Friday, December 6, 2013

Go for two and go for the win; it takes guts

Auburn's higher power, and the game-ending return, saved us from overtime.
(photo by Amanda Sowards/Associated Press)
      This is about football, and coaches who go for it. Especially those coaches who have their team go for the two-point PAT at the end of a game -- win or lose on one play.
      More power to them, win or lose. Even if they come up short, they shouldn't be second-guessed. At least -- and Michigan coach Brady Hoke is the latest example, last Saturday against Ohio State -- they went for it, and didn't settle for overtime.
       The scenario: Score a late touchdown, one point behind. The choice: Kick a PAT and almost certainly go into overtime, or go for two points and upset the No. 2-ranked team in the country.
       Didn't work out for the Wolverines, but bless 'em for trying.
       It's terrific when any coach does it, the all-in gamble. Only see it done a couple of times a season.
       It's even better if it's on a fake PAT kick or a trick play, such as Boise State's Statue of Liberty handoff that beat Oklahoma in overtime in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
       And the history of this for me, of course, is LSU and Coach Paul Dietzel going for two near the end of the game at Tennessee in 1959 when the Tigers were defending national champions with a 19-game winning streak. Billy Cannon's run came up short -- at least that's what the officials ruled -- and LSU lost 14-13 despite dominating the Vols all day.
       Even in defeat, it was one of Dietzel's finest moments at LSU. He had his team go for it.
       Les Miles' legacy might be his bold decisions, such as the 5-for-5 conversions on fourth-down plays against Florida in 2007. LSU fans know their guy will go for it. But we'll have to see if he ever makes the end-of-game, two-point PAT call.
       Anyone who's heard me get on the soapbox about overtime in American football knows I am no fan of it. At least not in the regular season, at any level -- high school, college, NFL. I just believe, and have always believed, that it's OK to have tie games.
       (In September 1984, when we worked for the Shreveport Journal, John James Marshall and I had a pro-con column debate about overtime in high school football. I was, uh, the con guy.)
       Because I adapt well in this world, John James and the rest of you will be pleased to know that it's 29 years later and I still don't think overtime is necessary in the regular season.
       The playoffs, yes. You have to have some kind of tiebreaker for the state playoffs, or for the BCS title game (but not necessarily for the other bowl games) and for the NFL playoffs.
       Through the years, I have come to like the college format which has each team taking possession at the 25-yard line and I think the NFL tiebreaker is much better now that each team is assured at least one possession.
        But I still think the high school format, which gives each team possession of the ball at the 10-yard line, is far too easy. In a change from 29 years ago, though, I think it's better than the old most first downs/penetrations tiebreaker.
       I also feel -- and this might be un-American, as the Auburn athletic director would suggest -- that some teams and games are just meant to be tied ... in the regular season. Just figure the ties into the standings. It's not that difficult.
       They still do that in the NFL, if a 15-minute overtime doesn't break a tie. Happened in a game just a couple of weeks ago.
        Yes, my opinions might be a throwback to my European soccer roots where tie games are routine and acceptable. 
        In my opinion, penalty-kick shootouts in soccer -- especially at the World Cup or European Championships level, or in Major League Soccer , but also even in college or high school -- are the worst things in sports. I refuse to watch them.
         If I was in charge of soccer -- and last time I looked I wasn't -- at the end of games tied after regulation and then a 30-minute overtime, I would change the format to (1) take one player off the field for each side every 5 minutes and/or (2) eliminate the offside rule. You'd have a winning goal pretty quickly.
         But it's soccer, so who among my friends really cares?
         I was OK with ties in the National Hockey League regular-season before the days of overtime and then shootouts (just an unnecessary addition). In the Stanley Cup playoffs, if a game is tied after three periods, they just play on until someone scores. That's great.
        Overtime in basketball and extra innings in baseball are more natural because the format of play does not have to be altered. Sure, it can be taxing on the players if games go on and on, but at least it's still basketball and baseball. They don't settle them with free-throw shooting or home-run contests.
        Back to American football, not the world's football. As I said, some games should be ties.    
        For instance, the LSU-at-Alabama showdown two years ago when they were No. 2 and No. 1 ranked in the country. A 6-6 tie that night, such as it was at the end of regulation, seemed right.
        It was that way because Alabama missed four field goals and LSU's Eric Reed made a fabulous interception of a Bama pass that looked as if it was going to be a touchdown. But those teams, and those defenses, were so evenly matched. Seemed a shame to settle in an overtime.
         So they settled it two months later in a national-championship game, which was appropriate because they were the best two teams in the country.
         Now, about two teams evenly matched and coaches going for it, how about Auburn and Alabama last Saturday? If it had ended 28-28, it would've been a statement on how well each of them played that day.
         And while I'm all for the coach who chooses to go for the two-point conversion -- and the win (or loss) -- near the end of regulation or in an OT period, obviously Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's choice to take the tying PAT kick with 32 seconds remaining looks great now.
         He could have settled it right then and had his team go for two, and a 29-28 lead. But he took the easy route.
         This is my biggest objection: Coaches aren't forced to make that really hard win/lose decision, the choice they're paid millions to make. They can simply opt for the tying PAT, and extend the game or the overtime.
         It's the bold coach -- the guy with some guts -- who plays for the win.
         In this case, Auburn has a higher power going for it this season -- its patented last-minute miracle finish. Gus must've known that, must've known that Alabama's 57-yard field-goal try would be short and wide right, and Auburn's return guy would carry it 109 yards to the other end zone.
         Happens all the time.
         Give Malzahn credit and give Nick Saban and his staff credit, though, for "going for it" several times. Alabama threw passes when it was backed up to its 2- and 1-yard lines, once for a first down and the next time for an incredible 99-yard touchdown play. Auburn went for it on 4th-and-1 from its 35 -- and Alabama stopped the play short.  Three minutes later, Saban decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Auburn 13, and the Auburn defense did its job.
          That's the play Saban should be second-guessed on, passing up a 30-yard field-goal attempt ... even with three previous field-goal misses. He couldn't explain that away, especially with his reasoning that his freshman kicker inserted for the last long try hits 'em from 60 yards away in practice and Bama had the wind at its back.
          Then why not have him try the 30-yarder instead of the other kicker who was having the same miserable game he had against LSU two years ago?
          No, not even the great Saban is right all the time. I'll give you an example -- LSU at Arkansas, 2002 -- when he took the easy way out near the end of the game, settling for a field goal (giving LSU a six-point lead) instead of a first down that would've clinched the victory. It took Arkansas two passes to go 80 yards and score the tying TD in front of the winning PAT kick.
          Sometimes coaches go for it and their teams fail; sometimes they take easy street -- and still fail.
          Sometimes, as Malzahn proved last week, you can delay the one-play win/lose option, kick the tying PAT and wait for victory to come some other way.
          He was lucky, and so were we. The game didn't go overtime.


