It wasn’t a bad call.
No, I’m not crazy (even though I did watch a marathon of “The Hills” over Thanksgiving break). In any other situation, in any other season, the call to go for it on fourth-and-22 is an indefensible call. But at The Game 2009, “The Call” wasn’t indefensible though the result makes it seem a stupid decision. In fact, it was a great call that just didn’t turn out the way we wanted.
Ever since Tom Williams came to Yale, it was clear the guy has a flair for the dramatic that surpasses even that of Spencer and Heidi. (Two “Hills” references in two paragraphs? Yeah, I went there.) At his inaugural press conference, Williams promised we were going to beat Harvard. In his words, Harvard had our number the last few years, and it was time to change. For three quarters last Saturday, it certainly looked like it — until Yale began to lose momentum.
That’s when Williams’ flair for the dramatic resulted in the fourth-and-22 fake-punt-reverse call. To some, it was the result of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick phoning up Williams and telling him to make a move worse than Belichick’s own fourth-and-two blunder. But I’m not here to talk about Bill Belichick.
The number one reason why Williams’ gutsy call is defensible is the fact that the team had been setting up the play all year. Over the course of the season, the Bulldogs had run two fourth-down fake punts to captain Paul Rice ’10 — both of which were completely unexpected runs to the right sideline for momentum-shifting big gains. The first one resulted in the only touchdown Yale scored in a 7–0 game at Lehigh that would have made Ugly Betty seem like a Victoria’s Secret Angel. To give you more of the theatrical nature of Tom Williams, that fourth-down call came on a fourth-and-seven, AFTER Williams intentionally took a delay-of-game penalty to make it look like he was giving our punter, Tom Mante ’10, more room. As Rice took the snap to the right sideline for six, Mante even pretended to punt the ball and fall to the ground in a feigned sign of exertion. Somebody give the man an Oscar.
The second fake punt came at Princeton when, once again, Rice received the snap and ran right for a first down. That first down set up a Yale comeback that, though it ultimately fell short, helped to erase a 14-point first-half deficit and swing momentum in Yale’s favor. Both fourth-down calls had a purpose, and both fourth-down calls put Yale in a position to win.
Fast forward to The Game. When Rice initially received the snap, I actually felt a smile curling around the corners of my lips. Harvard had been studying film and knew to stuff a Rice run up the right sideline on fake punts. But Williams was one step ahead. As the entire Harvard defense committed to Rice, time seemed almost to slow down as my eyes anticipated the change in direction of the ball.
But when Rice flipped the ball to John Powers ’13 on the reverse, it seemed to catch Powers just a bit out of stride, and he compensated by taking a wider sweep than he was aiming for. That little bit of poor execution led to a run seven yards shy of the first down. It wasn’t a bad call — in fact, it was a smart one that preyed upon Harvard’s studious film sessions. As Williams said, Harvard had our number the last few years, and Williams intended to be one step ahead on this call to drive his point home.
But fourth-and-22, you say, is TOO %#@^* LONG! I can’t dispute that, and in retrospect, it wasn’t the right call because we failed. But the result doesn’t stop it from being a good call at the time, and it certainly doesn’t take away from Williams’ coaching skills.
As someone who has followed this team probably more closely than anyone not involved with Yale football, it is obvious that Williams is innately in tune with momentum. In fact, you could say he’s obsessed with momentum more than a Star Wars nerd is obsessed with Princess Leah’s gold bikini. Actually, that’s probably not a physical possibility. In any case, let’s just say Williams likes momentum. The Call was all about momentum.
In a game with more emotions and hormones running through it than a pimply middle school dance, Williams and Harvard coach Tim Murphy avoided their punters like the plague and went for it on fourth down virtually every time in an attempt to find that one play to kill the other team’s spirit. In the first half, Yale was the one who converted on those fourth downs, while Williams’ aggressive defense stuffed Harvard’s fourth downs every time.
But in the second half, a combination of conservative Yale play-calling and Harvard’s aggression slowly milked momentum away, culminating in the Crimson’s first successful fourth down conversion of the game. A missed false-start call from the referees later, and Harvard had its first touchdown of the game. The Cantab fans were roused from their food- and “drink”-induced slumber, and I could feel things slipping away from us.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking: If Belichick can be criticized for trying to stop momentum with a fourth-and-two call against Peyton “I’m actually the Colts’ offensive coordinator” Manning, then Williams’ call is even more indefensible when he is playing against an Ivy-caliber quarterback.
Well, Harvard’s quarterback might not have been Peyton Manning, but the Yale defense was no New England Patriots either. In fact, over the last few weeks of the season, injuries and wear-and-tear have actually shown this defense to be easily exploited when it is forced to play too long. The second half was a three-and-out-a-palooza for Yale, and the defense was certainly not the same as it had been in the first half. The aggressive call on fourth-and-22 was Williams’ attempt to kill two birds with one stone — get his defense some more rest and swipe momentum back to Yale’s side.
Ultimately, The Call is really about risk versus reward. The risk, obviously, is giving up a short field touchdown to lose The (Most Important) Game of the year. But think about the reward. A converted fourth-and-22 keeps the clock running, all but guaranteeing a win. A converted fourth-and-22 proclaims loud and clear that Yale’s play-fake is one step ahead of Harvard’s machinations (for the first time in forever). But more importantly, a fourth-and-22 delivers a swift kick to the Cantabs’ sensitive place before defenestrating them into a taunting sea of middle fingers. A fourth-and-22 conversion finally makes The Game a rivalry and not a domination.
Think about it. Before the game, not even Yale’s ardent fans thought this year’s squad had a chance. The Bulldogs, at 2-4 in the conference, were heavy underdogs to a one-loss Crimson team still in the hunt for an Ivy League title. It was Williams’ first rebuilding year, and no one expected much out of him. The players probably wouldn’t have admitted it, but a win was probably not in their minds. The cost of the decision — a loss in The Game 2009 — was all but foreseen before the players had even put on their pads. So what if they lost? As former NFL coach Dennis Green infamously screamed, “THEY WERE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!” If Yale had just come out of the Yale Bowl with another loss, we would’ve bemoaned it but ultimately accepted it.
But The Call was meant to be historical. The Call appealed to Williams’ flair for the dramatic. The Call could have catapulted The Game 2009 and this Williams team into the annals of Yale lore forever. For all the i-bankers in the audience crunching the risk-reward numbers, does a vengeful, historic victory trump the risks of just another loss?
I say yes. (For the sake of full disclosure, I failed Ray Fair’s economics class.)
The Call was the epitome of Williams’ career at Yale so far, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. His aggressive play-calling and firm belief in the way special teams can influence a game’s momentum made this year’s Game a great one for the fans. Face it, The Game 2009 was the best one you’ve seen in the past few years, even if we couldn’t pull it out. Plus, let’s keep in mind that this was Williams’ first year as head coach. As the players become more accustomed to his system and as he recruits players fit for his plans, this team will only get better. Williams’ style is what makes things exciting for players and fans alike, and hopefully, The Call doesn’t turn him into Jack Siedlecki 2.0.
For a coach that simply asks that his players give an all-out effort and lay it on the line each and every week, can we blame Williams for the call that laid his reputation as a coach out on the line in search for a momentous victory?
In retrospect, it wasn’t the correct call. But it was a helluva good one.
John Song is a junior in Berkeley College.