In the NFL, you don’t play to tie the game

In the NFL, you don’t play to tie the game

His words rang out loud and firm 20 years ago, resulting in one of sports’ all-time evocative declarations. Yet little could Herm Edwards, then the head coach of the National Football League’s New York Jets, foresee his statement’s relevance during the final 25 minutes of the league’s 2021 regular season last Sunday night.

“You play to win the game,” Edwards barked in October 2002. A popular ESPN NFL analyst for nine years, he recently completed his fourth season as the head football coach at Arizona State University and will continue in that capacity throughout 2022.

“That’s the great thing about sports. You play to win,” Edwards said during that well-documented press conference two decades past. The Jets were 2-5 when he spoke, and the team ultimately went 9-7, won the division and beat Peyton Manning’s Colts, 41-0, in the playoffs that season.

Without a doubt Edwards’ message was one of the most effective rants in coaching history.

And if you’ve ever been a teacher or a coach (they are one in the same) or aspire to be one in the future, what the Las Vegas Raiders and LA Chargers provided in their Sunday Night Football instant classic was one of those “teaching moments” for which you endlessly search.

There is bounteous evidence. Sports never fails to deliver.

As the spectacle played out at Allegiant Stadium and as the Raiders walked off the field a 35-32 overtime winner and playoffs-bound, Edwards’ memorable missive reverberated once again, as if dangling in time.

Even former NFL star and venerated NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth said he had never seen anything like the stupefying game and its voluminous scenarios. Booth sidekick Al Michaels, drawing from his long and iconic tenure in front of a microphone, came through with his usual seamless follow-up:

“Stick around long enough, and you’ll see it all,” Michaels (of “Do you believe in miracles?” lore) quickly muttered.

Brought about by a debatable NFL scheduling shift, the highly improbable dynamics that would determine the league’s remaining playoff berth were revealed prior to kickoff between the Raiders and Chargers. The winner would advance to the postseason and also allow the all-but-dead Pittsburgh Steelers to extend their season. The Steelers had rallied earlier in the day to win their game against the Ravens in overtime and keep their hopes flickering.

The oddball kink to the Raiders-Chargers confluence was that a tie would result in both LV and LA advancing, with the Steelers being purged. Cleveland Browns fans likely were all-in on a deadlock that would have eliminated their loathed rival. Incidentally, those same Steelers played the Detroit Lions to the NFL’s only regular-season tie (16-16) in 2021.

To review, the Chargers overcame a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter, scoring on the final play of regulation to send the game into OT. Defying all analytics, the Chargers and fearless signal caller Justin Herbert converted seven-consecutive opportunities on plays during which a failure would have ended their season. The gambles were anything but short yardage. The successful fourth-down attempts averaged 11 yards to go.

In the titillating overtime, the teams traded field goals before the Raiders ultimately kicked the game-winner as time in the 10-minute extra period vaporized. Yes, it has been argued an ill-advised timeout by LA head coach Brandon Staley with 38 seconds remaining changed the mind-set of the Raiders, who appeared willing to let the clock run out and accept the tie. During his post-game remarks, Raiders interim head coach Rich Bisaccia admitted a tie had been discussed on the sidelines in the precious waning moments.

One could opine that the winning 47-yard three-pointer by Daniel Carlson wasn’t a “pressure kick” at all. Make or miss, his team was going to the playoffs (as were the Chargers). The only thing resting on Carlson’s southernmost right appendage was the Raiders’ seeding in the “tournament.”

Clearly, with their courageous, exhaustive effort to survive, the Chargers deserved better than their final fate.

Naturally, Vegas QB Derek Carr insisted his team wanted to get the “W” during his post-game camera time. Duh, did anyone on the planet expect any other response? To suggest otherwise would have flown in the face of Edwards’ portrayal of a professional football player.

If, indeed, “You play to win the game” as Herm asserted, then kudos to the Raiders and Chargers for doing the right thing.

They defended The Shield as gridiron mavens must.

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