How Jay Gruden’s gutsy fourth-down call may have turned around the Redskins’ season
The Washington Redskins might have defeated the Green Bay Packers anyway. They had a five-point lead, however tenuous, and an offense that was moving the ball at will. Then again, so was Green Bay's offense with a (temporarily?) rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers picking apart a 'Skins defense that was showing clear signs of fatigue late in their Sunday night matchup. That's why Jay Gruden made his brash, bold and, uh, brave decision, probably saving the game and possibly launching the Redskins to heights rarely seen in Washington since Joe Gibbs left the first time.
Leading 29-24 with 6:12 remaining, the Redskins faced fourth-and-inches from their own 41-yard line. They appeared certain to punt, as is customary in the ultra-conservative NFL, and go on defense, hoping the good Aaron Rodgers who'd traveled to Washington this weekend would transform into the mediocre Aaron Rodgers of the past year. But after a TV timeout for an injury, the Redskins offense was on the field, lined up with seven men on the line, two receivers out right and “Fat” Rob Kelley in the backfield. The announcers wondered whether the 'Skins were just going to try and draw Green Bay offsides — a far more common occurrence than actually going ahead with the play.
But go ahead they did, with Kirk Cousins taking the snap and darting through a tiny hole in the line. With a twist of his body, he left no doubt. First down.
Three plays later, Cousins hit Jamison Crowder for a 53-yard pass that went to the Packers' 1-yard line. They scored the next play to go up 11 points (the extra point missed). On Green Bay's next possession, with the Packers moving and the game still very much up for grabs, Josh Norman forced a Jared Cook fumble. Rob Kelley clinched the game with a 66-yard run, and Washington moved to 6-3-1 heading into a divisional showdown at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
Cousins was 21 of 30 for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Kelley, the undrafted rookie, had another spectacular, out-of-nowhere game. But the key moment of the victory all goes back to that fourth-down call and a run that went about 24 inches.
“Go for it!” It's the type of call fans wish NFL coaches would make. It's the type of call NFL coaches rarely do. Unless you're a Bill Belichick — someone with job security for life — it's simply a matter of preservation. Punt the ball and lose — you might hear a little postgame chatter about it but, because you have a lead and that loss requires the other team to score a touchdown, the decision gets lost in the shuffle. Talking hypotheticals about a punt with 6:12 left isn't as clear cut as talking about the blown play in the secondary that actually led to a loss. And anyway, it's what coaches do, so there wouldn't have been much, if any, outcry. It's safe.
When you're 5-3-1 and playing games that go down to the final minutes, you can't afford to play it safe. In their five previous drives (excluding a one-play series that ended the first half), Rodgers and the Packers had gone TD, TD, missed FG, FG, TD. Those five drives came after Green Bay's first three of the game, which all ended in three-and-outs (something that had never happened to Rodgers). The Redskins couldn't stop Rodgers. So what were they going to do — punt and pray Rodgers would miss a few passes? It was far better to go for it, knowing that a Green Bay stop simply would have meant the Packers' impending touchdown drive would be about 35 yards shorter. Considering Washington was punting into a stiff wind and the offensive line had been getting a good push, going for it made even more sense.
That's not to say it was an easy call, especially given how the game had played out before that moment. Gruden went for a two-point conversion late in the first half when the Redskins had taken a 13-10 lead. He said it was because of the wind (and possibly because the Redskins were missing their long snapper). It failed. On Washington's next touchdown (12-point lead) Gruden doubled down, going for two again. The team was going into the wind this time, so this felt like more of a gamble to get back the points that they lost on the last gamble. It failed. Again. The fourth down had all the makings of a fool-me-once situation. Instead of tapping the brake, Gruden floored it.
There's an intangible benefit to a coach making such decisions: It shows confidence in an offense. It shows your team that you're playing to win, not hoping to do so. “But these are men getting paid millions of dollars. Why do they need a coach to give them some pep in their step?” Maybe they do, maybe they don't. Whatever the answer is, after the fourth down the Redskins scored two touchdowns in seven plays en route their biggest midseason win in over a decade.
It was reminiscent of a call made back in Week 1, when Jack Del Rio, down one point after a touchdown with 47 seconds left, went for two rather than the easy game-tying extra point. The Oakland Raiders converted, won the game and are now 7-2 atop the AFC West. Other than getting one win, that choice may have had no effect on the Raiders surprise start. Gruden's may have had no impact on Washington's Sunday. The only thing that matters is whether the players believe it did.
When asked about the decision after the game, Kirk Cousins said: “In a game like this against a good team and a great quarterback you have to go for things like that.”
You have to, but most don't. Jay Gruden did and now the Washington Redskins are in a place they've rarely been in the past 20 years.