by using timeouts. Every point is so precious in the 9- to 17-point range. Seeking two-point jumps isn’t worth sacrificing the value of a sure individual point.
17 or 16? The difference between two and three possessions. 16 or 15? The difference between needing two two-point conversions and just one, a big difference when contemplating the odds of coming back. 15 or 14? The difference between needing a two-pointer and not needing any. Just as huge as the previous scenario, only with the elimination of any two-point burden whatsoever! 14 or 13? If you give up a field goal, you’re down 17 (three possessions) or 16 (two). 13 or 12? If you score seven points and then giveup three, you’ll either be down 9 (two possessions) or by 8 (one possession). 12 or 11? If you allow a field goal, you’re either down 15 or 14. If you score a field goal, you’re either down 9 or 8. Very big distinctions. 11 or 10? Either you need a field goal, touchdown and two-pointer, or you just need a field goal and TD. Also, an allowed field goal is the difference between a 14-point deficit and a 13-point deficit. 10 or 9? If you give up a TD, you’re down either 17 or 16; if you allow a FG, you’re down 13 or 12. If you score a TD, you’re down 3 or 2. If you get a FG, you’re down 7 or 6. Just notice how all of these spreads and potential scenarios involve big differences based on single points, not just the more obvious shifts between 16 and 14, 13 and 11, and between 10 and 8. Single points matter. That’s the bottom line when it comes to two-point conversions and PATs. Kicking is underrated.
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Speaking of how kicking is underrated, it’s time to shift to a separate category of strategy, the previously mentioned set of all decisions that concern kicking field goals versus going for either a touchdown on 4th and goal, or a 4th-and-short first down deep in the red zone. With two-point conversions balanced against PATs, you have a set of decisions that affect a spread by either one or two points, depending on whether you go for two in the first place, and whether or not you make the two-point try. But within the larger issue of field goals versus touchdowns, (let’s assume seven points and not put two-pointers into this particular discussion), you have a set of decisions that affect a spread from 4-7 points—four if you compare a field goal’s value to a touchdown’s value, seven if you compare a total failure (on either a kick or a 4th down attempt for a touchdown) to a touchdown’s value. This makes field goal/touchdown decisions in the first 40 minutes of a game even weightier than PAT/two-point decisions. Conversion-related decisions are decidedly more tricky issues, but field goal/touchdown decisions are decidedly more important, since the point swings and momentum shifts that arise from these decisions (and their level of success, particularly with respect to 4th down conversions) are larger and more pronounced. With field goal-or-touchdown decisions in the first 40 minutes of a game, coaches need to make their decisions not just as a result of time-and-score considerations, which dominate when you look at conversion-related choices. No, when it comes to kicking field goals or going for it deep in the red zone (or even on the goal line), a coach needs to know his team’s overall strength, as well as the quality and compatibility of his personnel on a given side of the ball within a matchup-specific context. The more of a dominant O-line you have, the more a coach can justify a decision to go for it on 4th and short near the goal line or in the red zone. The weaker your O-line is, the more a coach should lean toward a field goal. The more of a running quarterback you have, the more you can or should consider going for it; but if your quarterback is a slow dropback-pass kind of signal caller, you—as a coach—ought to lean toward three points.
And the list goes on and on: Fast or slow running backs are a determinant. The quality and ability of your tight end, as both a blocker and receiver, is a big factor. The sequence of plays that lead up to the 4th and 1 is important—if you just did pass on third down, your opponent’s defense will be more geared toward stuffing the run and thereby has a better chance of bottling up your ground game. If you ran on third down, the defense might be a little more ready for a play fake on fourth down, giving you a better chance of being able to cram a run up the middle for a first down (if that is your personality as an offense, or at least as a rushing attack). The former scenario would lend itself more toward a field goal, while the latter scenario would make a decision to go for it a little more understandable. And then, if your defense is good at stopping quick-hitting plays, either run or pass, you can feel more comfortable and confident in going for the first down, because you know that if you fail, your defense will be able to turn the lack of room faced by your opponent’s offense—backed up against its own goal line—to its advantage. The subsequent stop deep in your opponent’s territory should give you a drive start on the edge of field goal range, if not better. Going for it is worth the risk if you can stop fullback plunges and quick slants on defense. But if not, you should probably kick a field goal.
