Facing fourth-and-one from the San Francisco 49ers’ three-yard line early in the second quarter, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur tried to stay aggressive by leaving the offense on the field. However, poor execution on the play call left the Packers empty-handed, and that play seemed to linger in LaFleur’s head. Still, the Packers escaped what could have been an excruciating week thanks to the heroics of Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and Mason Crosby on the game’s final drive.
With fourth-and-four late in the game and a chance to put it away, LaFleur opted to take the conservative approach and had Crosby boot a 38-yard field goal, in hopes that the Packers’ offense could keep San Francisco out of the end zone. The spirit of the play call was similar to the NFC Championship game debacle from a season ago, but this time Rodgers could get the ball back and save the day.
To set the scene, Green Bay led 10-0 and took possession of the ball thanks to a beautiful interception by Jaire Alexander with over 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter. The Packers had the ball on San Francisco’s 32-yard line, and after 10-yard gains by both Adams and Aaron Jones, Green Bay stalled out and faced fourth-and-one. They didn’t need to score; they had to gain one yard to force a first-and-goal situation. We likely would have been in for a much less dramatic game if the Packers could have executed the play. But the snap almost hit Randall Cobb as he came in motion behind center. A rushed, disjointed throw by Rodgers sailed past Cobb, and Green Bay had a turnover on downs.
The Packers would take a 17-0 lead following an Aaron Jones run from three yards out, the exact same spot where Green Bay had the ball earlier. Granted, Jones scored on a second-and-goal situation, so the stakes were a bit different. But LaFleur clearly had a play they liked from that spot, one that even featured Cobb in motion behind center.
On the next two fourth downs the Packers faced, LaFleur had relatively easy decisions to make. An uncharacteristic drop by Adams left Green Bay with a fourth-and-two on their own 25, and a Corey Bojorquez punt flipped the field. With 7:34 remaining, he boomed a 63-yard punt from the Packers’ 25, an no-brainer call on fourth-and-10. The 49ers started the drive on their own 26 and crossed midfield in five plays before Kenny Clark got in the face of Jimmy Garoppolo, forcing the San Francisco quarterback to turn away from the line of scrimmage, losing the ball in the process.
This is where LaFleur’s play-calling didn’t look quite as confident as usual. The Packers had the ball on the 49ers’ 38-yard line, leading 24-21 with 4:58 remaining. The thought here absolutely has to be touchdown, as it would be difficult to run the entire clock out with less than half the field to work with. Instead, Green Bay opted to hand the ball off to Jones and have him run up the middle three times in a row. It started well with a 12-yard run before a four- and a two-yarder set up third-and-four from the San Francisco 20.
Now, I don’t know what formulas and real time data the Packers have on the sideline, but the Twitter nerds were pretty clear that the data supported Green Bay going for it on fourth down. Between Jones, A.J. Dillon, and an offensive line that was holding its own, LaFleur should have felt confident handing the ball off on third down and seeing what fourth down presented. Instead, an incomplete pass to Adams left the Packers with four yards to go, and the ensuing kick increased the Packers’ lead from three points to six points.
The circumstances were not the same as the much-ballyhooed decision to kick a field goal trailing by eight points with just over two minutes remaining in last season’s NFC Championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the same conservative spirit is there: Take the points and hope for the best. It was markedly different from the approach in the second quarter, and there are probably a number of reasons why LaFleur made the call he did: It was later in the game, the score was closer, Green Bay was on the road, etc. All those could be reasons to go for it in those situations and apply the “all gas, no breaks” mantra that LaFleur’s predecessor Mike McCarthy was never really able to put in place.
Things could have spiraled if Crosby missed the attempt at the buzzer. Comments by Rodgers saying “I thought we learned our lesson” perhaps could sour what seems to be an improved relationship between coach and signal-caller. What Rodgers did was downright remarkable, executing the final drive to perfection, and Crosby did what he does best. There will still be questions that LaFleur faces about the decision, but the fact that Green Bay added another tally to the win column despite the call could go a long way in deciding the tenor of this season.