As Green Bay Packers fans continue to deal with the heartbreak of Sunday’s 31-26 NFC Championship loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, second guessing a lot decisions will naturally be part of any coping strategy.
Perhaps no decision will face more scrutiny than Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur choosing to kick the field goal down 31-23 with 2:05 left in regulation after facing a fourth-and-goal from the eight-yard line. On the surface, turning a one-score game into a one-score game after the field goal would indicate a poor coaching decision when utilizing any of a number of analytics models. However, let’s talk about what was going on in LaFleur’s head and why, despite the initial horror of seeing him not let Aaron Rodgers do Aaron Rodgers things from the eight, it actually makes a great deal of sense and may even have been the correct call.
Let’s play the hypothetical game here: say the Packers go for it and do get the touchdown. Now they’re down 31-29. Now they have to make the two-point conversion with a drop by Equanimeous St. Brown on a previous try looming. Say they make it. Cool, game tied at 31-31!
Now the Packers have to stop Tom Brady and the Buccaneers offense to maybe get a late shot or, more likely, to force overtime. Do the Packers have enough left in their defense to make this stop happen? It was very iffy at best, given Kevin King was being picked on all day and had a QB rating of 147.0 when targeted. This isn’t Jared Goff they were up against. This was Brady, the “GOAT” if you will. He’s going to know these things and very well could have picked on King enough to get Tampa Bay in field goal range to win it as the clock expired.
We could also go further into a different alternate timeline and say the Packers do a get a stop and force overtime. Now the Packers’ fate hang in the balance of a coin toss and we have all seen this story in the Rodgers era before: the Packers lose the coin toss and the opponent goes right down the field to score a touchdown and the game is over before Rodgers even gets to see the ball in his hands. Flipping that potential outcome in Green Bay’s favor would have required a second stop by the defense. Did you have much confidence in this happening? Clearly, LaFleur did not.
Of course the Packers may have won the toss as well and Rodgers FINALLY could have had his overtime moment in the playoffs. We’ll never know, but the point here is there were a lot of variables at play here and hinging your team’s season on a potential coin toss is not exactly a wise coaching decision either.
This now brings us to the decision LaFleur did make and to our current reality. By going down 31-26, you’re relying on your defense to get one stop to get the ball to your offense with a chance to win the game in regulation.
That’s what the decision boiled down to and why it made sense for LaFleur to do it. You now need your defense to DEFINITELY get one stop versus needing it to get MAYBE *two*.
No one but Rodgers knows for sure, but I’m guessing he had this scenario in mind when he said he didn’t agree with the fourth down call but understood why it was made. Rodgers is too smart to at least not understand the factors at play.
This is where the oft-raised “how the heck could LaFleur choose Pettine over Rodgers in that situation?” comes into play. As you can see above, he really didn’t trust his defensive coordinator over his quarterback at the time. He’s trusting his defense to get one stop instead of potentially two or more. Also for the offense, this isn’t just punching it in from the one-yard line. This would have had to be a full-blown, well designed play that would have needed to be executed well. There were a lot of variables at play in that situation too: Rick Wagner was a turnstile all game and Todd Bowles wouldn’t have thrown a three-man rush at Rodgers on that fourth down play.
If that play doesn’t work, then the Packers would need to get a three-and-out in order to get one more chance to tie the game but given the Buccaneers were converting over 60% of their first downs, that would not have been a likely outcome.
The other elephant in the room here is the preceding third down play where Rodgers may have scored had he tried to run the ball instead of directing his receivers in the scramble drill. Whether or not he would have scored remains in doubt, but how much of an impact could this have had on the fourth down call if it’s from inside the five-yard line instead of outside it?
We can play the hypotheticals all day but the bottom line is we don’t know what would have happened. The point here is LaFleur’s decision to kick the field goal was not a brazen act of coaching malpractice some are making it out to be and it definitely did not show a lack of faith in Rodgers. It simply another one of those calls that would be hailed today as a genius if it had worked. Instead LaFleur is being grilled for it. Such is the nature of being a head coach in the National Football League.
If not for a highly controversial pass interference call on King, LaFleur’s gambit very well could have paid off and we would not even be having these discussions right now. LaFleur will likely be saying “what if” to himself for years to come regarding that call and that is sadly a far harsher punishment than any of us can dish out on a website or on social media.
Unfortunately for LaFleur, and Packers fans, he will have to wait at least year for another crack at finally breaking through the barrier to a Super Bowl berth.