Nobody is really talking about it this morning, but there was a play late in the fourth quarter that Tony Romo advised the wrong strategy and Sean McVay deployed the wrong strategy. While the Rams’ chances to win weren’t phenomenal either way at this point, they would have been better off accepting the penalty when the Patriots were flagged twice on a Sony Michel run with 2:17 remaining in fourth quarter.
On this play, Michel rushed from the 33 to the 29. Trenton Brown was called for illegal hands to the face and Rob Gronkowski was called for a hold. Sean McVay’s decision here was for the Patriots to have first and 20 from the Rams’ 43, or have 2nd and 6 from the Rams’ 29. Romo was emphatic that the latter was preferable. We’re not so sure.
In both cases, the clock would be stopped. If the Rams stopped the Patriots from getting six yards and a first down — which ultimately happened, by a distance marginally bigger than Gene Steratore’s famous index card — they had to hope Stephen Gostkowski would miss a field goal of 46 yards or less to keep it a one-score game with about 1:20 remaining. Gostskowski, who in fairness had missed a field goal earlier, ultimately made the 41-yard field goal to effectively seal the game. This year, kickers made between 75-80% of kicks from the range where the Patriots were certain to be trying one after the penalties were declined.
In our preferred scenario, let’s say the Patriots would’ve gotten 10 yards on three rushing plays. This would have put them at about the Rams’ 33, forcing Bill Belichick to decide between a punt or a 50-yard field goal attempt with about 30-35 seconds remaining. Isn’t this circumstance more preferable to the shorter field goal attempt (not to mention it substantially reduces the odds of the Patriots picking up the first down) with some more time left?
Now, there are of course other scenarios. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels conceivably could’ve called a passing play had they been pushed back with 1st and 20, but if they had done that they would’ve run the risk of the clock stopping. We therefore remain convinced that Romo and McVay — two football minds who have deservedly been praised substantially over the past two seasons — were wrong together here.
It’s striking that, after a season where copious amounts of ink were devoted to McVay’s strategic genius and Romo’s incredible sixth sense, they’d both falter in the biggest moment of the season. Now, again, the Rams’ fate was largely sealed. Accepting the penalty would have meant putting all hope in a go-90-yards-in-25-seconds-with-no-timeouts basket (if Belichick punted instead of kicking a field goal, where a miss would risk a short field). At least that basket has a bottom.
Look what happened in reality. Los Angeles barely stopped the Patriots from gaining the game-clinching first down. Gostkowski’s kick flirted with the left upright. But when it snaked through, all hope fell out for the Rams. The most important thing in this situation was to maintain a one-score margin, not maximize time because the time becomes moot if it’s a two-score contest.
Romo sounded like a man obsessed with the time element instead of the more important score piece. He has been great, of course, but one wonders if he’s achieved unhelpful teflon status. This was a major miss in the most critical moment of his biggest broadcast. If it doesn’t stick to him at all, nothing will.