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Why Mike McCoy Should’ve Gone for the 4th and 1

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It’s hard to fault Mike McCoy for taking a high percentage opportunity to tie the Raiders. Here’s why I disagree.

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been as vocal as many others on BTFB regarding Head Coach Mike McCoy’s conservative game management strategy.

While it’s easy for me (and others) to engage in personal attacks against McCoy, such as cowardly, or gutless, or timid, or (insert other more profane adjective here), the problem with deploying these attacks is that they obscure opportunities to analyze the situation and see what the other possibilities are.

With that in mind, I’m going to try and explain why I disagreed with McCoy’s decision to attempt the Field Goal objectively as possible.

For an opposing perspective, see Aaron Woolley’s post supporting McCoy’s decision.

My objection to his conservative game management style boils down to these main points:

  • It minimizes scoring opportunities for his above average Offense.
  • It places a greater burden on an (at best) average Defense and below-average Special Teams.

Resetting the Situation

On Sunday’s game against the Raiders, McCoy was faced with a tough call late in the 4th Quarter. Here was the game situation:

  • Raiders lead by 3.
  • Chargers have a 4th-and-1 at the Raiders’ 18-yard line, with about 3 minutes left. The next snap has to come at about 2:20, until the referees reset the shot clock and allow the Chargers to run the clock up to (or past) the 2-minute warning.
  • Chargers have 1 timeout remaining, the Raiders have 2 timeouts remaining.

As it turns out, the botched placement - an error 100% attributable to rookie P Drew Kaser mishandling the snap - was just about the worst of all possible outcomes. The extended play time caused by Kaser fumbling the snap and the scrum to recover the ball resulted in the game clock reaching the 2-minute warning before the Raiders had to run a play (which cost the Chargers 40 valuable seconds), and the fumble itself cost the Chargers 16-17 yards of field position.

If Kaser has simply fallen on the ball at the 26-yard line, the Raiders would’ve only gained 8 yards of field position, and been forced to run a 1st down play before the 2-minute warning. Assuming the Chargers don’t allow a 1st down, and assuming Raiders’ P Marquette King hits another 51-yard punt, the Chargers take over at their own 20, with about 1 minute to play and no timeouts. Difficult, but not impossible.

Let’s also add the Chargers got mildly hosed by the referees when the ball was re-spotted prior to 3rd down, losing about a half yard on the placement. It’s impossible to know, but Gordon was not far from converting on this 3rd and long 1 carry.

They also hosed themselves burning a timeout between the 2nd down and 3rd down.

About The Field Goal

Let’s concede that McCoy’s decision to kick the FG was not a senseless one. First, Josh Lambo was kicking a 36 yard FG. In his brief career with the Chargers, Lambo has converted 10 out of 10 FG attempts within 30-39 yards, for a make percentage of 100%. If you add extra point attempts (33 yards), Lambo is 45 out of 50 (90%) for his career. Overall, kicking within the 30-39 yard range, Lambo is 55 out of 60, a 91.67% make percentage.

Further, from 2014-2016, NFL kickers converted 601 out of 652 FG attempts from within 30-39 yards, for a make percentage of 92.17%.

For the sake of argument, let’s concede that McCoy’s chances of getting to a 34-34 tie were about 92%.

So, with that in mind, let’s start looking at the potential outcomes had McCoy had available to him.

Potential Outcomes Related to the Field Goal Attempt

We already saw the unlikely outcome of a fumbled hold by Kaser. The only potentially worse outcome would’ve been a Raiders recovery leading to a touchdown.

Another unlikely outcome would’ve been a Lambo miss from 36 yards. Such a result wouldn’t have been materially different from Kaser falling on the fumbled snap at the 26-yard line. As it was described above, I won’t rehash it here.

Now, let’s assume Lambo converts the FG attempt from 36 yards. Allowing for 5 seconds to run off the clock on the attempt means that the game is tied at 34-34 with about 2:02 remaining. The next play is Lambo kicking off, with a Touchback as the most likely result. Because the Raiders don’t field the kickoff, no time elapses.

