Raiders go for two-point conversion and show value of risking it all
For tough men in a game pumped with bravado coaches are a gutless group. They would rather lose safely than take risks to win. They plan months for games, designing strategies for every conceivable situation and then wither when big decisions arise. Better to fail on the field than roast on sports radio.
But there was coach Jack Del Rio late Sunday afternoon in the New Orleans Superdome refusing to squirm beneath his headset. His team had just scored a touchdown that put them a point behind the Saints with 47 seconds left. An extra point would tie the game and probably send them to overtime. A two-point conversion would likely bring the Raiders a win. Despite the reward of the potential victory no coach ever chooses to go for two, even when it’s the best thing to do. In their world, the fear of mockery always trumps willpower.
Then Del Rio surprised everyone. He went for two. And it worked. The Raiders won 35-34, thanks to a 61-yard field goal attempt that just missed.
Now others will try the same thing because there is also this truth about NFL coaches: once one of them tries something daring and it succeeds, the rest follow rather than risk appearing to not be innovative.
“We’re here to win, let’s win it right now!” Del Rio said after the game.
If other men in his position had the same courage there might be fewer coach firings at the end of every season. But coaches refuse to think this way. They live in a perpetual state of terror that they will do something to get the finger of blame pointed their way. The irony of this is it is often a bold choice that got them their jobs in the first place. But once alone in their corner offices with the big desks, they grow weak with worry that someone is going to pull away their chairs. The more they try to run from the axe the more they dive right into its blade.
Three years ago, as the Carolina Panthers were beginning their revival, I sat with their coach Ron Rivera in a hallway beneath the stadium talking about the joy of risk. A few weeks before, he had done the safe thing in a game against Buffalo and kicked a field goal on a fourth and one from the Bills’ 25 yard line. It was late in the game and the kick put Carolina up six points. Then Buffalo went down the field for a game-winning touchdown. No one blamed Rivera for his choice. He had done the so-called smart thing, but the defeat haunted him. He realized that if he kept playing safe he would probably coach himself out of a job. He decided then that he would not leave his first head coaching job without regret. If this was going to be his only shot at running a team he was going to do everything he could to win, regardless of what people thought.
“Seriously [that loss] eats at me,” he said. “It friggin’ pisses me off to no end. And maybe that’s what it took. Maybe that’s the revelation I needed.”
From that Buffalo defeat was born “Riverboat Ron,” a coach who took every reasonable chance on fourth down. The Panthers went to the NFC Championship game that year, two seasons later they were in the Super Bowl. Who knows what would have happened had he not listened to that inner voice? Maybe his quarterback Cam Newton still would have taken Carolina to the playoffs. But it’s doubtful the Panthers would have been as aggressive as they became. The brassy persona they adopted might never have developed. Rivera himself might have been fired by now. He followed his heart instead of fright.
On Sunday, Del Rio did the same. He has never been an extraordinary head coach. Much like Rivera’s Panthers in 2013, his Raiders are in the third year of a rebuild. This is the season that often defines men in his role. Lose too many games and the momentum of the previous two years is lost. The Raiders were on the road, in one of the league’s loudest stadiums. Had they gone to overtime and lost the coin toss they would have been facing the gloomy prospect of trying to stop Drew Brees in his stadium. No one would have questioned Del Rio if Oakland kicked the extra point and lost in overtime. But what glory is there in a safe loss when there are only 16 games to a season?
The Raiders became the first team since Denver in 2008 to complete a go-ahead two-point conversion in the final minute of a game.
It’s about time someone took a chance like that.