I know nothing about football. Well, that’s not true. I know a ton about football in the same way that an uninspired geometry student knows all the necessary formulas, rules, proofs, and procedures. But I know nothing about how football actually works, how teams devise strategies and game plans designed to attack opponents’ weaknesses. There are two recent occurrences that neatly sum up my understanding of football. During last night’s Giants-Colts game, as Pat McAfee was preparing to punt the ball to Darius Reynaud, it immediately occurred to me that they played together at West Virginia. Days earlier, I suggested that a friend pick up the Arizona Cardinals defense for his fantasy football league. He did, and they allowed 41 points to the Atlanta Falcons. Those events are my relationship with football in a nutshell.
But just because I am a blithering idiot about football tactics doesn’t mean that I am a blithering idiot in general. I can tell smart from dumb, and I am smart enough to realize that the Giants’ coaching staff produced a particularly egregious and insulting example of tactical conservatism during last night’s evisceration of my beloved Big Blue. The score was 31-7 Colts with roughly six minutes left in the third quarter. The Giants’ drive had stalled at the Colts’ 49 yard line, resulting in a 4th and 5. I had not finished uttering “we better not punt here” when Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin dutifully called the offense back to the sideline and deployed the punting team. Profanity ensued.
As far as I can tell, there is no argument for this being the correct move. Down by more than three touchdowns on the road, the Giants elected to give the ball back to a prolific offense led by the greatest quarterback of his generation. They hadn’t been able to stop Peyton Manning or the Colts’ running game all night, but decided that going for it simply wasn’t worth the risk. At that point in the game, the Giants’ goal should have been to maximize offensive possessions and simply hope for the best. Going for it on fourth downs, onside kicks, fake field goals and punts – these are the sorts of things that Coughlin should have been authorizing, if not demanding. Given the quality of the Colts’ offense, there was simply no way the Giants could win that game unless they tried to score as many points as possible, as quickly as possible. And as we know, punting the ball doesn’t accomplish that. Of course, four plays later, the Colts were on their own 47 yard line – two yards from where the Giants punted. Brilliant.
It’s funny how two people can come to the exact same conclusion about something for wildly different reasons. Earlier today, Joel Sherman tweeted a link to his regular 3UP column, hinting that he was going to criticize the Giants for “dumb coaching in the NFL that goes unchallenged.” I was certain that he was going to point out the punting-on-4th-and-5-while-down-by-24 ridiculousness that I had noticed, but that wasn’t the case. It turns out that he criticized Coughlin for playing the Giants’ starters too long and jeopardizing their health in an obviously hopeless blowout. This seems like a fair point to me, especially when the score was 38-7 in the fourth quarter. Incidentally, Sherman’s observation supports my criticism by catching Coughlin in a bit of a tactical contradiction. Coughlin playing his starters for the entire game suggests a legitimate desire to make the game competitive again. But that decision is inconsistent with the decision to punt on 4th and 5. If Coughlin is trying to win the game, why give the ball back to an unstoppable offense? “It’s like giving up,” two friends independently told me.
Sadly, I have no choice but to conclude that coaches who do this – and it seems like all of them do – genuinely believe that punting the ball in that situation maximizes the team’s chances of winning. I really hope that coaches eventually come around on the whole idea of punting. Like the last three outs of a baseball game, yards on fourth down aren’t any harder to get than yards on first down. Defenses aren’t allowed an extra player on the field. Yards don’t magically become four feet long instead of three. The only thing that changes is the penalty for failure, and more often than most people think, that risk is well worth the reward.