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Should Redskins Have Gone for It on 4th & 16?

Taking one last look at the Rams game

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 16: Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins jokes with head coach Mike Shanahan also of the Washington Redskins during pre-game warm ups prior to playing against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on September 16, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

    This is the last look back at the Rams game. The season is too long to focus on one Sunday afternoon in the middle of September. As the old coaching bromide goes: Learn from it and move on. But before we do...

    Brian Burke of the Washington Post wrote Wednesday morning that after Josh Morgan winged the football at Rams CB Cortland Finnegan on that last, fateful drive setting up a 4th and 16 instead of a 4th and 1, coach Mike Shanahan should've gone for it instead of sending kicker Billy Cundiff onto the field to attempt a 62-yard field goal.

    Of course, such observations are easy to make in the light of day, hours after things have been decided. At the time, Shanahan rationalized the decision to go with Cundiff.

    “It was fourth and [16]. I thought he could make a 62-yarder," he said after the game. ..."At fourth and [16], it was not great odds. ....I thought it was at least worth a shot. He can kick it out of the end zone pretty consistently from the 35-yard line [on kickoffs]. So that means he could kick a 62-yard [field goal] if he hits it right.”

    Unfortunately, Cundiff didn't hit it right (and he didn't have the benefit of a tee or a 15-yard running start). Clearly, Shanahan was out of high-probability, low-risk options so he went with his gut. We can't fault him for that.

    And while the Post's Burke isn't calling out Shanahan, he does make a case for why going for it on 4th and 16 was the lesser of two unattractive options.

    After working through the math, Burke writes, "Had Cundiff made the kick, it wouldn’t have assured overtime. The Rams would have had about 1:10 to assemble a field goal drive of their own, far from impossible in today’s league. Based on win rates from the past decade of actual games, the Redskins could expect to win 46% of the time had their kick been good. Overall, that means the decision to kick gave the Redskins a (.46 * .15 = ) 7% chance of winning."

    As for the seemingly impossible task of gaining 16 yards on fourth down, Burke again returns to the numbers, noting that because 4th-and-16s are so rare it might be instructive to look at 3rd-and-16s, which are converted 17 percent of the time.

    "Overall, had the Redskins converted on the play, they would have had the upper hand. Based on recent history, teams win about 57% of the time when they are down by 3 with a first down at their opponent’s 28. Had head coach Mike Shanahan chosen to go for the first down, the gamble would have been worth a (.17 * .57 = ) 10% chance of winning."

    Neither option is particularly appealing, but 10 percent is always better than seven percent. Bumping the 'Skins' chances at converting the fourth-and-long even higher? Robert Griffin III.

    Yes, he's a rookie, but through two weeks he's already exceeded everyone's expectations. We're not just talking perception, either; according to FootballOutsiders.com, RGIII ranks 11th among all NFL quarterbacks on a per-play basis. For some perspective, he has outplayed Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Matt Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick through two games.

    Washington finally got their franchise quarterback. They might as well use him.