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Don’t play not to lose (especially when you’re already losing)

Wild Card Round - Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Did anyone notice a pattern from some of the losing head coaches this past weekend?

Very questionable and very conservative 4th down decisions. Pete Carroll included and also expected.

We’ll start with Carroll because this is a known issue with him for years. The “Big Balls Pete” days seem so long ago.

The Seahawks had multiple opportunities to go for it on 4th down and short and he kicked every single time up until they were down 30-13.

Now I actually don’t totally mind this. Seattle’s offense was terrible all game (including in short yardage) and they couldn’t afford to have too many empty possessions while in scoring range. Jason Myers was genuinely more trustworthy than the Seahawks offense to pick up a few yards. If he had gone for it and failed I wouldn’t have been upset, less so if they had actually converted those 4th downs.

But this sequence, which seemed to be emblematic of the now nixed Carroll-Schottenheimer relationship, was unacceptable. It’s 4th and 1 at Seattle’s 29 and they’re down 23-13. Damien Lewis is injured but they have time to figure out what to call. Lewis is up and off to the sideline. Time to run that all-important one-yard play with only 9:32 to go! Oh wait you’re not ready? Is that play clock not resetting OH SHIT WE GOTTA RUN THE PLAY NOW (false start).

And then Carroll punted (which is a terrible move anyway), which burned some time and then DJ Reed fumbled the ensuing punt to kill the comeback once and for all.

I dislike using 2nd half timeouts on bad challenges and fending off delay of game penalties but if there was ever an exception to the rule, that was the case.

We’ve been through this with Pete on numerous occasions and it’s really glaring when they botch the clock that badly. They perhaps lost the NFC West last season because they couldn’t figure out the personnel and the play to run at the 1-yard line with no timeouts left. At the end of Super Bowl XLIX they entered the two-minute drill with all three timeouts and ended it with only one timeout, having wasted two of them on stopped clocks.

But if the field goal decisions earlier in the game were somewhat justifiable and at least some thought was put into actually scoring points, punting there even on 4th and 6 was not. With nine minutes left you are down two scores and the Rams will be looking to run the ball and run the clock down. Outside of an incomplete pass or a turnover, literally every outcome at that point of the game was guaranteed to run at least 40+ seconds off the game clock. You’re trading off a minimum two minutes for field position that’s likely to be worse than from where you just punted from. It is bad process.

Now Pete is not the worst offender from Wild Card weekend. Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans not only unleashed a failed gameplan against the Baltimore Ravens that was alarmingly similar to the Seahawks vs. Cowboys playoff game from two seasons prior, but he made this outrageously awful call to punt it on 4th and 2 in Baltimore territory early in the 4th quarter.

As anyone would do with a 2,000-yard rusher in the backfield (albeit one who was bottled up) and a legitimately very good quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, I’d give the ball back to the Ravens and trust one of the worst defenses in the NFL to play above their level one more time. Baltimore took off more than half of the remaining ten minutes and kicked a field goal. The Titans only got one more possession and it ended in an interception, so in effect they ceased playing for the win in regulation as a direct result of that punt.

That’s mindboggling. The Titans had a very makeable 4th down and just booted it back to “play the field position game.”

And lastly, Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t turn up at all against the Cleveland Browns for an entire half, trailing 28-0 in the opening quarter and 35-10 at the break. They made a brief comeback at 35-23 and could’ve made it a one-possession game with another touchdown entering the 4th quarter.

It’s 4th and 1 at Pittsburgh’s 46 and every reason to go for it given the field position, the score, and the fact that Cleveland’s offense was unlikely to be held down forever despite three consecutive punts in the third quarter.

Cleveland easily marched down the field and scored what was pretty much a game-ending touchdown.

Here’s Tomlin’s ludicrous “momentum” answer:

How the hell do you keep the momentum by giving them the ball back? Tomlin gambled on his defense, which was a shell of itself health wise compared to when they were 11-0, and it backfired spectacular. Season over.

Considering Vrabel’s team was the closest to actually winning, he has the dishonor of the worst punt decision of the entire playoffs and maybe of the whole season.

Forget the math for a second, just logically speaking when you opt to punt instead of go for it you are pretty much deliberately forfeiting any efforts to score for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s particularly egregious when you’re trailing and you need the ball as much as possible to have any realistic shot at winning.

By the way, you can still play aggressively and play to win and end up losing, which is what happened to Frank Reich. Up 10-7 against the Buffalo Bills, the bot says kicking the field goal would’ve been fine. He went for a touchdown on 4th and goal from the 2 and not only did it fail but the Bills scored, took the lead for good, and held on for the 27-24 win. I don’t agree with going for it but I can at least respect the intent of wanting to get as many points as possible against a high-powered offense. He was also surely cognizant of his banged up secondary and he didn’t want to waste great drives with a lack of touchdowns. Sometimes good processes yield bad outcomes.

But Messrs Carroll, Vrabel, and Tomlin all played not to lose while already losing and all of them were deservedly punished for their terrible decisions.