Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams hung 30 points on a ferocious Dallas Cowboys defense on Saturday night, providing more evidence for the NFL’s lust to find a coach who can reinvigorate a program the way McVay has. But it should have been 50 and a romp, rather than 30 and a close, single-score win. For all the love for McVay as a play designer and playcaller — creating chunk plays and wanting to hit the home run every snap — he’s not a particularly aggressive coach. If Matt LaFleur brings anything from his time in LA, hopefully for him it’s an understanding that attacking in all facets gives his team the best chance to win, a lesson McVay hasn’t quite learned.
It may seem strange to criticize a coach who punted just once against the 9th ranked defense by DVOA, but here we are. On back-to-back drives early in the game, McVay settled for field goals inside the 10-yard line, the first on 4th-and-3 from the 7, and the second on fourth-and-goal at the 5. Two impressive drives led to six points and the Rams still trailed the Cowboys 7-6 after the second one.
The game’s only punt from the Rams came after the Cowboys declined a penalty that would have replayed third down, giving McVay fourth-and-2 at the Dallas 47. Fourth-and-short in plus territory should be an automatic decision, especially for an offense as efficient as the Rams with Todd Gurley. McVay punted up eight with the Cowboys having just marched down the field and making it a one-score game with a touchdown.
This isn’t a small sample size problem either. The Rams were among the least aggressive teams in the league last season going on fourth down, attempting just 15 conversions, tied for 20th in the NFL. And the only two teams worse at converting those fourth downs were the hapless Cardinals and Bills, in part because two of those were actually fakes in the kicking game not traditional conversions. Meanwhile, they were second in the league in attempting field goals, underscoring McVay’s reticence to go for it on fourth down. That’s a tough look for the SoCal wunderkind.
But all attempted conversions have context. So I went back and looked at all 41 field goal attempts from the Rams and found a troubling trend emerge. Considering three of those kicks ended the half, the real number we should be working with is 38 where McVay had a real decision to make. McVay settled for field goals 13 times on fourth-and-short inside the 20 and 11 times inside the 10 with eight being in goal-to-go situations.
Of those 38 attempts not counting end-of-half kicks, 19 of them would have taken four yards or fewer to convert for first downs on fourth down. Making matters even worse, the Rams punted four times in plus territory, a cardinal sin of game management, including once inside their opponent’s 40. In essence, he’s making the wrong choice to kick half the time. That’s absolutely brutal.
Thousands of words have been written about the flaw in most NFL coaches’ logic in those moments (I’d start here with this piece from Brian Burke who now works in ESPN’s analytics department). Particularly with a good quarterback, an excellent run game, and a creative offensive coach, these should be gimme decisions. You go for it. Ask Mike McCarthy in the NFC Championship Game.
In fact, let’s ask McCarthy, who was at one time the most aggressive coach in the league on fourth down and two-point conversion situations. How did the Packers fare in these situations under McCarthy and his disciple Joe Philbin in 2018? Mason Crosby attempted the third-most field goals of any kicker in the league with 37, but an incredible nine of them were end-of-half or game situations, so the Packers really only had 28 decisions to make. We’re also throwing out Week 17 because ... well, DeShone Kizer.
The Packers settled for a field goal attempt just four times on fourth-and-short from inside the 20, with two of those coming against the Jets under Philbin, and not a single attempt inside the 10. Green Bay kicked twice in goal-to-go situations, but one kick was from the 20 thanks to a penalty and the other from the 11.
In other words, the Packers consistently made the right calls to kick or go for it, attempting 20 fourth downs in all this season. If there was one major flaw with game calling for the Packers it was the punting in plus territory, something they did nine times last year, but nearly all of them were on fourth-and-10 or more.
So how does this all tie into Matt LaFleur?
Simple: there are plenty of ways to want to be like McVay, but this can’t be one of them. The same is true for McCarthy, who was himself an exceedingly bright coach for a long time before his methods grew dull. LaFleur has the most skilled quarterback in the league, a top offensive line, and plenty of playmakers. Mason Crosby can provide solid reliability but the Packers have to end their ugly cycling of taking the points. Be more forward-thinking and trust what the probabilities tell us about going for it: do it more often.
Play to win rather than play not to lose, especially with Aaron Rodgers under center. Listen when the quarterback gives the head signal to go for it in opponent territory and don’t be afraid to go for it in the red zone rather than settle for field goals.
Fixing the red zone offense will be one of LaFleur’s top tasks, but one of the truly unique things about McVay is his ability to call his best play regardless of the situation. Apply that same idea to fourth down and stop worrying about getting six yards when it’s fourth-and-five. Call the best play and pick up the most yardage possible. Rather than take the points, trust the quarterback, trust the offense, and get touchdowns not field goals.