The 49ers’ first not-quite-official drive of 2014 bogged down at the Baltimore Ravens’ 7-yard line. It was fourth-and-2, and in came timeless kicker Phil Dawson for a 25-yard field goal. It was good; 3-0 Niners. Woo-hoo.
Kevin Lynch – sfgate.com blogger, radio personality and friendly Bruin – had the same question I had: Why not go for the first down in that situation?
Dawson, 39, has attempted 399 regular-season field goals over 15 NFL campaigns, plus another nine in the postseason. He could probably macramé or play slack guitar through the entire preseason, step onto the field for Week 1 of the regular season and nail 45-yarders without wrinkling his forehead. Dawson doesn’t need a lot of August game action.
The 49ers’ short-yardage offense, on the other hand, has not been a team strength in recent years, and it’s in a bit of flux right now with unproven Daniel Kilgore taking over at center, right guard Alex Boone holding out and Carlos Hyde trying to establish himself as the backup running back.
Yeah, the field-goal protect team needs some repetitions, and it’s always good to work on your snap-hold-kick timing. It just seems like a fourth-and-2 attempt against a good defense like the Ravens’ is a lot more valuable this time of year than a 25-yard field-goal try.
Not to single out the 49ers. The Raiders have consistently made similar decisions, even when Sebastian Janikowski was one of the NFL’s more automatic kickers, and I’m guessing the same is true of just about every team in the league.
I have asked coaches that question before, and I have heard other reporters do the same, and I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer. Or much of an answer at all. The reply is usually along the lines of “We felt that kicking the field goal was in our best interests at that time.”
Honestly, I would take it further than field-goal tries. Why not go for it on fourth-and-inches at your own 40 instead of sending your punter onto the field – especially if you’ve got an Andy Lee or a Shane Lechler doing the punting and your coverage team is fairly accomplished? Why not go for an occasional fourth-and-14, even if you’re holding a lead? Why not spontaneously break into a no-huddle, 2-minute offense at the 3:40 mark of the first quarter if that’s something you feel you need to work on?
Team execs might argue that they’re trying to win preseason games for the benefit of their paying fans, but most NFL fans seem a lot more sophisticated than that. I don’t imagine many honks older than 7 putting much stock in the final score of an exhibition game. They understand that preseason is for evaluating talent and rounding into playing shape. Anyway, it would be hard to argue that fans would rather see that Phil Dawson field goal than a Kaepernick bootleg on fourth-and-2.
What I imagine most coaches arguing is that their players, especially young players, need to learn real-world responses to real-world situations. Efficient football is about building good habits, and every team should be trying its damnedest to win every game, no matter how small the stakes. Hence, kick the field goal.
It’s almost like coaches worry that going for it on fourth down every time in preseason will lead to anarchy. Like the players will expect to go for it on fourth down every time in the regular season, too, and in fact will be unwilling or unable to execute a simple placekick. The holder will spontaneously audible to a rollout and look for a receiver in the end zone. Next thing you know, the players will be wearing cutoff game pants and preaching nonviolence, and every coach will make decisions like Ron Rivera.
The real reason coaches are unduly conservative in the preseason? Because football coaches are unduly conservative 365 days a year. As a class, we’re talking about the most hidebound, change-averse people on the planet. Jim Harbaugh probably rates among the most daring, at least on the professional level, but even he couldn’t bear to dial up a fourth-and-2 play so early in a game.
These guys build their careers on playing the percentages and controlling every aspect of a game they possibly can. A coach doesn’t have to order a 25-yard field goal on August 7, but he’s going to need a few sessions of therapy if he keeps his offense on the field for that fourth-down play.