In last week’s football game between Hamilton and Basha, there were 38 points scored after a seemingly-innocuous 1-yard touchdown run by Huskies tailback Tyrell Smith early in the second quarter.
The ending was wild, as Hamilton held on for a 32-31 victory, and few remembered Smith finding the end zone two hours prior.
However, in a game filled with important coaching decisions, it was one of the biggest. Hamilton led 12-7 at the time, and it faced a 4th-and-goal at the Basha 1-yard line.
If coach Steve Belles so chose, he could have taken the field goal to increase the team’s lead to eight points. Instead, he went for it, and the gamble paid off. While it’s impossible to tell how the game would have unfolded if Belles chose the other path, the four-point net increase certainly may have been the difference between Hamilton winning or losing that game.
For coaches all across the East Valley, it’s one of the most important parts of their job. On each Friday night, there will be several instances when they need to make tough choices on fourth down. Some lean conservative while others are more aggressive.
In the end, many say, it all comes down to intuition.
“I leave it up to my coordinators a lot of the time, but I’ll ultimately make the decision,” Highland coach Pete Wahlheim said. “You can’t second-guess those things. You make your decision and live with it.”
Mesquite coach Jim Jones has a defensive background but always prefers to be aggressive on fourth downs. If he feels confident in his offense, he will eschew a punt or field goal to try for the first down.
“It’s a heck of a momentum-builder if you can get it,” he said.
Jones places a lot of value on these types of situations. Throughout his coaching career, he’s designated one assistant coach to delve into the percentage-plays in different scenarios. He has a two-point conversion chart as well as an idea of the pros and cons of attempting a conversion at different times.
“(The assistant will) say, ‘This is what the book says. Here’s what you should do,’” Jones said. “Sometimes you listen. Sometimes you just go by your gut.”
In many ways, it’s much easier to play conservatively.
Coaches seem to rarely get criticized when they choose a punt or field goal attempt, even if it is statistically the incorrect call.
The bottom line, though, is victories, and if a coach feels better about his chances with a conversion attempt, he won’t trade it in just to appease the second-guessers.
“There’s definitely more scrutiny there, but we’re the supposed experts at our sport because we’re the ones that spend time scouting our opponents and we know our kids.” McClintock coach Matt Lewis said. “I’m not uncomfortable running an offensive play because we’re doing something we practice more than anything else.”
Wahlheim, a coach whose style is to run the ball and depend on his defense, prefers to be conservative on fourth down. When everything is going right, he feels like it won’t take long for his defense to stop the other team and get the ball back for the offense.
“I’m always going to err on the side (of caution),” he said. “I trust my defense. There’s nothing wrong with punting the ball. As long as our defense is going to get off the field, we’ll punt the ball and take our chances. Obviously when we struggle to get stops, you’re more apt to go for it.”
The situations are so fluid that a single philosophy will never be unanimous. In the course of a single game, either approach can work spectacularly or backfire.
One key seems to be flexibility. If a decision can enhance a team’s likelihood of winning, it should be taken under consideration no matter a coach’s mindset.
“People have fear of situations,” Lewis said. “I think some coaches, just by human nature, that’s a situation that’s scary, and they may be more conservative. I don’t possess that. I’m never afraid of that situation.”