In the end, however, the ultimate consideration a coach has to make when faced with a 4th and 1 on (let’s say) the opponent’s 5-yard line in the early stages of a game can be framed in this multiple-choice question: is your team better than your opponent, are you an equal match, or are you an underdog? Underdogs have to go for touchdowns—there’s no question about it, unless a team can go from a one-possession lead to a two-possession lead. Teams in evenly-matched games should lean toward the field goal, given the lack of a guarantee of future points. And when your team is clearly superior for whatever reason, you definitely lock up the three points and put them on your side of the ledger.
With respect to the 2003 Sugar Bowl, the conscious decision made by Mark Richt was to accumulate field goals based not on the relative strength of his offensive line or skill people, or even of his defense—both were strong, and both fit the above mentioned criteria for making a justified decision to go for first downs or touchdowns in 4th-and-short situations. No, what Richt chose to do was to kick field goals because he knew his team was better, and would prove to be better over the long haul. In other words, it was not necessary for Richt to take gambles when he knew his team could outlast a depleted and undermanned FSU team in a 60-minute battle. Why fritter away a likely victory by taking unneeded chances and throwing away easy points in the form of Billy Bennett chip shots? That was Richt’s plan, and it worked beautifully, just the way he intended, in fact. The genius of Richt in the Sugar Bowl was that he thought long-term—not even one or two sequences ahead, but he thought about the entirety of the game, and brought a well-integrated approach to the entire contest. Having both smarts and philosophical consistency make for the ideal coach; having at least one of the two is an absolute must, but the great ones—who don’t just survive but thrive—combine intelligence with a constancy that inspires the best in players. With Richt in the Sugar Bowl, the incremental approach to scoring points had to fire up his linemen and his entire defense, getting all his players to buy into a system of discipline and toughness.
With a guy like Steve Spurrier, the consistency of Spurrier’s aggressiveness brought out a maximum of intensity (and usually, production) from quarterbacks and wide receivers who knew going into games that they would be looked upon to make big-time plays in big situations. Coaching consistency can serve as a source of motivation unto itself. The fact that he surely and obviously realized the power of that reality was part of the mastery of Reverend Coach Mark Richt (as they call him in Athens), whose Sugar Bowl strategy was divine, and which summoned his Dawgs to a lofty, heavenly perch in the SEC and national rankings throughout the 2002 season. You can see from these many examples how many factors a coach has to think through when he is faced with a “field goal or touchdown” decision. All of the factors that have been talked about up to this point are—perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not (it depends on what kind of football philosophy you, the reader, apply to the sport)—factors largely if not totally unrelated to time-and-score factors. The amount of non-scoreboard details that play into field goal/touchdown decisions is staggering, and they prove just how significant these particular kinds of decisions are, even more important than PAT/two-point choices that coaches have to make.
But let’s be honest about something here: the trajectory of this discussion should not be interpreted to mean that time-and-score issues have zero relevance or importance in shaping field goal-or-touchdown decisions. They have a heckuva lotta importance, and there’s a basic way in which to apply them to field goal/touchdown decisions: reach the magic margins or “thresholds.”
The biggest and most obvious starting point for thisdiscussion is to go to what I like to call the“possession thresholds” previously referred to in the discussion about PATs and two-point conversion attempts. These thresholds between a one- and two-possession lead (8 and 9 points) or a two- and three-possession lead (16 and 17 points) form the core of a proper strategic approach to field goal/touchdown decisions. A simpler way to express that idea is this: if you can get to these thresholds, even if it means kicking a rinky-dink 17.5-yard field goal from your opponent’s one-inch line, YOU DO IT, BY CRACKY! Members of the United States Naval Academy should be most acutely aware of this—yes, it’s time for an actual case study, a trip to the strategic football laboratory and research center.
