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There’s no shame in surrender on 3rd and forever

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the season, much fuss was made about Brian Schottenheimer’s tendency to call “surrender” plays on 3rd and long: runs or short passes that stood approximately zero chance of ending in a first down. And it does seem cowardly, doesn't it? A refusal to make the sort of valiant effort we expect from our broad-shouldered boys in blue. Do not go gentle into that good night, et cetera.

Here’s the problem: most of the third downs on which Schotty gives up are third and forever, a unit of distance I’m defining as 15 yards or further. On such plays, the risk of interception is about the same as risk of fire in a matchstick factory. With little need to closely defend the run or the shallow pass, defensive linemen set out to murder the quarterback with even more vigor and single-mindedness than usual, and defensive backs are free to loiter around the yellow line on the teevee, waiting for a pass that will spend enough time in the air to allow them to react and make a play on the ball.

When a series of unfortunate events left the Seattle Seahawks at 3rd and 25 in the 3rd quarter, an unusually aggressive decision to redeem the drive brought home the risk entailed when an offensive coordinator burns the ships and goes for it.

The Eagles rushed only four, leaving seven defenders to back-pedal into deep coverage alongside the three wide receivers the Seahawks sent downfield: Rashaad Penny leaking out into the flats was ignored completely, leaving the “first down” options bracketed. Russell Wilson did manage to get the ball away, but it hung in the air long enough for cornerback Ronald Darby to see it coming, break on David Moore, and stretch a hand out to tip the pass to a teammate for the interception. Bad luck doesn’t enter into it, any more than it’s bad luck when you walk away from the roulette table poorer than you were an hour previous.

There are certainly high-stakes situations when it’s right to damn the torpedoes and sling the football downfield, but as deflating and unmanly as it sounds, most of the time it’s good sense in a bad spot to live to fight another day: a punt is a far better result than an interception or a strip-sack.

So, say it with me now: there’s no shame in surrender on third and forever. It even rhymes.