Matt LaFleur on decision to kick late field goal on fourth down: 'It just didn't work out'
GREEN BAY - For a moment, the NFC championship game seemed within the Green Bay Packers’ grasp.
Down eight, 31-23, with 2:22 left in the game, the Packers stormed 58 yards down the field to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 8-yard line. There they had three opportunities on three downs; each were passing plays that fell incomplete.
But then there was the fourth opportunity.
Head coach Matt LaFleur, known for the “all gas, no brake” approach that propelled the Packers to a 13-3 record for a second straight season, pumped the brakes. Instead of taking another shot at the end zone on fourth down, LaFleur took his offense off the field, sent on kicker Mason Crosby and the field goal unit and settled for the three points.
The decision came as a shock to Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett.
“Hey, I couldn’t believe it, honestly,” Barrett said. “Because there’s no guarantee that they’re gonna make it back down there again, even if they was on fourth down. They might as well try.
“But I know if he could take it back, he probably wouldn’t do that next time. But I appreciate it.”
More importantly, the call surprised quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He didn’t know that LaFleur wanted to go for a field goal on fourth down. LaFleur granted Rodgers the liberty to call the play on third down, and he opted for an attempt to get the ball to wide receiver Davante Adams. It was a play design similar to one that the Packers ran in the second quarter that Adams caught out of the end zone.
But Adams crossed Rodgers’ face late and the Buccaneers collapsed the pocket, forcing Rodgers to throw on the move. Despite having some open field in front of him to run, Rodgers elected to throw the ball to Adams. When the pass fell incomplete, Rodgers was prepared to head right back to the huddle to prepare for fourth down.
“If I had known we were gonna kick it, if we had ... get it, maybe something else would've been ... maybe gone with some sort of crossing routes maybe there instead,” Rodgers said. “But I thought maybe we're gonna have four chances to go.”
Rodgers said he understood the thought process behind the call to kick the field goal, but ultimately he acknowledged that he didn’t have a say in the decision to do so. The Packers still had the two-minute warning upcoming and all of their timeouts. LaFleur showed his confidence in the defense to make a stop and hand the ball back to the Packers offense.
Much to the Packers’ chagrin, their defense came close to a stop. A savvy decision by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine for the defensive front to jump across the line of scrimmage on second and 1 gave the Buccaneers' offense a new set of downs but saved the Packers a timeout.
But three plays later, cornerback Kevin King was called for defensive pass interference while in coverage against wide receiver Tyler Johnson.
“Defense had a lot of confidence in going out there and getting a stop,” safety Adrian Amos said. “It came up a little short. We almost got the stop. You know, a play in there that ... didn't really see the replay or not, but a play in there that if we execute on that play, we get the ball back to the offense with a chance to win the game.”
Unsurprisingly, Barrett was right: LaFleur wasn’t fond of the decision to go for the field goal in hindsight.
“Any time it doesn't work out, you always regret it, right?” LaFleur said. “But it was just the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards and knowing that you not only need the touchdown, but you need the two-point.
“So I think any time something doesn't work out, do you regret it? Sure. But we're always gonna be process-driven here and the way our defense was battling, the way our defense was playing, we felt like it was the right decision to do. It just didn't work out.”
It's easy to discuss what could have been for the Packers in their second straight trip to the NFC championship game.
What if safety Will Redmond picked off quarterback Tom Brady’s pass on the Buccaneers’ touchdown drive before the end of the first half? What if Adams hadn’t dropped a touchdown pass in the second quarter? Perhaps the decision to go for a field goal late in the fourth quarter wouldn’t matter if those hypotheticals, among others, weren’t simply hypotheticals.
Alas, the reality is much more difficult to digest for this Packers team — they had their opportunities to shift the momentum and they squandered them.
“Obviously we've got to come up with a better way of communicating if there's something in particular that (Rodgers) wants, then I can call it,” LaFleur said. “But like I said, it just didn't work out. We've gotta try to learn from it and move on.”