There’s certainly no shortage of blame to be spread around today, following the Packers’ heartbreaking 34-30 loss on Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals. Even if the Pack had pulled it out and won the game, the disjointed feeling would still have been a dark cloud in the face of victory.
Where do you start? Jeremy Ross’s early fumble on a kick return that put the Packers in a 14-0 hole? Injuries that took out three pivotal starters before the first half ended? Aaron Rodgers’ worst game as a starter, followed up by a near-meltdown on the sideline with coach McCarthy? Or, once again, the defense becoming a sieve late in the game, allowing a team that was down by 16 points to claw their way back?
After a win, I always like to look for the unsung hero (or heroic decision) of the game; and after a loss, I look for the hidden mistake that came back to haunt the team. This week, my suspect is Mike McCarthy’s decision to pass over Crosby when he probably shouldn’t have.
With just over three minutes to go, the Packers had an apparent first down on a drive to put away the game, ahead by three points. After a long booth review put the Packers on fourth-and-inches instead, McCarthy was left with a critical choice: go for it on fourth down, or kick a field goal.
Mason Crosby was trying to send every message that he was ready and willing to attempt the 48-yard field goal, warming up a few feet in from the sideline, right in McCarthy’s sight line. Crosby didn’t want McCarthy to forget that kicking a field goal was an option.
But therein lies the conundrum. Kicking a field goal would have put the Packers up by six points with just over three minutes to go, and the Bengals would likely be starting well on their own side of the field. They would have to make it all the way into the endzone to take the game away. It’s a decision that many coaches have had to face in the history of the NFL–play it safe, take the points, and trust your defense to do its job; or, send your offense out and try and pick up the first down and keep moving downfield.
Both decisions have risks. A missed field goal gives the Bengals great field position and the opportunity to kick their own field goal to send the game into overtime. But, as we saw, going for it comes with its own set of risks, too…not just turning the ball over on downs, but the risk of turning the ball over.
The point is, following Crosby’s historically bad 2012 campaign, I don’t think McCarthy felt confident enough to put the ball on his foot to win or lose the game. Maybe, seven times out of ten, you make that call to go for it on fourth down.
But, Rodgers had thrown interceptions on his last two offensive possessions, and Johnathan Franklin was still getting his first carries as an NFL player, and powering his way into a goal line defense could never have been thought of as one of his strengths. But even with all of those concerns, I don’t think McCarthy truly considered going any other way.
This is where having a kicker you can’t trust hurts a team in critical situations. We watched McCarthy pass over long field goal attempts over and over during the latter portion of 2012, almost always choosing to go for it on fourth down. He wasn’t going to put Crosby in the position to be the goat in a win-or-lose situation.
But today was probably the day to have tried the field goal. If Rodgers had his usual focus, go for it. If John Kuhn was healthy and playing, go for it. Mason Crosby was ready and willing. He’s fought his way through a preseason competition and came out on top. As a seventh-year veteran, he’s no longer in a position to have his self-esteem handled with kid gloves, as you might do with Franklin.
Fans frustrated with this situation have predicted that one day, Mason Crosby will lose a game for the Packers. On Sunday, he may have lost a game for the Packers without even kicking.