Week after week in the NFL, the one thing you can count on in the NFL is that it will surprise you. Peter King and I already discussed the continuous curious officiating. Below, I’ll talk about an All-Pro performer making a rare error at the worst possible time, and how Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith made all the right choices on the final fourth-down throw against the Broncos—right up until where he placed the ball.
But first we’ll start in Minneapolis, where rookie Bears coach Marc Trestman made a coaching blunder for the ages and might have cost the Bears a chance at the playoffs in the process.
Chicago at Minnesota
Score: Bears 20, Vikings 20
Time: 4:12 left in overtime
Situation: 2nd-and-7 at the Minnesota 29
Result: Missed 47-yard field goal by Robbie Gould
What happened: Marc Trestman screwed up
After Matt Forte rushed five straight times for 24 yards, Trestman decided against getting any closer and elected to kick on second down. Gould missed, and the Vikings went down and kicked of a field goal of their own to win the game.
Did the former Canadian Football League head coach momentarily think he was playing in Winnipeg and thought he had only three downs per drive?
Trestman defended his choice on Monday.
“The decision is not anything I regret,” Trestman said. “I don’t regret that I have to take accountability for it, but I do. I made the decision to do it on 2nd-and-7, and we didn’t get it done.
“It’s very simple. Once we got inside the 30-yard line, we were going to kick it. We were well within Robbie’s range. We ran the ball on first down and got three (yards). We were sitting there on second-and seven, and the ball is in the middle of the field. With all the things that had happened throughout the game, including Minnesota’s failure to make a field goal when they went back with penalties, we were in a great position right there to kick it and finish the game.”
Trestman was referring to the Vikings’ previous drive. Minnesota had reached the Bears’ 21-yard line and Blair Walsh connected from 39 before a face mask penalty wiped it out. One play later, Walsh missed a 57-yard attempt.
“It was that kind of game,” Trestman said.
I get what Trestman’s thought process was, but it reeked of being scared. Being scared of a penalty. Being scared of a turnover. Being scared of losing yardage on another play. Being scared, mostly, of trusting his offense.
The Bears have an elite running back in Matt Forte. If Trestman elected to go with a high percentage pass—with an edict to throw the ball away if there was trouble—he has a smart veteran quarterback in Josh McCown, and three humongous targets in receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, and tight end Martellus Bennett. Show some faith in the players that got you to this point. Not a lot, just a little. Give them one more play and then kick on third down if you want.
What’s one more down give you? A lot, even if it’s one yard. Never mind the fact that Gould was better in his career from 50 or more yards (78.9 percent) and 30-39 yards (90.5 percent) than he was from 40 to 49 yards (72.7 percent), the analytics—and Trestman uses them more than most—tell you that gaining just one more yard increases the chances of a make.
Keith Goldner at AdvancedNFLStats.com explained it better than I could:
“Robbie Gould is an extremely reliable kicker, but a 47-yard field goal misses 25 percent of the time (1 out of 4 attempts). Gaining just four yards decreases that miss probability to 1 out of 5 attempts. Why not make an effort to get closer?”
“Because it didn’t work, we’re all asking those questions,” Trestman said. “I totally understand and I accept that. But as I look back on it, where the ball was, watching Robbie kick all the weeks I’ve watched him, there was no question in my mind that we were going to finish the game right there.”
The loss dropped the Bears to one game behind the Lions in the NFC North. Chicago also is now two games behind the 49ers for the final wild-card spot instead of one. The loss to the Vikings could very well keep the Bears out of the playoffs. Trestman might be regretting his decision a bit more if that’s the case.
Denver at Kansas City
Score: Broncos 35, Chiefs 28
Time: 1:51 remaining in the fourth quarter
Situation: 4th-and-4 at the Denver 13
Result: Broncos safety Michael Adams broke up an Alex Smith pass in the end zone intended for Dwayne Bowe
Chiefs personnel: “12” or Ace (one back, two tight ends, two receivers)
Broncos personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith had a clean look at what the Broncos were going to do before the snap as Denver showed single high safety shaded to the side where the Chiefs had one receiver and two tight ends lined up. With safety David Bruton (30) down in the box to pickup running back Dexter McCluster (22), that left the entire right side of the end zone open. That led Smith to his first read, Donnie Avery (17) against CB Quintin Jammer (23).
The design there was to catch Jammer either being aggressive or with his eyes in the backfield with a stop-and-go route. But Jammer did a nice job staying with Avery, so Smith quickly moved onto his second option, McCluster. He was also well covered by Bruton.
With pressure starting to become an issue, Smith went to his third option and Bowe (82), who had lost rookie CB Kayvon Webster. Smith had done everything perfect to this point. Even the throw he made wasn’t a negative decision because he was giving the much bigger Bowe a chance to make a play against the smaller safety, Mike Adams (20). But it could have been a “plus” decision and a game-tying touchdown if Smith had thrown Bowe open by placing the ball toward the corner of the end zone.
It’s the kind of play that separates the elite quarterbacks, like Smith’s counterpart Peyton Manning, and the guys who are really good. Smith did everything right except make the extraordinary play.
Jacksonville at Cleveland
Score: Browns 28, Jaguars 25
Time: 45 seconds left in the game.
Situation: 3rd-and-9 at the Browns’ 20
Result: 20-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Chad Henne to Cecil Shorts over cornerback Joe Haden
Browns personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
Jaguars personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
What happened: A great player made a rare mistake and paid dearly for it.
All season, Browns cornerback Joe Haden had been running towards a berth on the All-Pro team. Mike Wallace, Torrey Smith, A.J. Green (twice) and Calvin Johnson had all been locked down by Haden. The previous week, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown got the best of Haden, but it was a good matchup. And up until this point, Haden was again on top of his game, limiting Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts to just four catches and 37 yards and one interception (on seven targets).
But Haden a mental lapse on this play, and it cost the Browns a victory.
Haden (23) was way too aggressive as Shorts (84) ran a stop-and-go. Haden should have been more mindful of the down and distance. Who cares if Shorts catches a 5-yard pass, as long as you make the tackle?
Haden forgot that, went hard after Shorts—who didn’t even give a great fake—and by the time Haden recovered, Shorts had the three steps needed for Henne to fit in the game-winning touchdown.
It wasn’t well played by safety T.J. Ward (43) either—he wasn’t deep enough to provide any help—but the Browns expect to put Haden on an island and for him to man it expertly. It didn’t happen, but at least Haden owned up to it after the game.
“I would’ve not went for the slant on third-and-9,” Haden told reporters on Monday. “Like what am I doing? It was on me. I made a mistake. I was just thinking that he runs a slant, catch it, tackle, boom, fourth-and-5, field-goal attempt. I wasn’t thinking (about the) double move, trying to go up top for the touchdown. That’s just me. I’ve got to think things through.
“I put so much pressure on myself just to be one of the best in the league, and I hold myself at a different standard. So no matter how the game went down, no matter what happened, I feel like I was so upset because it was me against another player at the end of the game. I’m supposed to make that play. I work hard enough to make that play. I should’ve made it.”