Pittsburgn Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Other Risky Business


Good risk is asking the lingerie model at the bar for her number. The only downside is getting the frozen shoulder. Bad risk is chasing a twenty that’s blowing across the interstate.

Last weekend I saw three games that featured curious risk management, very late in the contest. Two of them ended in sorrow for the team that rolled …or refused to roll…the dice.

On Saturday it was Stanford at Washington, and each team has the other in a stiff headlock. Stanford is No. 16 in the ratings, and the new Washington head coach is Chris Petersen.

Some coaches show the guts of a crossing guard when it comes to risk. Not Petersen. You may remember him from his dipsy-doodle days at Boise State, where his teams would beat you on conditioning and sting you with hooks-and-laterals and shell games and whatever other ‘rooskis he could dream up. Petersen says it’s all about discipline and execution, not trickery, but not-so-deep down there’s a velvet rope gambler in there as well. He likes to make his own action.

Midway through the fourth it was still a headlock at 13-13, and a Washington drive had just collapsed at midfield.  Petersen’s punter had been booming ‘em all day, a wow 52-yard average, and now he was lined up to send another one far into Stanford territory.

But gamblers get itchy, and on 4th-and-9 Petersen felt the twinge. So he reached back to his Boise roots and called a fake punt. The Cardinal promptly destroyed it. Six plays later Stanford was in his endzone and the gambler had lost and his explanation went something like this: “The only thing that was probably not real good was that fake punt, and that’s on me. That was too much. Just trying to create some things, to make some things happen…It was asking to get too many yards there.”

It was an act of undue risk, and it cost Washington the game. And at the podium Petersen looked like a man who had just watched his house burn down. You almost hoped for some benevolent pit boss to come up and throw his arm around him and say, “Remember, pal – the house don’t beat you. It gives you the chance to beat yourself.”

The next day in Pittsburgh and San Francisco we saw the opposite mindset – two teams playing it so cool at the end they almost froze to death.

The Steelers were the better club in their game, but they still let the dreary Bucs hang around for a whole afternoon. Now it’s 3rd-and-5 for the Steelers at their 19, with 1:35 to go. The Buccaneers are out of timeouts. A first-down for Pitt ends the game.

The main downside of a pass play is an incomplete and a stopped clock. But Ben Roethlisberger already had a big day delivering the ball – 319 yards through the air. His people were still getting open, and the Buc defense was trying to keep its legs after 34 minutes of duty.

Instead, the Steelers reached for the handrail. Roethlisberger handed it to Le’Veon Bell, his lone setback who’d done relatively little so far. There’s deception up front, with the left side of the Steeler line run blocking and the right side pass protecting. The goal was to create some daylight for Bell between the right guard and center.

But Tampa had been firm against the run all day, and the Buc front swarms the play. Pittsburgh’s punter then squeezes off a 29-yarder, and suddenly the Bucs are charging the other way. Tampa’s winning score arrives with 12 seconds left, and Steeler coach Mike Tomlin’s final commentary on the thing was, “I like to be aggressive. I felt comfortable with that call because it was a run-pass option. It didn’t work out for us.”

I saw the same setup at the end of the Eagle-49er game that day. Déjà vu. ‘Frisco has it 3rd-and-five from their own seven – 1:34 on the clock, which Philly can’t stop. Again, a SF first down closes things out.

But the Niners have no taste for the dice. They line up in their hammer formation and it’s Gore up the middle. Philly creams it, and now Nick Foles has one last chance to rescue the game for the Eagles. Only this time ‘Frisco’s carefulness pays off, as penalties and an interception kill off Philadelphia’s final drive. Phew!

The care and handling of risk. Watching Petersen and Tomlin blow it last weekend, then the shaky Niners barely holding on…such charmingly contrived drama. All of it reminded me of my sister sitting at a Vegas roulette wheel years ago. Each time a chip on red and a chip on black. Win one, lose one. A very oddball approach.

“What’s she doing?” the croupier asks me.

“I don’t know, man. We’re not related.”

“Miss, you know you can’t win anything playing that way. And if comes up green then you’ll lose both chips.”

“I know,” she said. “But at least this way I can play a lot longer.”

Tom Danyluk joins NFL Spin Zone after nine years as a columnist with Pro Football Weekly. He is an award-winning freelance writer and author of “The Super ‘70s,” which you can purchase directly from Amazon.com. Questions or gripes? Please contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.