The second-guessing of decisions can be, at times, the lowest-hanging fruit of sports writing.
Here I am, a man on my couch, ready to tell you hours later exactly how a decision made on the fly in the real-time microseconds of sports was the wrong one.
More interesting, perhaps, is the residue of such decisions — and that's certainly the case with what unfolded for the Packers in Sunday's NFC title game.
It is not hyperbole to suggest: A two-decision sequence in that game, the first from Aaron Rodgers and the second from coach Matt LaFleur, very well could haunt both of those men and the franchise forever.
The first: Facing 3rd-and-goal from Tampa Bay's 8, with 2:15 remaining and the Packers trailing 31-23, Rodgers dropped back to pass.
He was under some duress, so he stepped up to avoid the rush. There appears to have been a lane for him to run to the right — maybe all the way to the end zone, perhaps not, but at least, probably for a good chunk of yards. At worst, he probably winds up at the 3 or 4. At best, if he is able to fake out one defender on his way to the pylon, Rodgers scores and Green Bay has a chance to tie with a two-point conversion. Here are two looks at the crucial moment when he could have made that decision.
Instead, Rodgers tried a pass over the middle intended for Davante Adams. It fell incomplete. It was a play that Rodgers had been given the freedom to call, and the result was no yards.
That set up fourth down, and the second — far more egregious — decision: What happened to Rodgers was a split-second reaction. You can't see everything he is seeing. He's felt similar pressure thousands of times and probably thought he had a small window to fit the ball into Adams.
LaFleur had much longer to make his decision — seconds, perhaps minutes, maybe even his whole coaching life while building a philosophy — to inexplicably kick a field goal on 4th-and-goal, trailing by 8, with just over 2 minutes left.
The first decision perhaps influenced the second and vice-versa: Rodgers said after the game he might have called a different play had he known LaFleur was thinking field goal on fourth down. "It wasn't my decision," the QB said of the field goal. "I thought maybe we were gonna have four chances to go."
Conversely, LaFleur quite possibly makes a different decision if Rodgers scrambles down to 3 on the previous play. Instead, Mason Crosby came out for a chip shot.
ESPN tried to justify the decision with data, which suggests the decision was a negligible matter of a half a percentage point in win probability: According to ESPN's Win Probability model, the Packers had a 10% chance of winning by going for it on fourth down and a 9.5% chance of winning by kicking a field goal.
What that model doesn't account for: You are taking the ball out of the hands of the presumptive MVP, one who directed the best red zone offense in recorded NFL history this season. You are giving it back to Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest clutch QB of all-time, and trusting a mediocre defense to make a stop. And even if you make the short field goal, you STILL NEED TO SCORE A TOUCHDOWN.
That's some major downside. The upside of going for it: If you make it, you have a chance to tie the score. You give Rodgers one more chance, no matter what. And if you don't make it? Tampa Bay is pinned deep. You have all your timeouts and the two-minute warning — all the things you had after kicking the field goal — and a chance to get the ball back and still extend the game.
If they were down nine? Sure, kick the field goal. You need two scores anyway. If they were down six? Maybe I could see some hint of logic because then a stop and a field goal gets you to overtime (though I still would have hated the move). But down eight? Absurd.
Predictably, Tampa Bay got the ball back and ran out the clock. They benefited from a pass interference call — a blatant jersey tug that Rodgers, stinging from the loss and other non-calls during the game, insisted was a "bad call" — to seal the game.
And then the cold reality set in.
For Rodgers, as strange as this sounds, this was a legacy game. He's a no-doubt Hall of Famer. But he also became the first QB in NFL history to lose four consecutive conference title game appearances.
Coming into the game, he was 1-3 with a 78.0 passer rating in NFC championship games — with the only win coming in a substandard performance against a decimated Bears team in the 2010 season, his first crack at the Super Bowl. It sure seemed like he was going to go back many more times and win multiple titles, but that has proved elusive.
Rodgers made some brilliant throws Sunday and outplayed Brady (who now has won as many NFC titles as Rodgers). But the Packers also went three-and-out on two consecutive fourth quarter possessions following Brady interceptions and with Green Bay trailing by just five.
And then Rodgers couldn't score with three chances from the 8 — throwing three consecutive incompletions, the last of which might have been better off as a dash toward the end zone. It was a very similar sequence to one earlier in the game where the Packers settled for a field goal. Adams was the intended receiver on five of the six Rodgers incompletions in those goal-to-go situations. What might Rodgers have done with one more dependable receiver?
And the bigger question: What might he have done with one more chance on fourth down?
That's what he and LaFleur will never know. Instead, they head into an offseason of bigger unknowns. Green Bay moved up to draft QB Jordan Love in the first round last year. Rodgers, 37, won't play forever — with the Packers and in general.
"[The Packers have] a lot of guys' futures that are uncertain — myself included," Rodgers said after the game. "That's what's sad about it, most, getting this far. Obviously, it's going to be an end at some point, whether we make it past this one or not, but just the uncertainty's tough and finality of it all."
Green Bay would be incredibly foolish to move on from Rodgers after the season he had. But even if he is back in 2021 and beyond, there are never guarantees of getting back to the point they were Sunday: In control of their own destiny several times in the fourth quarter with a chance to reach the Super Bowl.
In life and football, you make decisions and live with the consequences, good or bad. But some of them still leave you in an impossible situation: Living forward while chasing the past.
Late Sunday afternoon, from the 8 yard line, will leave Rodgers and LaFleur wondering "what-if" for as long as another Super Bowl remains elusive — which could be forever.