Playing Not to Lose (Pay Attention, Spags!)

Jan 24, 2011 at 10:59 am
I have to say, yesterday lived up to my full expectations as a football fan. I went in hoping to see two tough, hotly contested games, and neither game disappointed. Neither the NFC nor AFC Championship game was decided by more than a single score, and neither one gave fans any chance of turning the channel before the game was over. 

On a personal level, Rex Ryan bugs the hell out of me, so it was nice to see him lose. Not because of the foot thing, mind you; foot fetishism isn't my bag, but I can respect it. There are worse things to be obsessed with sexually. No, what bothers me about Ryan is the fact that every time I watch him answering reporters' questions I can't shake this mental image I have of him as a fat southern sheriff in a '70s movie. Hassling our hero as he's just trying to make his way the only way he knows how, or something like that. Maybe he's chasing Burt Reynolds instead. I don't know. The guy just irritates me. 

But really, the New York/Pittsburgh game isn't what I wanted to talk about this morning. It was a tiny moment in the early game, between Green Bay and the Chicago Bears, that really got me thinking about in-game philosophy. 

The moment I write of came late late late in the game, on the second to last series of the contest. Green Bay had the ball, clinging to a suddenly very uncomfortable seven-point lead over the Bears. The Packers had been moving the ball all day, though the Bears slowed them down more than any other team had been able to of late. 

The Bears had just scored their second touchdown of the game to cut the Packers' lead to seven, and Green Bay began the drive at their own 25. Now, remember, this is the Green Bay Packer offense, equipped with an outstanding receiver corps, as well as the eminently talented and brilliantly creative Aaron Rodgers. Jordy Nelson has been a chain-moving beast all season for the Packers, and Greg Jennings is one of the most underrated wideouts in all of football. This is a team with some options. 

First and ten, rush to right end by James Starks, no gain. 

Second and ten, rush to right end by James Starks, minus two yards. 

Third and twelve, Aaron Rodgers scrambles right end for one yard gain. 

Total yardage gained on three plays in the fourth quarter of the most important game of the year: minus one. Total game time taken off: 1:36. 

That's right. With their uber-talented quarterback and their great receivers all out there trying to win the game, the Packers chose to run it twice to the right. Without any kind of real disguise. Just line it up and here we come, guys. Third down and long forced Rodgers to try and make something happen, allowing the Bears to pin their ears back and go all-in to stop him. 

The end result was Chicago getting the ball back with three minutes -- three minutes! -- left on the clock. With the game on the line, biggest moment of the year, the Packers went ultra-conservative, running the simplest, most straightforward plays possible. It was like a Rams' second half broke out in the middle of the NFC title game. 

Time after time this year, we saw the Rams do this exact same thing. They would grab a lead, put themselves in great position to win, and then just shut it down. Batten down the hatches and try to weather the storm by running whatever time they could off the clock, then hope the defense could go out and stop the opposition for the umpteenth time that day. It was maddening. 

It was just as maddening seeing the Green Bay Packers do it on the biggest stage imaginable, especially when you look at the options they had. The Rams at least had the excuse of a real lack of talent and experience; the Packers have all the weapons in the world. Mike McCarthy, the Green Bay coach, nearly gave away the NFC championship by declining to even play keepaway from the Bears. One first down would have allowed Green Bay to run it down to at least the two-minute warning. Two first downs would likely have iced the game entirely. Instead of trying to get those valuable first downs, though, McCarthy and the Packers contended themselves with running a minute and a half off the clock and handing the ball back to the Bears with three minutes left. 

Compare that to how the Pittsburgh Steelers handled their business at the end of their win over the Jets. The Steelers threw the ball on the last real play of the game, a fourteen yard completion that sealed the win. Rather than just running the ball and hoping for a stop, the Steelers took their own destiny firmly in hand and won the game with possession of the ball. They put the ball in the hands of their best player, and Ben Roethlisberger did what he always does and won the game. 

In the end, it worked out for Green Bay, of course. The Bears' third-string quarterback, Caleb Hanie, threw an interception at the two yard line that put the game away. Still, the fact it all worked out doesn't change the fact the Packers nearly gave it away, and they nearly did it by going all turtle when they had everything to lose. Playing smart and trying to limit the chances of something terrible happening is one thing; paralysis is another entirely. 

We can only hope the Rams, and Steve Spagnuolo in particular, were watching. Learning to play with something to lose is often a tough hurdle to overcome, especially when you've never been in that situation before. Watching the Rams at certain big moments this year, you couldn't help but feel Spags trying desperately not to screw up what was going so well. The weight of being in charge, with something actually on the line to possibly lose, seemed to be tough for Spagnuolo to bear. 

You need look no further than yesterday's game to see what happens when you play not to lose. The Packers did manage not to lose, but they could have made it much easier on themselves by playing to win and attacking, rather than just hoping to weather the storm. 

Pay attention, Spags. The games are going to get bigger as your team gets better. Just remember: You play to win the game. Keep that in mind, and everything will be alright.