Fourth-and-26 has taken on a whole new meaning for the Green Bay Packers.
For almost nine years, that down and distance stirred up painful memories of a blown playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
All the Packers needed to do in order to advance to the NFC championship game in January 2004 was stop Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in a late-game fourth-and-26 situation. The defense choked, the Packers lost in overtime, coach Mike Sherman never won another playoff game, and the bitter feelings about that play have lived on in infamy.
Maybe it was fitting then that the Packers converted a touchdown on their own fourth-and-26 situation on Thursday night against the Chicago Bears and used it as a springboard to victory and as a way to jump-start what had been a sluggish start to their season.
No one is suggesting that a regular-season victory makes up for one of the Packers’ worst playoff losses in their history, but in some small way, football justice has been served.
The bigger issue the Packers can take from their fourth-and-26 touchdown against the Bears, which came on a fake field goal in the second quarter, is the absolute iron nerve and gutsiness of Packers coach Mike McCarthy. The trick play saw holder Tim Masthay shovel a pass to tight end Tom Crabtree, who rumbled 27 yards for a touchdown.
It demoralized the befuddled Bears, who clearly were caught with their pants down. More important, it energized the Packers, who grabbed a commanding 10-0 lead and never looked back.
“Everybody was pumped up,” Crabtree said. “The guys that weren’t really in on it – the offensive or defensive guys on the sideline – it kind of caught them off guard and they were wondering what happened. We were all pumped and it kind of got the juice going.”
Even members of the Packers’ field-goal unit were a little taken aback in the huddle.
“To be honest, I was surprised when the call came in because it was fourth-and-26,” Masthay said. “That was a really gutsy call by Coach.”
This wasn’t a case where the Packers needed a couple of yards to pick up a first down. They essentially had to score a touchdown or give up the ball, and quite possibly the momentum, to the Bears at a crucial point in the game.
Part of McCarthy’s thinking was that the Packers saw a crack in the Bears’ field-goal alignment. But there was another method behind McCarthy’s madness.
“I was just going to go for it frankly to send a message to the football team about picking things up, playing to the level I thought our defense was playing,” McCarthy said.
Sometimes, aggressiveness can blow up in your face. In this case, it was exactly what the Packers needed. After a season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers were a bit listless on offense in the first half against the Bears.
McCarthy was looking for a spark, and his timing couldn’t have been better.
When I asked McCarthy on Friday whether he’s a gambler by nature, he replied: “I would say I’m a conservative person. But when you play a game of football, or you call a game, you have to be aggressive. That was a big-play opportunity that if we felt we got the look we had a chance to execute it. I would have preferred a better down and distance, no doubt, but I would not have had a problem with the field position if we did not score.”
A coach has the luxury of making gutsy calls if he has faith in his players. McCarthy was so stoked by the Packers’ defensive dominance against the Bears that he also took a chance early in the fourth quarter when he sent Mason Crosby out to attempt a 54-yard field goal.
A miss would have given the Bears possession near midfield.
“The 54-yarder, I didn’t even blink,” McCarthy said. First and foremost, he had supreme faith in Crosby, who put it through the uprights. But he also believed his defense, if necessary, was capable of preserving what at that time was a 13-3 lead.
McCarthy seems to know when to pick his spots. Late in the first half, he settled for a 35-yard field goal rather than risk taking one more shot at a touchdown. A sack would have ended the Packers’ scoring threat, and McCarthy was content to take three points and a 13-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Striking the proper balance is the key for any successful coach. Too much gambling will come back to haunt you. But too little aggressiveness will become predictable for opponents and leave your own team flat.
Against the Bears, McCarthy proved the Packers don’t have to worry about the latter.
“Well, yeah, it’s just our style of play,” special teams coach Shawn Slocum said when I asked him whether he appreciates working for a head coach willing to take some chances. “We go out to leave it all on the field.”
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