Mike Shanahan: American hero

An NFL coach actually takes a risk and is rewarded with a dramatic win as the Broncos beat the Chargers.

Published September 15, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

The highlight of Sunday's slate of NFL games had to be an NFL coach actually taking an honest-to-goodness risk. A doozy of one. With 29 seconds to go and the Denver Broncos trailing the San Diego Chargers 38-37 following a Denver touchdown, Mike Shanahan ordered up a two-point try. Jay Cutler hit Eddie Royal with a pass over the middle and the Broncos won the game 39-38.

It would have been the best game of the day without that play, but with it, shoot, it was the best game of the whole weekend.

The play there is to kick the extra point and take your chances in overtime. Each team has about a 50-50 chance in sudden death. The success rate on two-point conversions has been similar in the last few years after spending about a decade closer to 40 percent.

But that doesn't matter. In the risk-averse NFL, even if two-point conversion tries were good 75 percent of the time, the play would be to kick and go to overtime because of that 25 percent failure rate.

A coach is going to get roasted for that one-in-four failure because he could have "played it safe" and gone to overtime. He'll take a lot less heat for losing in overtime because, hey, it's a coin flip.

It ought to be pretty clear that if the league-wide success rate is anything like 50 percent, then it's often going to be a good bet to go for two rather than kicking and going to overtime. If the average offense facing the average defense has a 50 percent chance of success, what are your chances with a good offense against a bad defense? And what if it's the end of a long afternoon, and that defense has just been on the field getting scored on?

The Broncos had just scored their fifth touchdown of the day, the third that had come at the end of an 80-yard drive. They'd rolled up 486 yards and 34 first downs. I think their odds were better than 50-50, don't you?

That must happen reasonably often, that going for two when down by one late in a game would give a team a better chance at winning the game than going for one and overtime would. But the NFL Network said Sunday that Shanahan's gamble was only the fifth time in the last 15 seasons that a coach has gone for two when trailing by one in the last two minutes. The two-point conversion came to the NFL in 1994.

The gamblers are now 3-2, and on a three-gamble winning streak, dating back to 2002, when Mike Tice of Minnesota tried it. Jon Gruden of Tampa Bay was successful in 2005. Hey, it's been 11 years since anyone -- Dave Wannstedt, Chicago -- tried it and failed. Tom Coughlin of Jacksonville tried it in 1995 and failed.

So every three years or so -- every 750 NFL games, give or take a few -- a coach takes a chance like Shanahan did Sunday. There was a little mini-trend of risk taking in 2005, now that I think of it.

Let us now praise Mike Shanahan -- who isn't always above risk aversion but has been known to let his freak flag fly -- the better to encourage his fellow coaches to take a chance every once in a while.

Maybe every 500 games or so. Let's go nuts.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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