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Redskins are the latest team fit to be tied after Jay Gruden plays it too safe

Dustin Hopkins will go down as the goat of the Redskins–Bengals tie, the second in as many weeks for the NFL. But why did Washington settle for a kick when it had a chance to go for the kill?

In the Cardinals and Seahawks’ Week 7 tie, both Chandler Catanzaro and Steven Hauschka missed potential game-winning field goals from inside 30 yards in overtime.

Sunday, it was Dustin Hopkins’s turn. After the Bengals iced him ahead of his attempt from 34 yards, Hopkins pulled the short kick wide left. His Redskins eventually would wind up deadlocked with Cincinnati, 27–27.

NFL kickers should make these short field goals. Most times, they do. As those recent mishaps prove, though, it’s hardly a guarantee. So why do coaches often insist on settling for the field goal try when the opportunity for a touchdown is still on the table?

The simple answer is that additional offensive plays can be problematic. Maybe a penalty pushes you back a few yards, which happened a few snaps before Hopkins’s miss; maybe you cough it up via fumble or interception. Those are valid enough concerns, but a coach doesn’t need to buy into them if he has faith in his offense.

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Take what went down in London, for example. Washington had, in fact, been flagged for holding on a first-and-10 from Cincinnati’s 19 in overtime. But Robert Kelley peeled off a 16-yard run on the subsequent play, giving his team a second-and-four from the Bengals’ 13. Coach Jay Gruden then opted to have his QB, Kirk Cousins, use the next play to position the ball in the middle of the field. Cousins took a three-yard loss, leaving Hopkins his 34-yarder. The Redskins kicked on third down, as usually is preferred practice in such situations, because it leaves a little wiggle room in case of a botched snap—should that have happened, Washington could have kicked again on fourth.

O.K., great. But why the Cousins kneel-down instead of one more carry for Kelley? Is Kelley incapable of running toward the middle of the field, if that’s where Washington wanted the ball? Given the way he had moved the pile on the day, there was a better chance he would pick up a first down or even break free for a touchdown than that he would fumble. Kelley now has 124 career NFL carries and has yet to put one on the ground.

Bruce Arians and the Cardinals made the same mistake last week against Seattle—frankly, theirs was even worse. They were sitting with a third-and-goal from the Seahawks’ one-yard line when Arians decided to trot out his kicker. Making matters worse, Arizona even took a delay-of-game penalty before Catanzaro shanked his kick wide. (The Seahawks could have run another play before Hauschka’s miss, but they were up against the clock with no timeouts left.)

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This all comes back to the kickers, of course. Catanzaro can’t miss from that distance, be it 19 or 24 yards. Hopkins had never missed a field goal of between 30–39 yards, although he does have a failed extra point on his résumé this season.

As Arians said after Catanzaro’s miss: “You get paid to make it.”

He’s got a point. Here’s another one: Coaches get paid to make important decisions in tight spots. Gruden on Sunday, like Arians last week, opted to bail on trying to score a touchdown in favor of setting up a field goal. It backfired in both cases, so is there a point where those in charge learn from their cautious calls?

The Redskins had three downs to play with Sunday. Gruden essentially limited them to one by having Cousins set up a kick. Playing it safe is just asking for something to wrong.