San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is taking some heat for some questionable fourth-quarter decisions in the 49ers’ 27-24 overtime loss to the Cowboys on Sunday.
The decision that’s drawing the most attention is keeping the three points on the board after the Cowboys were penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct on David Akers‘ 55-yard field goal with 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. If Harbaugh had wanted to, he could have taken the three points off the board and put the 49ers’ offense back on the field with a new set of downs, giving them the chance to drive for a touchdown and a 14-point lead or, at the very least, take some more time off the clock before putting Akers back in for another field goal attempt.
Harbaugh chose to stand pat, however, and he said afterward that he thought being ahead two scores in the fourth quarter was enough.
“The thinking behind that at the time was to have the two-score advantage at that point,” Harbaugh said. “Felt that we would be able to get off the field and that would lead to a victory.”
In general, Harbaugh seemed like he was playing it very safe in the fourth quarter. For starters, he decided to send Akers in for that 55-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-1. Then he decided not to put his offense back on the field after the Cowboys’ penalty gave the 49ers an automatic first down. According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, which analyzes plays based on how they affect a team’s expected probability of winning the game, both of those decisions were mistakes.
It’s also worth considering that after Harbaugh decided to take the Cowboys’ penalty on the ensuing kickoff, he could have called for an onside kick from the 50-yard line, rather than just booting it through the end zone for a touchback. All he would have been risking is about 20 yards of field position if the Cowboys had recovered the onside kick. But, again, Harbaugh decided to play it safe.
Harbaugh made another tactical mistake late in the game: The 49ers still had two timeouts left after they stopped the Cowboys on a third down with 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and they should have immediately called timeout and forced the Cowboys to kick the field goal then. Instead, they allowed the Cowboys to let the clock run down to just four seconds remaining before kicking the game-tying field goal that sent the game into overtime on the final play of the fourth quarter. If Harbaugh had called timeout with 43 seconds left, the Cowboys would have had to kick their field goal right then, and then kick off to Ted Ginn, the 49ers’ dangerous return man, with 38 seconds left — and even if Ginn didn’t get a big return, the 49ers’ offense would have had time to try to get into field goal range for a game-winning field goal of their own at the end of the fourth quarter.
But instead Harbaugh let the Cowboys control the clock, they controlled it effectively, and they won.