You can blame it on Brandon Bostick for botching the onside kick. Or A.J. Hawk for misreading the fake field goal. Or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for not knocking down the two-point conversion. Or Aaron Rodgers for missing multiple throws. Or...
OK, I’m getting carried away here. Point is, everyone outside of Mason Crosby could have played better for the Packers in their NFC Championship Game collapse. Beyond the player mistakes, however, this game will always be remembered as the day Mike McCarthy pissed away a Super Bowl appearance because of a complete lack of aggression.
McCarthy’s bizarre decision-making epitomizes a recent trend in NFL head coaching that tends to avoid risk at all costs, even when the benefits of such risks far outweigh the disadvantages. McCarthy has long been known for being a poor in-game tactician. That reputation was solidified against Seattle.
Let’s start in the first quarter. The Packers had two drives come to a standstill on fourth down at the Seahawks’ 1-yard line. Rather than go for the touchdown either time, McCarthy opted to kick two chip shot field goals to go up 6-0.
The New York Times’ Fourth Down Bot, shows that NFL coaches need to be far more aggressive when it comes to going for it on fourth down, especially in short-yardage, goal-to-go situations. It calculates a statistic known as expected points, a metric that determines the scoring value of every decision and situation.
The Fourth Down Bot showed that McCarthy sacrificed 1.3 points both times, a cumulative loss of 2.6 points. Obviously teams don’t score in decimals, but giving up such a lucrative theoretical reward in regulation proved costly in a game that went to overtime.
You may say, “Well, the Seahawks have such a formidable front, the Packers were better off taking the points.” Wrong. Seattle’s opponents were 6-7 on 4th-and-1 opportunities during the regular season. The Packers were 2-5 in such situations.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, there were 164 instances this past regular season of NFL teams going for it on 4th and 1. The league converted at a 65.2 percent success rate. Relative to the league average, that means the Packers had a 52.5 percent chance of scoring a touchdown at least once against the Seahawks and a 27.6 percent chance of scoring both times.
When a team has a 27.6 percent chance of taking a 14-0 lead, it has to take it every time. Despite the oddity of the Seahawks allowing such a high success rate on 4th and 1’s, they have a fantastic defense. There is a myth in armchair quarterback rhetoric that against good defenses such as Seattle, teams need to take whatever points they can get, even if it means passing up reasonable fourth down attempts for a field goal.
That’s also wrong. If teams can expect to have relatively few scoring opportunities, then they need to maximize every chance they get. Let’s say a team only expects to get in the red zone three times against a really good defense. Taking nine virtually guaranteed points off three field goals typically won’t result in many victories. But a possible reward of 21 points? You’re now in a realistic position to win.
Now despite all that early absurdity, McCarthy and the Packers were in a position to win during the fourth quarter. Leading 19-7 with 6:53 to play, Green Bay went three-and-out and punted. After Russell Wilson’s fourth interception on the very next play, the Packers took over with 5:04 and proceeded to punt it away again after three runs that went nowhere.
This was the sequence that killed the Packers and sealed McCarthy’s terrible coaching performance. At this point, the Packers had a 98 percent chance of winning the game. One first down would essentially send Green Bay to the Super Bowl.
But McCarthy completely backed off. During the Packers’ six plays, McCarthy disregarded probable MVP Rodgers and threw the ball only once, an incompletion on 3rd and 4 that Andrew Quarless should have caught. The five runs produced a total of two yards.
After the game, McCarthy said, “The one statistic I had as far as a target to hit was 20 rushing attempts in the second half. I felt that would be a very important target to hit for our offense.”
Oh no. No! Running is not a causation of winning. It’s simply a correlation that teams who are leading will run the ball to drain the clock, preserve their leads and likely win the game. Reaching a predetermined number of rushing attempts means nothing.
Taking the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and going ultra-conservative was a backbreaking mistake. Seattle had all three of its timeouts plus the two-minute warning, so the Packers were not going to run out the clock. They needed to stay balanced on offense. That meant relying on their best player, the league’s most valuable player, to finish off the game.
Instead, McCarthy’s horrendous coaching decisions swayed the final outcome and sent the Packers home. Multiple players failed to make a game-clinching play, but ultimately, McCarthy was primarily responsible for one of the most startling collapses in playoff history.
Was this the strangest ending to a football game you've ever seen? Was it really McCarthy's fault? Email email@example.com to share your thoughts.