Coaching Decisions on Fourth Down in the Super Bowl


My guess (and I don’t have the play by play data available to check all coaches before and after they won titles) is that it’s mostly that winning coaches in the playoffs were more aggressive and took calculated risks that didn’t always agree with conventional wisdom. I was reminded of this when reviewing Brian Burke’s discussion of Mike Tomlin’s decision in last year’s Steelers-Packers contest.

I don’t know if Tomlin would have made the same decision in that game if he had not won a Super Bowl, though I suspect he was not thinking about his ring when he made a controversial and unconventional decision with just under four minutes left in the game. It was certainly not something the great majority of coaches would have done. After taking a 30-28 lead with a field goal, Tomlin tried an onside kick that Ike Taylor touched before it went 10 yards, and Green Bay got the ball.

The Packers eventually scored on a third down pass right before the two minute warning. The reason it was a reasonable though unconventional choice is that this was a high scoring game, and Pittsburgh was likely a slight underdog though leading on the scoreboard–they may not have gotten the ball back. A successful onside kick would have been huge with a slight lead, but the failure didn’t doom the Steelers. They got the ball back with time to move down and score on a dramatic pass as time expired from Roethlisberger to Wallace.

That kind of decision is the kind of unconventional thinking that puts Tomlin in good company. We saw one of the most dramatic coaching decisions last year with Sean Payton resorting to a surprise onside kick to start the second half, a move that helped swing the game toward the Saints. While the onside kick strategy gained popularity last year, coaches have been making tough decisions on fourth down for a while. 79 fourth downs have been attempted in the Super Bowl, 34 of which occurred before the fourth quarter. I thought I would go down some of the more memorable coaching decisions on fourth down in the Super Bowl, in chronological order:

Super Bowl X: Dallas was trailing 21-17 late in the game and had just tried an onside kick, recovered by Pittsburgh. They didn’t move the ball, and on 4th and 9 with about a minute and a half left, Noll didn’t punt. Punter Bobby Walden had bobbled a snap setting up Dallas’ first touchdown, and in the previous Super Bowl, had a punt blocked for Minnesota’s only score. Noll ran the ball for a two yard game and put it on his defense to win the game.

Super Bowl XIV: When you are an underdog, you need to take chances. Ray Malavasi and the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams were a significant underdog against the three-time champion Steelers, and even though they were tied 10-10 in the 2nd quarter, Malavasi went for it on 4th and 8 in “no man’s land” at the Pittsburgh 37 near the end of the half. It is the second longest fourth down attempt before the 4th quarter in a Super Bowl (we’ll get to the longest). Ferragamo hit Billy Waddy for the conversion on a ten yard gain. The Rams ultimately took the lead on a field goal after Ferragamo was sacked on third down in the red zone.

Super Bowl XVII: Fourth and 1, early 4th quarter, with Washington trailing by a score of 17-13 at the Miami 43. A play called “70-chip”, and the Hogs got Riggins through the line, and he did the rest, running for what proved to be the game winning touchdown.

Super Bowl XXI: While the NFC dominated the AFC during the late 1980’s, this Super Bowl was actually a close game for a while, and Denver led the Giants at the half, 10-9. New York got the ball to start the second half, and the drive stalled with a 4th and 1 at their own 46. Parcells put backup QB Jeff Rutledge in at the blocking back position, and the team switched to a T-formation with Rutledge at QB. Just before the play clock expired, Rutledge took the snap and sneaked it for a first down. The Giants went on to score a touchdown on that drive, and before the third quarter was up, they were up 26-10 and had won the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XXV: The Giants had just taken the lead 17-12 after a 14-play drive to start the third quarter, and got back to a 4th and 2 at the Buffalo 35. A long field goal had to be a tempting option for many coaches, with a chance to take a two score lead. Parcells went for it, Ottis Anderson was stuffed, and the Bills scored on a long Thurman Thomas run four plays later, setting up one of the most exciting finishes in the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XXX: Bill Cowher was aggressive on fourth down all game, going against the heavily favored Cowboys, going for it and converting twice at midfield in the first half. The Steelers failed to scored after the first, but managed a last second touchdown after the second to make it 13-7 at the half. The third time was not the charm, as Bam Morris failed on 4th and 2 in the third quarter at midfield.

Super Bowl XLII: After Tom Brady was sacked, New England had a 4th and 13 on the Giants’ 31. The Patriots led 7-3 in the 3rd quarter at the time. Belichick opted against the field goal attempt, and instead tried to convert the long yardage situation. The pass failed. It was the longest attempt before the fourth quarter, and the longest attempt by a team playing with the lead in the Super Bowl.

[photo via Getty]