Call it the Madden effect -- as in the videogame in which players inevitably go for it on fourth-and-whatever. NFL coaches this season are taking a cue, going for it on fourth down within their opponents' three-yard-line more than usual. Through nine weeks (130 games), teams had gone for the touchdown in that situation 23 times. That projects to 45 such tries for the season, nine more than in any year this decade.
So what has it brought? Drama? Yes. Touchdowns? Not so much. Defenses are prevailing: They've held 56.6 percent of the time, a higher rate than in every season but one since 2000. Of all the goal line stands so far in 2008, here are five of the most important and what they've said about the teams involved.
Down four with three minutes left, the Eagles had first-and-goal at the Bears four when formerly pass-happy coach Andy Reid went conservative. After a three-yard run by Correll Buckhalter, who was filling in for Brian Westbrook (ankle), Reid went between the tackles thrice more for no gain, sealing a 24-20 loss. The stand spoke to Westbrook's value and the Bears' defensive revival -- at least against the run, but also to the stubbornness of Reid, who would call two more unsuccessful runs from the Washington two-yard-line a week later (they kicked on fourth). He finally got wise against the 49ers when Donovan McNabb passed for a score on third down from the one.
Unlike the Dolphins' other big upset in '08 (see Pats, Week 3), this one came down to a single, solid play by coordinator Paul Pasqualoni's vastly improved defense, which went from 32nd against the run in '07 to ninth in '08. Trailing 10-17 late in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed to put San Diego on Miami's one. On fourth down he handed off to LaDainian Tomlinson, whose 93 career touchdowns from inside the 10 rank second all-time. But L.T. got stuffed by a cavalcade of Dolphins defenders, led by Vonnie Holliday and Channing Crowder, and Miami had its second win, one more than in all of '07.
Trailing their '07 AFC Championship Game opponents by 14, New England opened the third quarter with a 77-yard drive to the San Diego one. Even after two Matt Cassel incompletions and a Sammy Morris run for no gain, the Patriots had to have hope. New England hadn't failed on fourth-and-one in four-and-a-half years -- and therein lies the difference between Cassel and Tom Brady. Bill Belichick called another pass, Cassel took his fourth sack of the game (he leads current starters with 28) and the Chargers won 30-10.
When Chicago failed to score on third- and fourth-down runs up the middle at Atlanta's one in the fourth quarter it would prove fatal -- the Falcons won 22-20 on a last-second field goal -- but it wasn't fortuitous. Two weeks earlier, in another heartbreaking loss, Chicago outsmarted itself by passing twice on second- and third-and-one at midfield while trailing Carolina by three with less than two minutes left. When fullback Jason McKie got stuffed on fourth-and-one, perhaps it was because the Bears hadn't been in the situation much. During Lovie Smith's tenure only five teams have attempted fewer fourth down conversions.
If anyone was going to stop 6-foot-4, 264-pound battering ram Brandon Jacobs on three consecutive dives at the goal line, it was the Steelers' top-ranked defense -- and that's exactly what they did early in the second quarter. Advantage: immovable object. (Less credit goes to Pittsburgh if you believe defensive end Brett Keisel, who says he overheard Eli Manning's play call on fourth down. I, for one, don't buy it.)
Tom Coughlin deserves the ultimate kudos, however, for mixing it up later in the game with the score tied in the fourth. Facing second-and-goal at the Steelers' one -- clearly where you go to Jacobs, who has five TDs on 13 carries within opponents' 10 -- Coughlin put in guard Kevin Boothe as an extra blocker. Manning play-actioned to tight end Kevin Boss, who was wide open in the back of the end zone. Crafty call from Coughlin, a guy who's rarely associated with the adjective.