NOTE: This article first appeared in the January 21, 2013, edition of

Common Football Risks That Don't Always Work Out

If there is one temptation that football coaches have, it is going for a first down on fourth down instead of attempting a field goal. The decision of whether to try for a first down on fourth down or to attempt a field goal comes only when an offense is within field-goal range. When a team is not in field-goal range, the fourth-down decision becomes whether to try for a first down or to punt the ball away. Of course, when it is late in a game and a team is down by many points, the decision to go for a first down on fourth down is really the only plausible choice. However, while it sometimes pays for a team to go for it on fourth down instead of punting even early in a game, it is almost never a good idea to go for it on fourth down early in the game instead of attempting a field goal.

There are a few reasons that a team foolishly goes for it on fourth down. One reason is that it wants to send a proverbial message of confidence to itself. It goes something like "If you don't have faith in your offense to get half a yard, then there's something wrong with your offense." And another reason goes like "We're down three touchdowns, and this is our chance to get back in the game."

It can be argued that last week's NFC divisional playoff game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks came down to three field goals, and none of which was the 49-yard game winner kicked by Matt Bryant with 15 seconds left in the game. The first two game-altering field goals in the game were ones that were not even attempted. They both did not occur in the first half. The first time, Seattle had a fourth down deep in Atlanta territory but passed up a short field-goal attempt in favor of attempting to get a first down. The Seahawks failed to get the first down. And then just before halftime, the Seahawks passed up the chance to attempt a field goal by trying to score a touchdown in hopes of cutting a 20-0 deficit. Again, the Seahawks failed.

The Falcons erased a late comeback by kicking the game-winning field goal, leaving the Seahawks enough time only to field a short kickoff, complete one pass, and attempt another. However, Bryant actually got two attempts to make the winning field goal. His first attempt went wide right, but it did not count, because just before the ball was snapped, the Seahawks called timeout in order to "ice" the kicker. But when the Falcons lined up for another attempt, the kick was good.

The final score of the game -- Falcons 30, Seahawks 28 -- emphasizes the importance of the Seahawks' two missed opportunities to score a total of six points and the extra opportunity given to the Falcons by the Seahawks to score their final three points. This swing of nine points provided more than the margin of victory for the Falcons. One lesson of the Falcons-Seahawks game is to take the more likely points of a field goal over a first down or a touchdown when a first down or a touchdown is not absolutely needed at the time, especially when it is not late in a game and one has a dynamic offense such as the Seahawks'. And another is that maybe NFL kickers don't have to be iced to miss a field goal or maybe icing them doesn't make them miss a field goal, anyway.