  1. From Scott Alderman: Great column and insight. Provoked some good new thoughts. My two cents … I think every coach should have that one perfect 2-point play in their book. One they would NEVER use in a game. I liked Hoke’s decision, too, but he ran a play that Michigan had already used at least three times, one of which worked for a short TD inside the 5. He tried it again and Ohio State was clearly ready for it, as the defender stepped in front of the pass because he knew exactly what was coming. If Brady had used his ace-in-the-hole 2-point play that Ohio State had not seen before, maybe … well, of course, you never know.

  2. From Scott Alderman: Why we watch it: Football can be played at all levels for another 100 years and we’ll never, NEVER see a duplication of the Auburn runback … not just the play itself, but the amazing and bizarre collection of multiple circumstances, decisions, and mini-dramas that surrounded it … simply the perfect alignment and intersection of the unknown and the unanticipated, followed by the most infinitely unseen, unpredicted, incomparable, and inimitable play in the history of the game.

  3. From Patrick Booras: How about a standard rule in football -- if you score a touchdown with less than two minutes to play in a game, you can't play for a tie by just kicking an extra point. Inside of two minutes left, you must "Play for the 2-Point Play" and the possible win or loss.

  4. From Jimmy Russell: Cannon scored at Tennessee. I thought Pat Booras' suggestion wasn’t bad either. That will end overtime in football as we know it.