Those pesky fourth downs
By Stephen L. Carter
For the past several years, Gregg Easterbrook, who writes the popular Tuesday Morning Quarterback blog for ESPN, has been criticizing coaches who too readily decide to punt or kick field goals on fourth-and-short in the opponent’s territory. When you do this, says Easterbrook, you tell your offense you have no faith in them. Sunday’s miserable loss in St. Louis will doubtless provide considerable grist for his mill.
Consider just three plays.
Play number one: Trailing 14-10 with just under eight minutes left in the second quarter, the Redskins have fourth-and-2 at the St. Louis 6 yard line. If the Redskins go for it and make a first down, they will likely score a touchdown and take the lead. If they go for it and fail, the Rams will be 94 yards away from the goal line. Nevertheless, in comes Graham Gano to kick -- this when the Washington offense had been steamrolling the Rams all quarter. Coaches, and sportswriters, tend to refer to this move as playing the percentages. But almost everyone who has studied the actual numbers would say that the percentages favor going for it.
Play number two: Early in the third quarter, trailing 14-13 with about eight minutes left, the Redskins face fourth-and-goal at the St. Louis 3. A touchdown would put the Rams completely back on their heels, reminding them that they are not a good football team. Go for it and fail, and St. Louis is 97 yards from the goal. In comes Graham Gano to kick, even though the Redskins had just rolled down the field. Yes, he makes the field goal, for a 16-14 lead, but Washington never scores again.
Play number three: With just over seven minutes left in the game, the Rams, leading 24-16, face a fourth-and-1 at the Washington 43 yard line. St. Louis elects to go for it. Two yards, first down, and a field goal three minutes later means the game is over.
To be sure, coaching football is art, not science, and Mike Shanahan is one of the game’s great artists. Perhaps there were things the offensive staff saw that made them wary of trying to pick up two or three yards on fourth down. Still, on the afternoon, the Washington rushing offense was finally clicking, averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. (Why the Skins, running so well, called only five rushes in the second half, and none in the fourth quarter, is another mystery.)
Still, one should not blame the offense for the loss. Donovan McNabb and his crew moved up and down the field almost at will, except, alas, at the very beginning and very end of the game. But the defense – well, my goodness. Giving up 365 yards to the Rams? Giving up 24 first downs to the Rams? 24?!
Readers of this blog will be aware of my dire warning before the first game of the season. Remember 1993, I wrote. That was the year the Redskins beat Dallas on opening night before a national television audience, and went on to lose the next six in a row. These Redskins are better than those Redskins. Still, the next four weeks (at the Eagles, home to the Packers, home to the Colts, at the Bears) are going to be brutal. We might be able to steal a victory in there somewhere -- but these last two Sundays we lost the games we had to have.
Box Seats blogger
| September 27, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: Redskins, Stephen L. Carter | Tags: Redskins-Rams, fourth downs
Save & Share: Previous: DC United vs. Houston game diary and player ratings
Next: The great debate
Posted by: rick_desper | September 28, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: nationalsanthems | September 28, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: matt_w_b | September 28, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Kipster | September 29, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse