To go? Or not to go? Part 1.

There were a bunch of head-scratching plays and calls in today’s catastrophe against the Cardinals, a game that went from a sure blowout to a game that the Rams very likely should have won. We had all the advantages in the second half, including a home crowd that was still around, still looking for something to cheer for. But our coaches poured buckets of ice water on the fans with a series of terrible decisions. Here’s one.

0:17, 3rd Quarter, 4th and Goal from the 2.

We all know what happened. The cameras caught Steve Spagnuolo resignedly making sweeping motions with his arms, almost like a trainer throwing in the towel. “We aren’t going to try to win. We’re just going to get some cheap points. Go ahead. Bring in the cheap point guys.” I don’t know if he was listening to someone on the headset (if so, fire that guy!) or the little Piglet voice in his head, and inside everyone’s head, that’s constantly afraid of something bad happening.

But what if the Rams had gone for the TD, down 21-3 with the ball on the Arizona 2? How much difference would it have made? What advantage did the field goal give us that we would have lost? To answer in hard numerical terms, here’s a quick win percentage chart, courtesy of the Win Percentage Calculator at Advanced NFL Stats, of the potential outcomes of each strategy.

Action Result Chances of winning
Rams lose the ball on downs 21-3, ARZ ball on 2 3%
Rams kick the field goal 21-6, ARZ ball on 25 3%
Rams score a TD, kick a PAT 21-10, ARZ ball on 25 12%

Now, we have to admit that these same statisticians say that there’s only a 15% chance of getting a touchdown on that 4th and 2. But the glaring thing that these numbers say is that kicking the “safe” points yields absolutely no advantage in terms of winning the game. (It’s also worth noting that going for two after the TD to make it a 10-point game wouldn’t be a smart bet. The “go for 2” decision would come up later in the game, though, as a result of this dinky field goal.)

Down 15 or down 18, it still takes three scores to win. Down 15, even tying the game requires a 2-point conversion — the same do-or-die play you just passed on. The same play you just told your team they weren’t good enough to get.

Now, in metaphysical terms, this call was pure bullshit. For Spagnuolo, it was a clear falling back into the tendency to avoid “emotional letdown” plays, without realizing that the over-protective approach also generates a huge emotional letdown for the players.

This tendency first became painfully apparent in those fateful fourth-down calls against the Redskins that ended up losing the game. And the words were crystallized in that gigantic letdown game against the Jaguars.

“We never wanted something (bad) to happen and we just couldn’t take the chance. I think it was the right thing to do.”

If these Rams are going to learn how to win, these coaches are going to have to learn when to grab scoring opportunities by the throat and not let go. This makes three games that the Rams could have, and likely should have won, but for a pattern of gutless calls.

Let me just say, for the record, I am still a believer in Coach Spagnuolo. He has pulled a rotating cast of players together and turned them into a Team that is earning respect on the football field. This team, by and large, doesn’t deserve to be booed for its effort. I get that he is still learning as a tactical head coach, and we have to put up with that. His head is in the right place in terms of building a team, and that’s the first and most important step for long-term success. But learning the tactics of winning is an equally important step. Winning is the lifeblood of a team. And ultimately, it is what keeps coaches on the payroll.