It was the 1995 Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, the first of Navy head coach Charlie Weatherbie’s tenure in Annapolis. Navy led the game 13-7 midway through the fourth quarter. The Midshipmen had fourth down on the Army one-yard line, and Weatherbie, coaching in his first Army/Navy game and probably feeling macho, masculine, “tough,” or in some other way duty-bound to do the bold, testosterone-drenched “manly thing,” opted to go for a touchdown, rather than an easy field goal. The Middies didn’t get the touchdown. Army drove 99 yards for a touchdown in 19 plays, won the game 14-13, and saved coach Bob Sutton’s job in the process. Weatherbie was left to cry in the locker room, breaking down and sobbing in front of his team, saying that he felt responsible for losing the Navy seniors’ last football game, and a fourth straight game to Army. (This was, ironically and sadly, two years after Navy did attempt a field goal from the Army 1 in the fourth quarter, only to fail to center it--because a fullback had visions of gridiron glory and ran toward what he thought was a hole near the right-side hashmark--and ultimately miss it. The kicker who missed the kick at the end of the 1993 game, Ryan Bucchianieri, would be tragically and horribly killed in a shooting incident not too many years afterward.)
In dissecting the pure football elements of Weatherbie’s fateful decision in 1995, the lowdown is simply this: he had a chance to go from 6 to 9 points and chose not to do so. He paid a severe price. He wept. For the Ancient Romans, the motto was “Veni, vidi, vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.” For Charlie Weatherbie on that gray Philadelphiaday more than seven years ago, the motto was “I erred, I lost, I suffered.” Looking yet again at the 2003 Sugar Bowl to provide an additional example, Mark Richt reached the boundary of a threshold when, up 13 and facing that 4th and 1 at the Florida State 8, he chose the safe three points and went up 16. Yeah, it wasn’t 17, but it was still on that dividing line. Whereas a 13-point spread requires just two touchdowns to win, a 16-point spread requires two TDs and two 2-pointers just to tie. Richt greatly increased the burden faced by the Seminoles in their attempt to even tie the game, let alone win it. In a similar way, going from 5 to 8 points is significant, nearly as significant as going from 6 to 9, because your opponent, when trailing by eight, has to get a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to tie, instead of needing just a TD and not even a PAT to win. Just as it is a very obvious burden to have to score twice in the face of a 9-point deficit, it is also comparatively hard to get a touchdown and conversion as opposed to needing just a touchdown and nothing more. Putting two-point conversions into play gives your opponent, trailing by eight (or perhaps 16), a separate and particularly difficult additional burden. It is these thresholds that reveal these added burdens (either extra conversions for the low end of these thresholds, 8 and 16 points, or extra possessions for the high end of the thresholds, 9 and 17 points).
Based on these considerations, which focus on reaching these thresholds when ahead or erasing such thresholds when behind, here is my personal “chart” when it comes to choosing either a chip-shot field goal or a touchdown/first down attempt deep in my opponent’s red zone:
Chart When Leading in the First 40 Minutes of a Game
+1 – Touchdown/first down. The chance to get to eight points is significant, and even if you get three points, the other team will get substantially better field position after the kickoff. Plus, another field goal after a 4-point lead gets you to a 7-point advantage, NOT at the 8- or 9-point “magic margins.”
+ 2 – Field goal. Another field goal on top of this one (which produces a 5-point spread), and you’re at the 8-point margin. Plus, getting a 5-point margin forces the other team to risk going for two if they get a touchdown. A subsequent failure of your opponent’s two-point try can wind up giving you a key extra point that you can bring to the table in the fourth quarter.
+ 3 – Field goal. Add another field goal (just like the above scenario), and you’re 9 points ahead. Kicking a field goal up by three sets you up nicely for a two-possession advantage even without the benefit of a touchdown.
+ 4 – Field goal. Four to seven is a no-brainer. To get to a point where a TD cannot beat you but can only tie you is too important to ignore.
+ 5 – Field goal. One of the “magic margin makers.”
+ 6 – Field goal. Ditto.
+ 7 – Field goal. Also from one to two possessions,but if you fail on a fourth down attempt, you still know that you can’t get beaten with a TD, only tied, so there is an extra amount of legitimacy in this situation to going for it.
