The moment of truth came last night for the Bucs and coach Dirk Koetter. With 2:49 to play and facing fourth and 10 from their own 20, would they punt while trailing 30-27, or would they go for it?
The critical decision received scant attention during the broadcast, with ESPN’s Jason Witten simply saying, “You’ve gotta punt it here,” and with ESPN’s Joe Tessitore not disagreeing. But did the Bucs have to punt it?
They could have gone for it. If they’d converted on fourth and 10, the drive toward a potential game-tying field goal or game-winning touchdown would have continued. If they’d failed, the Steelers would have had the ball in Tampa Bay territory, with the Bucs having a pair of time outs and the two-minute warning to preserve time while also hoping to hold the Steelers to a field goal, giving the Buccaneers one last chance to win the game, trailing 33-27. Obviously, the Buccaneers would have needed to keep the Steelers from getting a first down.
Instead, the Bucs opted to give possession back to the Steelers under similar circumstances — needing to keep them from getting a first down. And the effort failed, in part because the Steelers made the gutsy decision to throw on second and long, risking an clock-stopping incompletion or drive-killing interception but delivering the setup for the knockout blow, with a first down that, one play later, became another first down (thanks to a James Conner run), clinching the game by allowing the clock to be drained.
If the Buccaneers had gone for it and failed, there’s no guarantee the Steelers would have made an eventual field-goal try. Chris Boswell already had clanged a pair of kicks off the upright; maybe he would have missed another attempt.
Of course, the conventional move was to punt, to try to stop the Steelers, and to try to launch another drive with no time outs and less than two minutes to play. The unconventional move was to go for it. But even though coach Dirk Koetter understands the wisdom of taking chances on fourth down, he knows that making the unconventional move and failing could result in the head coach looking for a new job.
So, like many other coaches, he’d prefer to go with the conventional approach and fail than the unconventional approach and simply risk failure. Until Koetter quashes that fear, the Buccaneers will never fully live up to their swashbuckling reputation — and perhaps will never migrate as deep into the postseason as they could.