Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy has proven to be a highly successful risk-taker this season.
But as the Packers’ botched fake field goal showed last Sunday against Jacksonville, every run of good luck will eventually end. It also begs the question: how much gambling is too much, and did McCarthy cross the line last week?
In an NFL world overloaded with conservative head coaches that are gripped by paranoia and fear for their jobs, McCarthy to his credit isn’t afraid to step outside the box. His willingness to catch an opponent by surprise adds a breath of fresh air to a typically stodgy environment.
McCarthy’s gutsy tendencies in the first half of the season produced a fake field goal for a touchdown in Week 2 against Chicago, a fake punt for a first down in Week 4 against New Orleans that led to a touchdown, and a recovery of an onside kick at St. Louis in Week 7 that resulted in a field goal. Coincidentally or not, the Packers won each of those games.
But like the gambler with a hot hand in Las Vegas, is McCarthy willing to push his luck too far and set aside good judgment?
The Packers are averaging one gadget play every other game, which seems a tad excessive.
Usually teams with inferior talent find it necessary to resort to trickery to level the playing field, but that profile doesn’t fit the Packers, who have one of the most loaded rosters in the NFL.
McCarthy presumably is compensating for the Packers’ long list of injuries this season, which has contributed to a sluggish offense at times. Last week, for example, the Packers’ top two receivers and No. 1 running back didn’t play.
In past years when the Packers offense was humming along, there was no need to resort to sneak attacks. This year the offense is ranked No. 21 in the NFL and McCarthy has been searching for other ways to give his team a spark.
Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum admitted as much earlier this week in explaining the team’s high number of special teams trick plays.
“We were rolling offensively (in past years) and really racking up some points, and we didn’t feel the need to do that,” Slocum said. “I think we’ve strategically done those at times this year, injected some energy and some production for our team.”
But in the quest to provide his team with some juice, McCarthy must be careful not to leave the Packers vulnerable.
The fake field goal last week could have easily blown up in his face. On fourth and 6 from the Jaguars’ 37 in the third quarter, holder/punter Tim Masthay threw an ill-advised pass that wasn’t even close to intended receiver D.J. Williams. The Packers are lucky the wounded duck wasn’t picked off by the Jaguars, who only trailed 14-12 at the time.
In defending the play call, the Packers say Masthay had Ryan Taylor open for a first down on the other side of the field and simply needed to make a better decision.
“(Masthay) could have recognized they went to a two deep shell, and then right there we had really a short route that was at the first down marker with Ryan Taylor,” said Slocum.
But that thinking is flawed because the plan took Masthay out of his area of specialty. Since when is a punter supposed to be an expert at reading defenses?
“Tim is a very good punter,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on his radio show this past week. “He punts. That is what he gets paid to do. He doesn’t get paid to read out a defense when they’re playing Tampa 2.”
Rodgers was able to take a light-hearted approach to Masthay’s bungled pass because the Packers won the game. “It was awful,” Rodgers said. But no one would have been laughing if it had contributed to a loss.
In going for it on fourth down, the Packers took the ball out of the hands of the NFL’s reigning MVP and placed their fortunes on the quarterbacking ability of a punter.
That’s the kind of irrational decision an out-of-control bettor would make. The Packers can be thankful the high-risk move only cost them some embarrassment, and not the game.
It sounds as if McCarthy took something from the experience. “We will not be running that play again this year,” he said on the day after the game.
The lesson to be learned isn’t that a team should never take a chance. There’s a benefit to occasionally springing an unexpected attack on the opponent.
But the key is to know when to fold your cards and walk away from the table. When you push your good fortune too far, bad things are bound to happen.
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.