Coaching decisions are viewed strictly through the prism of hindsight: If they work, you're brilliant; if they don't, you're the village idiot.
Mike McCarthy walked that fine line in the Green Bay Packers' come-from-behind, last-second win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. Because McCarthy's team won, 27-24, his decisions were "right." But had it gone the other way, the coach would have been soundly criticized.
Leading 17-10 at the end of the third quarter, Green Bay quickly went down 24-17 after back-to-back Dolphin touchdowns within the first six minutes of the final period. On their subsequent possession, the Packers worked the ball to Miami's 12-yard line. And after an incompletion on third-and-6, McCarthy found himself squarely on that fence, with genius on one side and idiocy on the other. On fourth-and-6, 12 yards from the end zone with just over 4 minutes to play, McCarthy elected to kick the field goal, leaving his team a four-point deficit late in the fourth quarter.
One easily could make the argument that in this situation -- with Green Bay standing just 12 yards from a game-tying touchdown and 4:13 left -- McCarthy should have gone for it on fourth down, rather than gamble on a final possession that, based on his team's previous two defensive series, he might not even get.
In this instance, though, McCarthy was probably evaluating the 6 yards he needed to convert a first down, not the full 12 he needed to score a touchdown. Had the conversion distance been a little more favorable -- 4th-and-1, 2 or 3 -- I'm convinced McCarthy would have gone for it. Worst-case scenario, you leave the Dolphins with a long field going back the other way and are still gambling on the same final possession, just now with another chance to tie rather than to win.
McCarthy chose to gamble with his defense rather than with his future Hall of Fame quarterback, which seemed odd, especially considering that his defense had given up consecutive long touchdown drives (10 plays, 80 yards and six plays, 79 yards). But had they attempted that fourth-and-6 and ultimately scored a touchdown to tie the game, McCarthy still would have needed his defense to come up with a stop to force overtime.
So if you are going to gamble with your defense, why not gamble for a win, rather than gamble for a tie?
After the ensuing touchback, Miami earned two first downs (one via penalty), forcing Green Bay to take its final two timeouts. Still, the Dolphins were only able to run a total of 2:05 from the game clock. With 2:04 remaining and the ball in the hands of Aaron Rodgers, McCarthy was looking more like the genius than the idiot. But the Packers would need to overcome a fumble and a subsequent 4th-and-10 -- as well as incorporate a fake spike -- to seal the coach's fate. Not only that, but the Packers, having no timeouts of their own, were inexplicably gifted one from Miami just before that fourth-down conversion -- not only stopping the clock, but giving Green Bay extra time to identify the perfect play.
Eventually, Rodgers found Andrew Quarless on a stop-fade route in the end zone with three seconds left on the clock, cinching the win for Green Bay.
Had the defense not forced the punt or if Rodgers had come up short on the final drive, McCarthy would have been charged with mismanaging the clock and prosecuted as the village idiot. Instead, with the assistance of a fortunate bounce and a timely stoppage of the clock, he is just as quickly deemed a strategical genius with an excellent feel for his team.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.