“Go for it! Go for it!”
If you’re a football fan, you know the scenario. When a team faces a fourth down and short situation, especially if they’re in the red zone, the coach has a quick decision to make — do they pull a trick out of their hat and go for the first down (or touchdown), or do they take the points and kick a field goal?
For the fans, it’s an easy call. Take the high-risk, high-reward route, which could result in the touchdown they desperately want to see. But for the coaches, there’s nothing easy about it. In a matter of seconds, they must analyze several different factors, from how confident they are in their quarterback, to how strong the opposing defense is against both the pass and run, all while considering the implications of a failed attempt.
It is, no doubt, a huge decision — one that the crowd can’t wait to weigh in on. If the offense stays on the field, they erupt in a thunderous applause. But if the kicker comes out, it’s a chorus of boos. Why? Because people love the excitement of taking a gamble, especially the people who won’t be held responsible if things go awry. And let’s face it, although fans are certainly disappointed if a conversion fails, they’re able to move on relatively quickly, focusing on the next drive.
For coaches, it’s a completely different story. If they go for it and come up empty, they’ll have to defend the poor decision again and again to the media (and perhaps, the team owner and general manager). That was precisely the case for Eagles head coach Doug Peterson a few weeks ago when his team faced the NY Giants. On two different occasions, the Eagles faced a fourth-and-short situation in field goal territory. Both times he kept the offense on the field, and both times they failed.
The Eagles ended up losing to the Giants, 28-23.
When asked why he left 6 points on the table, Peterson said, “I really felt good about how we were moving the football.” He wanted to “stay aggressive on the field,” and for good reason. Prior to the game, the team had gone a perfect 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversations. The strategy was working really well — until it didn’t. But instead of second-guessing his decision, he defended it, along with his team.
“There’s a fine line obviously between being kind of crazy, borderline crazy, and doing the right thing,” he stated. “But at the same time, I felt it was the right thing to do.”
And, even though the Eagles failed to convert, many agreed with him.
In fact, just a few weeks later, it was the Giants who opted to go high-risk, high-reward in a game against the Bengals. Early in the fourth quarter, Coach Ben McAdoo gave his offense the green light on a fourth and goal and it paid off, as Sterling Shepherd caught what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
It was a call that fans of the Giants — a team that has been notoriously conservatively on offense — didn’t expect. After all, with enough time left on the clock for at least two more possessions, the safe bet is to kick the field goal. Take the points.
But judging from the ovation that was given when Eli Manning stayed on the field, the fans welcomed McAdoo’s gumption. And it did take gumption, because if the pass had been dropped — or worse, intercepted — he’d have been raked over the coals. Going for it, despite all of that, showed his team he had confidence in them, something that wasn’t lost on his players.
“He trusts our team and our decision-making,” said wide receiver Victor Cruz. “When we see that, we want to repay him. We want to rise up and make the play that’s going to put us over the edge.”
By taking a risk, McAdoo earned respect and loyalty from his team. For a leader, that’s the biggest reward of all.