The following isn’t hindsight. My wife can vouch for me, because I said it aloud as soon as Aaron Rodgers completed his remarkable, insanely athletic pass for a 41-yard touchdown on the final play of regulation against Arizona.
The thought leaped to mind instantly: “Green Bay should go for two.”
Arizona’s defense was reeling, shell-shocked after yielding the Hail Mary and a 60-yard completion on fourth-and-20 a few plays earlier. The Packers trailed by one point with no time on the clock. Coach Mike McCarthy faced a crucial decision: Convert the two-point conversion and win the game, or kick the extra-point and see what happens with the coin flip.
It should’ve been an easy choice.
But football coaches have been “playing it safe” since the advent of leather helmets. The book says it’s better to head into overtime than risk everything on one snap from the opponent’s 2-yard line. A prodigious amount of testicular fortitude is required to buck conventional wisdom and open yourself to scathing criticism. If McCarthy went for two and failed, he’d never hear the end of it.
That makes no sense, but it’s true. Conversely, very little has been mentioned about his decision to play for the tie. Virtually all of the postgame discussion has centered on overtime’s format, which kept Rodgers on the sideline as Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald gained all 80 yards on the game-ending touchdown drive.
“It comes down to a coin flip sometimes after a long hard-fought game,” Rodgers told reporters after the game, “back and forth, bizarre plays made by both teams, and unfortunately it comes down to that.”
What’s unfortunate is McCarthy’s failure to seize the moment. His team was an underdog on the road. The fact that only one point separated Green Bay and Arizona after Rodgers’ final heave was miraculous. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians’ hyper-aggressiveness on the previous series had aided the Packers, giving them about 35 extra seconds for their final drive. All McCarthy had to do was dial up a successful two-point conversion and the Packers would be headed to Carolina.
And get this: Despite all the flack he would’ve taken if the play failed, going for two in that situation gave McCarthy a better chance of winning!
I didn’t have numbers in front of me at the time. But my gut instinct was correct.
By going for the tie, McCarthy gave himself roughly a 50-50 chance of victory. A 50-50 chance that his best player, Rodgers, would touch the ball again. A 50-50 chance that Green Bay would win the coin toss.
According to an ESPN probability model, recipients of the opening kickoff in overtime will win 53.8 percent of the time. When New England coach Bill Belichick oddly chose to start overtime on defense against the New York Jets last month, SB Nation looked at 73 overtime results since the rules were modified in 2012. The team that received the ball first won 38 of 70 games (54.2 percent) with three games ending in ties.
Green Bay had a success rate of 66.7 percent on two point attempts this season. The Packers went for two points on six occasions and converted four times. The Pittsburgh Steelers led the league in two-point tries, converting 8-of-11 attempts (72.7 percent).
Even if Green Bay won the overtime toss, driving 80 yards for a game-winning touchdown seems a lot harder than scoring from the 2 for a game-winning conversion. If the Packers took the opening kick and drove for a field goal, they still could’ve lost. Arizona would’ve had a chance to produce some “Hail Larry” magic.
Green Bay lost the same way in last season’s playoffs. Russell Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse for a touchdown after Seattle won the overtime coin toss. “It’s tough,” Rodgers said Saturday. “We’ve lost a few of these over the years where you don’t get to touch the ball in overtime. It’s just the way it goes.”
McCarthy didn’t have a choice last season. Crosby kicked the game-tying field goal with 19 seconds remaining. Against Arizona, Crosby should’ve been the one who stayed on the sideline and never touched the ball again after Rodgers’ heroic touchdown toss.
McCarthy should’ve given his quarterback one more snap to win or lose the game right there – all or nothing.
Based on the postgame transcript, no one asked the coach if he considered playing for the win. However, it was the first thing I thought about when the Packers pulled to within 20-19 with 0:00 on the clock.
Going against the grain takes a lot of audacity.
But sometimes, like in Saturday’s game, “playing it safe” is a riskier roll of the dice.