In a 2016 season full of mistakes, Todd Bowles’ most perplexing one came in Week 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Jets were trailing by 11 points with 7:36 left in the 4th quarter. Fitzpatrick and the Jets offense had the ball at their own 46 facing a 4th and 2. There should have been no decision to be made by Bowles. The Jets had to go for it. Instead, Bowles punted the ball away to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense. The next time the Jets saw the ball they were down 18 with 1:51 left–the game was over.
Jets fans have rightfully held on to this moment as the golden example of Bowles’ incompetence. There was no question that punting was the wrong choice. Perhaps even more frustrating than the actual decision was Bowles’ stubborn refusal to admit fault in the postgame press conference. “If it was the same situation again, I’d probably still punt,” Bowles said. “I don’t think it was a mistake.” While it was depressing to hear those words, I held out hope that Bowles was just caught up in the postgame moment and was merely giving coach-speak to the media. Apparently he wasn’t.
On Sunday in Buffalo the Jets were in an almost identical situation as they were in Pittsburgh. Down 9, the Jets had the ball at their own 44 and faced a 4th and 8 with 4 minutes remaining. Almost unfathomably, Bowles declined to go for it. Again.
When faced with this decision, there are only 3 possible outcomes to consider:
Outcome 1: The Jets go for it and gain the 1st down
Result: Once you go for it on 4th down here you’re not punting for the rest of the game. If the Jets pick up 10 yards on 4th and 8, it puts them at the Buffalo 46 with 3:50 to play and all 3 timeouts available. At this point, the Jets are still down two scores but a quick touchdown keeps them right in the game. If after the initial first down is converted they turn the ball over at any point after, the game is over–no matter where on the field Buffalo takes over.
To win: If the Jets gain the first down they would need to finish the drive with a touchdown, force a 3 and out from Buffalo, and then kick a field goal for the win. Unlikely, but not impossible.
(Note: In any of these situations a field goal before the touchdown would work too, but would make things more complicated.)
Outcome 2: The Jets go for it, but don’t make a first down
Result: The Bills get the ball back at the Jets’ 44 with 4 minutes remaining. Unless the Jets can force an immediate turnover, the game is over. Any Buffalo first down gained would end the game right there. If the Jets stop Buffalo and force a 3 and out, they could get the ball back pinned in their own territory with no timeouts and needing 9 points for the win.
To win: Barring an all-time boneheaded play a la the Giants and the Miracle in the Meadowlands, Buffalo has the game locked down with a 4th down stop. A Jets victory would require a forced 3 and out, touchdown, onside kick recovery, and then a field goal for the win, all within 4 minutes.
Outcome 3: The Jets punt the ball to Buffalo
Result: This is the route Coach Bowles chose to take…twice. If Buffalo gains at least 1 first down the game is practically over (as happened on Sunday). If Buffalo goes 3 and out, the Jets could get the ball back at midfield with around 3 minutes left. After that they would need to score a touchdown, recover an onside kick, and then kick a game winning field goal. With this choice, the fact is that even if everything goes according to plan, you’re still in a highly unrealistic position to win the game with such little time remaining.
To win: To win the game after a punt the Jets would need to hold Buffalo to a 3 and out, drive 50 yards for a touchdown, recover an onside kick, then pick up another 20 yards to get in field goal range, and finally knock in the game winning field goal. Not likely.
In sum, if the Jets went for it and picked up the first down, their chance of winning would be small, but not nothing. If they went for it and didn’t make it, their chance of winning would be practically zero. If they punt, as they did, their chance of winning would be practically zero. Todd Bowles chose option three.
To make this mistake once is extremely bad, but maybe excusable for a first time head coach. Making the exact same mistake just one season later is football malpractice, and a sign that Todd Bowles is unfit to coach an NFL team. Game management is difficult and comes with practice, but it’s fair to expect Bowles to improve after 2 seasons as a head coach. On Sunday we saw the same Todd Bowles who led last year’s team to a 5 win season.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com