Immediately after it happened Sunday afternoon and all throughout that night and the next day, Mike Tomlin’s decision to try a fake field goal late in the first half of the Steelers 31-13 victory over the Jets at Heinz Field was heavily scrutinized.
Here’s the scenario: With 6:05 left in the second quarter and the Steelers leading, 7-6, kicker Chris Boswell lines up for a 46-yard field goal on fourth and two from the 28. However, instead of attempting this field goal, punter Jordan Berry (he’s an Aussie, so it’s safe to assume he used to play Australian Rules Football) fields the snap and runs around right-end to try and pick up those two yards. Unfortunately, not only doesn’t Berry pick up those two yards, he loses three, as Rontez Miles tackles him with very little trouble.
So, should Tomlin have called this fake field goal? It didn’t work, so no—obviously.
Some critics asked: “Why not take the automatic three right there” (Boswell is becoming, well, I don’t want to jinx it). Others asked rhetorically: “You have Ben Roethisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Why not just keep the offense out there, if you’re hell-bent on picking up those two yards?” And the momentumists out there, well, they claimed this failure is what led to New York taking the ball at the 31 and marching 69 yards for a touchdown (I didn’t realize the Steelers defense got so dejected after unsuccessful fake field goals early in the game with its team already ahead).
I’m not implying I was happy with Tomlin’s decision in that moment, but when you look at the bigger picture, isn’t it great that the Steelers head coach is actually willing to take risks from time-to-time?
No team went for two points more than Pittsburgh a year ago, and no team was more successful (eight out of 11 tries).
I’m not sure if Tomlin has any concerns about job-security, but so many NFL coaches do, which brings me to Jets’ head coach Todd Bowles.
Bowles is in his second year as head coach of the Jets, and after coming off a season in-which his team controlled its own postseason fate in Week 17 only to lose to a Bills squad that had nothing to play for, he entered Heinz Field on Sunday saddled with a 1-3 record.
In his book, The Game’s Not Over: In Defense of Football, author Gregg Easterbrook contends that most NFL coaches would rather call a conventional play and deflect the blame to the players if it fails, rather than do something unconventional and deal with the slings and arrows if it doesn’t work.
Why? Job-security. For someone like Bowles, not only hasn’t he accomplished much in his short time as a head coach, his boss isn’t named Rooney.
With that in-mind, maybe it was easy to understand his decision to safely punt the ball away midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday.
Here’s the scenario: After briefly falling behind late in the half on the heels of the botched Berry fake, Pittsburgh scores 17-unanswered points to take a 24-13 lead early in the fourth quarter. Furthermore, after the Steelers’ defense forces New York to punt for a fourth-straight time in the second half, the offense looks unstoppable, as it marches from its own 38, down to the Jets’ 14. But just when it looks like Pittsburgh is about to snuff out whatever hope is remaining in the hearts of the visitors, Leonard Williams hits Roethlisberger from behind, which forces a fumble that Sheldon Richardson quickly snatches out of the air.
Just like that, New York has the football, hope and over nine minutes left to pull off a mini-miracle comeback.
The Jets quickly march from the 19-yard line, down to their own 46 and, with 7:40 remaining, face a fourth and two.
This is four-down territory, right?
The CBS announcers ask this rhetorically. I assume it internally.
But Bowles inexplicably sends out the punting unit.
I’m suddenly relieved, as I’m sure are thousands of other Steelers fans, as well as the players and the head coach (the author Eastbrook says if you’re feeling relief when the other team punts, it’s probably because the other team should have gone for it).
If I was feeling relieved at that moment, how do you think Jets fans and the players were feeling? If I was a fan, I would have tuned out; and if I was a player, I would have done the same.
Conventional wisdom tells you it’s a smart move to punt from your own 46-yard line—even if you only need two yards. But with just a half-a-quarter remaining and needing a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field-goal to tie the game, you almost have to go for it there, right?
How could anyone have blamed Bowles for rolling the dice—even if they came up snake eyes? After all, his defense had just given his team new life, and he needed to do something to extend the game.
By punting right there, Bowles all but conceded strategically. As for his players, I’m no psychologist, but it’s safe to assume they all but tapped-out mentally, as evidenced by the 12-play, 79-yard touchdown drive New York’s defense so easily allowed to put the final nail in a coffin that, after the punt, didn’t really need it.
So, is Mike Tomlin sometimes too aggressive? Yes, but if I was an NFL player, I’d much rather have a coach who isn’t afraid to fail, as opposed to one who is.