+ 8 – Touchdown/first down. Eight to eleven really doesn’t do much. In fact, it might lead a team to think that it won’t need a two-point try. Consider this simple scenario: you go up 11, a team gets a TD and PAT to go down by just 4. You then kick afield goal to go up 7. As a result of these events, you’re up just one possession, and your opponent,while not being able to beat you with a touchdown, does have the benefit of not needing a two-pointer just to tie you. Going for a touchdown can get you to a 15-point spread, where you not only force a team to get two touchdowns, but at least one two-point try. Definitely a place to be aggressive, much more so than up 7, because with an 8-point lead, you’re already in a spot where your opponent is in need of a conversion just to tie you.
+ 9 – Touchdown/first down. Extending from 9 to 12 doesn’t do a whole lot in relationship to possession thresholds, but a touchdown takes you to that magic 16-point spread. Already having a two-possession lead once again affords you the chance to be aggressive. This is a better touchdown situation than being up 8, and is—now that I think of it—probably THE very best time to go for a touchdown on 4th and short when leading a ballgame.
+ 10 – Either way; refer to personnel, matchups, etc. Mark Richt, as a favorite, chose the field goal, and it set him up to further extend his lead to 16 with a second field goal. On the other hand, another coach might want to go for it, try to extend from 10 to 17 with one play, and put the game out of reach by getting a three-possession bulge. Strong arguments for either side of thought. This is certainly where the other non-scoreboard factors come in.
+ 11 – Field goal. Much like going from up 4 to up 7—not being susceptible to defeat with two touchdowns is a safe place to be.
+ 12 – Field goal. You force a team to get at least one two-point conversion by extending to 15 with a field goal.
+ 13 – Field goal. You reach 16 and force a team toget two “2s.” A no-brainer.
+ 14 – Field goal. You reach 17, another magic number just like 16, only better.
+ 15 or more – Field goal. Just collect points and have them add up on your side. If your opponent makes a late comeback, you’ll be glad you “stashed points away in storage.”
Now, let’s shift to the other side of things...
Chart When Trailing in the First 40 Minutes of a Game
-1, -2 or -3: Field goal. Taking a lead or tying is pretty obvious.
-4: Field goal. If your opponent gets a touchdown,you’re down only eight, within one possession. And by kicking the field goal, you put yourself in position to go ahead with another field goal. This isa wise choice even for the midway point of thefourth quarter IF you have faith in your defense.
-5: Touchdown/first down. If you give up a field goal after failing in this situation, you’re still down just eight. And if you do get seven points (remember, you should go for a one-point PAT when up by 1), you take a two-point lead, which can serve as a springboard to a 9-point advantage.
-6: Field goal. You can get within three, where another field goal can tie. Pretty simple. You also don’t want to risk remaining down by 6, where an opponent’s field goal gets you into that 9-point hole.
-7: Touchdown/first down. If you go down by just 4, you still need a TD to go ahead. Why not try for the TD in the middle of a game?
-8: Field goal. Rather than being tempted in the first 40-odd minutes of a contest, take the three here to remove the burden of needing a two-pointer just to tie. Going down by just 5 as a result of a field goal here really improves your outlook—this is a classic case of accumulating points for the fourth quarter, when you hope that you don’t or won’t have to convert a two-point play.
-9: Field goal. Get off that 9-point, two-possession threshold… PERIOD.
-10: Field goal. Get within one possession…PERIOD.
-11: Field goal. Get within one possession, even if you’ll need a two to tie.
-12: Touchdown/first down. A field goal still leaves you down 9. A touchdown, on the other hand, puts you down just 5. A huge difference, because the difference between a 5-point spread and a 9-points pread crosses an entire “possession threshold.”
-13: Field goal. Make sure you don’t get behind by 16 with another field goal from your opponent. Getting within 10 (like the Oakland Raiders should have done in the Super Bowl) increases your fourth quarter strategic options a lot.
-14: Touchdown/first down. Down 11, you stillhave a lot of work to do. Going for a TD is worth it here.
-15: Touchdown/first down. See above—a 12-point deficit ain’t no fun, either.
-16: Field goal. Getting off the 16-point deficit removes the need for two two-pointers, and if you do give that field goal back, well, at least you’re still down just two possessions.
-17: Field goal. Get it from three possessions down to two.
-18 or more: Touchdown/first down. Too big a deficit to get just three at any point in the game, unless perhaps late in the first or early in the second quarter (you must have really gotten out of the gate slowly—geez!).