This means Raiders QB Derek Carr has the ball at the Raiders’ 25-yard line with 2:02 to play. The Raiders have 3 chances to stop the clock: the 2-minute warning, plus 2 timeouts. They have to drive the ball at least 33-43 yards to set-up a long game winning FG attempt for PK Sebastian Janikowski. In his career, Janikowski is 54 for 96 from 50+ yards, a 56.25% conversion rate, and has converted more 50+ yard FGs than any kicker in NFL history.

McCoy was gambling his defense (which had allowed 389 total yards as of this point in the game, 300 net passing by Carr) could get a stop before Janikowski was in FG range. A lot of Pagano’s bend-but-don’t break defense on Sunday was effective. However, without 2 of his top 3 corners and missing most of his middle linebackers, asking Pagano to get a stop without giving up big yards was an extremely tough ask.

I can’t emphasize this point enough - even if Lambo makes the FG, the Raiders would still have been in excellent position to win the game in regulation.

Potential Outcomes Related to Going for It

Of course, there’s always the possibility of the Chargers not converting the 4th and 1 attempt.

If Gordon (or Rivers) were stuffed on a running play, the result of that play again would not be materially different than if Kaser had fallen on his fumble, with the exception that the Chargers gain about 5-7 yards worth of field position.

There’s also the possibility of a turnover return for a TD.

For what it’s worth, even a Rivers interception inside the Raiders’ 15 would’ve been a better result than what actually happened in the game.

Let’s also remember that by virtue of having only 1 timeout, the odds are high that this will be the last time the Chargers possess the ball in regulation.

All that said, let’s examine the game situation if the Chargers successfully convert on 4th and 1. For argument’s sake, we’ll assume the Chargers gained 1 yard.

The result is 1st and 10 at the Oakland 17 with 2:00 remaining in regulation. Here are 3 possibilities resulting from that scenario. We’ll concede a turnover following a 1st down results in a loss.

  1. The Chargers run 3 plays which keep the clock moving but do not convert another 1st down. The Raiders burn their last 2 timeouts to preserve some time for their offense. Furthermore, McCoy retains the short FG option to tie the game on 4th down. This means the Raiders have the same scenario described above, but with only about 60-55 seconds and no timeouts - giving Pagano a better chance to succeed.
  2. The Chargers score a TD on the 1st play following the 2-minute warning. This means the Raiders are forced to drive 75 yards for a winning TD, with about 1:50 left and 2 timeouts - still a better scenario for Pagano than the one McCoy intended to provide.
  3. The Chargers run enough plays to keep the clock running, force the Raiders to use their timeouts, and then score a TD. This is the best possible scenario; it forces the Raiders to drive 75 yards in a minute or less with no timeouts.

I really don’t want to get into the whole momentum/intangibles/confidence deal, but it’s worth noting LT King Dunlap was visibly frustrated with McCoy’s decision to kick the FG. And for a coach allegedly making his last stand, it speaks volumes McCoy played for a tenuous tie instead of playing for a win which could’ve changed the season, or even saved his job.

It’s also worth it to note an old axiom that you should think about going for the outcome your opponent fears most. Were the Raiders happy that McCoy settled for 3?

"I'm glad they did (decide to kick), I was a little bit [relieved]. I talked to some of their players after the game. They wanted to go for it."

-Raiders LT Donald Penn

In Summary

Any of the 3 scenarios above give the Chargers a better chance of actually winning the game than the scenario McCoy settled for on Sunday. His decision to make the obvious and easy call for an FG attempt did very little to actually improve his team’s chances of winning.

What the decision did was temporarily improve the Chargers’ odds of not losing the game, by shifting the burden away from his borderline Hall-of-Fame QB and productive offense, and instead shifting the burden onto a beaten up and undermanned defense which had gamely slowed, but struggled to stop the Raiders all game long.

McCoy had a last chance to change the fortunes of his team, and the Chargers’ 2016 season. That he instead chose the safe & well traveled road might be the best for everyone involved.