With time running short, Rams made curious decision to punt

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The Rams came an onside kick away from having a chance to force overtime on Monday night. A decision made earlier in the fourth quarter complicated the effort to secure victory.

The Rams had the ball on their own 30, facing fourth and five. They trailed by 10, 19-9. Only 6:09 remained on the clock. The Rams had one time out.

And they punted the ball back to the Bengals.

Although coach Sean McVay wasn’t asked about the decision during his post-game press conference, he surely would have said something like this: We wanted to get a stop, get the ball back, get a touchdown or a field goal, hope to recover an onside kick, and then tie the game.

All of that makes sense. Except for one part. It hinges on successfully recovering an onside kick.

As noted during the broadcast, the Rams haven’t successfully recovered an onside kick in 11 years. And no team has managed to pull off that feat in 2023.

For good reason. Changes to the kickoff formation, aimed at generally making the play safer, have made it harder to recover onside kicks. Thus, any strategy that relies in part on successfully recovering an onside kick should be regarded as suspect, from the get-go.

Here, the Rams had possession of the ball on their own 30, facing fourth and five. When, after a successful three-and-out performance by their defense, they got the ball back at their own 39, the clock had ticked down to 3:40. Down 10, the score-onside-kick-score plan was, as expected, the only strategy.

So why didn’t they just go for it on fourth and five? If that drive had extended, they could have gotten one score then, they could have kicked the ball deep, and they could have tried to force a punt.

In situations like this, it’s hard not to wonder whether the coach of the team trailing by 10 simply didn’t want to let the other team have a short field and a chance to make the final score look even worse. A final outcome 19-9 is one thing; 26-9 has a much different feel.

And, ultimately, 19-16 created the impression of a much closer game.

Still, the approach that resulted in a three-point margin required the recovery of an onside kick. The other approach simply required conversion of fourth and five as the first step toward potential success.

But that would have put the Rams at greater risk of a more embarrassing final score. While McVay would never admit that he simply didn’t want the outcome to look worse than it was, he wouldn’t be the first coach who made a decision based not on salvaging the best possible chance to pull out an unlikely win, but by minimizing the fallout from giving the team leading by 10 a chance to make the final margin 13 or 17.

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