Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 09/3/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
Since challenging and overturning rulings on the football field are what's in vogue in the CFL these days, it's time to throw a yellow flag and challenge the opinion that says kicking a field goal on third and one -- late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Labour Day Classic -- was the wrong thing to do.
Initially, I was a part of that consortium of second-guessers.
Why would you take your foot off the gas pedal when you have a 90 per cent probability of getting a first down? Was this another case of playing "not to lose" instead of "playing to win?" Were the Winnipeg Blue Bombers so surprised they had gotten deep into enemy territory, they thought they should get out of Dodge with whatever points were available? Was sending out the field-goal team a condemnation of the offensive abilities of the Blue and Gold?
The reaction that swept across this province was that, at the very least, more time could have been taken off the clock before the Saskatchewan Roughriders got the football back. With a fresh set of downs, the Bombers could have continued their drive and potentially scored a major. They were going to get a field goal no matter what -- the thinking went -- so why not continue to march precious seconds off the clock and see if they could go up by six instead of just two?
In fact, had the Bombers been able to score a touchdown, they would have gone for two to be up by seven, so the best the Riders could have done is tie them with a late run as time expired.
Yet looking at this scenario a couple of days later, after emotion and frustration are taken out of the equation, two other considerations come to mind. The first is that both kicking a field goal and going for it on third down are decisions that come with a degree of risk. One of them comes with points attached to it if you are successful, the other does not. The way Lirim Hajrullahu has been kicking field goals this season, and from only 41 yards out, both actions had close to the same probability of success, yet one of them automatically puts you in a position to win the game if it works, while the other does not.
Even if the Bombers risked a third-down gamble -- against the best front four in the league, implored by manic fans urging them to Herculean heights -- and continued their drive, there is no certainty the game would have played out any differently than it did. A new set of downs offers new opportunities to score a touchdown, but it also opens the door for fumbles, interceptions, sacks and tackles for losses -- things that could potentially take you out of field-goal range or lose you possession.
I know that sounds like the "playing not to lose" mentality, but with less than three minutes to go in the game, taking a chance to win instead of taking a chance to lose is something most coaches would have done. Furthermore, as a former defensive player for well over a decade, I'm sure Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea was thinking about how when third-down gambles do get stuffed, it is usually late in a game when a defence realizes everything is on the line.
After the Riders scored a touchdown to take a 28-27 lead with just over five minutes remaining, the Bombers got the ball back and had time for a final drive. If the Riders were not gonna be denied on this night, then all the Blue and Gold would have done is decrease their own chance of responding to a score by killing the clock.
In a three-down game on the 34-yard line, you can only take so much time from the game. Even if the Bombers were able to cap the drive with a touchdown, the Riders were still going to have plenty of time to march down the field, which brings us to the final consideration.
By this point it is obvious O'Shea believes in every phase of his football team, and especially his defence. Time and again he has refused to concede even safeties because he knows his defence is capable of rising to the occasion, and he regretted conceding one this game. Though the defence faltered down the stretch this time around, they are still the biggest contributor to the six wins the Bombers have.
When you believe in your defence, you take the guaranteed points that your offence has set you up for -- late in the game -- and tell your dogs to get a stop and get the ball back.
What happened on Sunday afternoon wasn't a coach playing not to lose, or a non-confidence vote in an offence. It was nothing more than an endorsement for a defence that has won more battles this season than it has lost.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, usually appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2014 D2
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