Tom Landry made the mistake in two Super Bowls. Longtime Bills coach Marv Levy made it in an excruciating loss to the Giants in 1991. Mike Tomlin, Mike Martz and Lovie Smith have all done it, too. Perhaps most surprisingly, Bill Belichick has done it multiple times in his Super Bowl appearances.
Each of these coaches has hurt his team's chance of winning an NFL title by being too eager to punt in the biggest football game of all: an example of the excessive caution among coaches that causes them to turn the ball over voluntarily — or settle for a field goal — instead of trusting their players to convert a fourth and short.
Were it not for such restraint by Packers coach Mike McCarthy in the NFC Championship Game this season, fans might now be preparing for a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl itself is no different. An analysis of every fourth-down decision in the Super Bowl since 2000 allows the ranking of the most damaging ones. It's also helpful to look back at the decades before 2000 (when the game was somewhat different, with less offense) for other mistakes.
The analysis suggests that about 30 percent of all fourth-down decisions in the last 15 Super Bowls have been problematic. Despite Belichick's reputation for being aggressive on fourth down, his error rate is nearly identical to the average. On five occasions in the Patriots' last five Super Bowls, he has ordered a dubious punt on fourth and 3 or shorter.
How can we be so confident that coaches — highly paid experts, after all, performing on a public stage with big incentives to win — are making mistakes?
The shortest explanation revolves around a football cliche: Turnovers can kill a team. A punt is a voluntary turnover. Coaches punt nonetheless because they think the change in field position is more valuable than the chance to keep the ball.
They also know they are more likely to face postgame criticism for a failed risk than for excessive caution, as Belichick did after going for a first down in his own territory late in a 2009 regular-season game against the Colts.
But history and statistics suggest that exercising caution is often the worse move. NFL offenses convert fourth and 1 almost 70 percent of the time. Even fourth and 4 has a success rate of about 55 percent, according to Brian Burke, of the website Advanced Football Analytics, which conducted this analysis. Forgoing those odds of keeping the ball — in exchange for 40 or so yards of field position — is frequently a bad deal.
The three worst punting decisions in the last 15 Super Bowls all came from teams that went on to lose the game. The worst was by the Bears, coached by Smith, now the Bucs coach. In Super Bowl XLI, Chicago trailed the Colts by two points with about four minutes left in the first half when the Bears punted on fourth and 1 from their 45. The decision reduced Chicago's odds of winning to 41 percent, from 45 percent, according to Advanced Football Analytics. The Bears never led in the second half, hough they remained within one score of the Colts until the game's final few minutes.
The second- and third-worst decisions were also fourth-and-1 punts from near midfield. The 2001 Rams, despite having an offense so powerful that it was nicknamed the Greatest Show on Turf, did not go for it in the second quarter when trailing the underdog Patriots by four points. And the 2010 Steelers, another team with a strong offense, punted to the Packers midway through the first quarter.
That last decision makes for a tidy allegory about the downside of caution. The punt by Jeremy Kapinos went into the end zone, giving the Packers the ball at their 20. Green Bay then drove 80 yards in nine plays to go ahead 7-0 — a demonstration of why, with today's high-powered offenses, having the ball usually matters more than where a team starts with it.
Obviously, no one can know what would have happened if the Steelers had instead tried for the first down. But it is striking that after having forgone a fourth-and-1 early in the game, the Steelers were forced to try a worse risk — fourth and 5, from their 33 — late in the game, while trailing by six. It failed, and they lost.
The years before 2000 are also full of such examples. In Super Bowl XXV in 1991 in Tampa, Levy and the Bills punted on fourth and 1 from around midfield on their opening drive, then watched the Giants march for a field goal; the Bills lost 20-19 on Scott Norwood's missed field goal as time expired. Landry and the Cowboys, in their two Super Bowl losses to the Steelers in the 1970s, punted a total of six times when they arguably should not have.
Even the so-called Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 championship between the Giants and the Colts, was decided in part by fourth-down caution. The Giants' final two possessions — one in the first overtime in NFL history — ended with punts on fourth and 1. After each, Johnny Unitas led the Colts on scoring drives.