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NFL notebook: Guess wrong on 4th down, pay the price

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, right, shakes hands with head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings after winning the NFC Divisional Round Playoff game at Levi's Stadium on Jan. 11, 2020 in Santa Clara, Calif. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, right, shakes hands with head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings after winning the NFC Divisional Round Playoff game at Levi's Stadium on Jan. 11, 2020 in Santa Clara, Calif. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The only sure things in life are death, taxes, picking the wrong line at the grocery store, and howls of outrage from fans and critics whenever an NFL head coach’s decision to either go for it, or not go for it, on fourth down backfires in a huge game.

We saw examples of both backfires on the weekend, in each of the four divisional conference playoff games:

  • On Saturday afternoon, in San Francisco’s 27-10 defeat of visiting Minnesota, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer chose to punt rather than go for it on 4th-and-14 from Minnesota’s 40-yard line, down three scores and only 9:06 remaining. Offended fans and critics said that was tantamount to conceding defeat, even though the odds of converting a 4th-and-14 probably are well under 20%, what with prominent analytics websites listing a 4th-and-10 somewhere between 20-28%. Zimmer defended the decision afterward.
  • On Saturday night, in Tennessee’s 28-12 defeat at Baltimore, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh twice gambled on 4th-and-1, with runs by NFL MVP-in-waiting Lamar Jackson. The Titans stonewalled Jackson both times. Harbaugh defended the decisions afterward.
  • On Sunday afternoon, in Kansas City’s 51-31 defeat of visiting Houston, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien chose to kick a field goal on 4th-and-1 from the Chiefs’ 13 with 10:58 left in the second quarter, up 21-0. The chipshot kick was good, but fans and critics said he should have gone for it in that situation. On Houston’s next possession, just 1:30 of playing time later, O’Brien chose the other extreme, ordering a fake punt on 4th-and-4 from the Texans 31. It didn’t work. More howls. O’Brien defended both decisions afterward.
  • Finally on Sunday night, in Green Bay’s 28-23 defeat of visiting Seattle, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll chose to punt on 4th-and-11 from the Seattle 36, down five points, rather than go for it with odds, again, probably under 20%. Seattle never got the ball back and Carroll has been hammered for it since. Carroll defended the decision afterward.

See the simple trend here? When the decision doesn’t work out? Stupid coaching!!! But, of course, in each case had the decision worked out? Smart coaching!!!

Fact is, all these fourth-down decisions — one way or the other — always can be defended. Or criticized.

The entire difference being that the argument sounds a whole lot better when the decision works out, and your team wins. Anything short of both those thresholds and the coach is gonna get skewered afterward.

Goes with the job.

Either/or. No in-betweens. Genius or idiot.

But fourth downs sure are fun for the rest of us.

BROWNS MAKE IT OFFICIAL

Late Monday afternoon the Cleveland Browns finally made it official, confirming Sunday reports that Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is their new head coach — the 18th in franchise history, and seventh since I began covering the NFL in 2012. Good luck, Kevin.

Reports said the choice of mildly impatient Browns owner Jimmy Haslam came down to Stefanski or San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, whose defence on Saturday rubbed out Stefanski’s offence. Maybe Haslam needed that final bit of confirmation to ensure he can justify hiring someone else in 2022.

The club announced Stefanski will be introduced Tuesday afternoon at a news conference, a ritual the peeps in Cleveland have to have down pat by now.

SPEAKING OF SALEH

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t exactly reaching for the tissue box on Sunday when he learned Saleh won’t be leaving to take the Browns head job.

“I was pumped,” Shanahan said. “I heard on my way in to work, so I was extremely excited. I definitely have some empathy for Saleh. I know anyone who goes through that process and stuff, we’re all competitive and you want to win, and you want to get that opportunity and stuff.

“But for Saleh, every year we keep him we’ll be very fortunate. Saleh’s going to be a head coach in this league. He could’ve been one this year. Most likely, he’ll be one next year. He’s going to have the right opportunity come around for him, it’s just a matter of time. I’m just very happy that we’re going to be able to have him going into next year.”

STILL THE BOSS

At his season-ending news conference Monday, Texans coach O’Brien said he doesn’t believe the club will hire an official GM, a position O’Brien himself as much holds since the firing last spring of Brian Gaine.

O’Brien in September made two blockbuster trades, seen by some as trading the future for winning now. But the only ‘winning now’ the Texans did this season was capturing another AFC South crown and barely coming back in time to beat the Buffalo Bills in a wild-card playoff game.

VIEWERSHIP UP

Average combined viewership south of the border for the four conference divisional-round playoff games rose 2% year-over-year, according to numbers released Monday by the NFL — from 32.6 million to 33.2 million. Combining all eight playoff games to date, viewership is up 5%, to an average of 32 million.

COORDINATOR GONE

The Jacksonville Jaguars and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo mutually agreed to move on from one another, the club announced. Embattled but retained head coach Doug Marrone has gone through two offensive coordinators now since the club reached the AFC championship game two years ago this week.

COORDINATOR CANDIDATES

The New York Giants’ new quarterbacks coach is “expected” to be Jerry Schuplinski, per NFL Network. This past season he was assistant QBs coach for the Miami Dolphins, and prior to that for six seasons was with new Giants head coach Joe Judge on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England.

Chicago reportedly is set to hire Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator, presumably to aid head coach and chief offensive strategist Matt Nagy to better implement his schemes.

The Browns have discussed bringing in Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, per Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer . Phillips was not retained by the Los Angeles Rams. If not Phillips then George Edwards, not retained by the Vikings, could be in the running.

CHUNG CHARGE CHOPPED

According to ESPN, authorities in New Hampshire dropped a charge of cocaine possession against New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung, providing he, um, keeps his nose clean for two years, submits to periodic drug testing, performs 40 hours of community service and waives his right to speedy court resolution.

JoKryk@postmedia.com

@JohnKryk

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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