CINCINNATI -- The question perhaps shouldn’t be about Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cincinnati Bengals’ 30-yard line late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium.
Rather, it might be about the play he selected.
McCarthy’s decision was an aggressive one. Pick up the first down, and the Packers might have been able to melt away the final four minutes of the clock and escape with a 30-27 victory.
But calling running back Johnathan Franklin's number was a risk that blew up on McCarthy. Without trusted fullback John Kuhn (inactive with a hamstring injury) to block, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Franklin did not have a lead blocker to follow. And when he tried to leap for the first down, Franklin fumbled, setting off a wild play that ultimately decided the game.
Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson forced Franklin’s fumble, which was recovered by safety Reggie Nelson. Packers receiver Randall Cobb nearly prevented a disaster when he knocked the ball away from Nelson, but Bengals cornerback Terence Newman picked it up and ran 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 3:47 to play.
“Obviously, I thought that we could convert it; that’s why we called the play,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t get it done. That’s the profession of play-calling. When it works, it’s excellent execution by your players and when it doesn’t, it’s the play-caller.”
McCarthy said his first thought was to attempt a field goal. But with time to think about it after the Bengals successfully challenged the spot on the previous play in which Cobb was initially ruled to have gotten a first down on a third-and-12 reception, McCarthy went for the kill shot.
“Probably over-thought it because my initial thought was to kick the field goal,” McCarthy said. “I’m paid to make those decisions. When they go wrong, I’m responsible.”
The problem was Franklin, being a small back, couldn’t power his way through the line. When a player leaves his feet, the ball often becomes more exposed. Perhaps an outside run or a toss play – or even a sneak by quarterback Aaron Rodgers – might have worked.
Franklin’s inexperience also may have played a role in his fumble. The rookie had not played a snap on offense the first two weeks but was forced into duty because James Starks, who started in place of the inactive Eddie Lacy (concussion), was lost to a knee injury late in the second quarter.
Until his fumble, Franklin was working on an heroic debut. He rushed for 103 yards on 13 carries -- all in the second half -- and scored his first NFL touchdown on a 2-yard run in the third quarter.
“I’ve just got to keep it high and tight,” Franklin said. “It’s no excuse for what I was doing or how I was doing it. It’s all about technique. It’s a big play, a big down, and I’ve got to make a play for my team regardless of whether it’s my first game or not. If they call on me, I’ve got to do my job.”
Combined with Starks’ 132-yard rushing performance in Week 2 against the Washington Redskins, Franklin gave the Packers back-to-back 100-yard games by running backs since Weeks 16-17 of the 2007 season with Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson.