Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw, and Fourth-Down Decision Making

A gunslinger of a QB during his playing days, Jim Harbaugh carried that brash confidence to the coaching ranks. No one would accuse the 49ers head coach of being conservative, least of all Pete Carroll, and it was one of the many things that made him a joy to watch during his four years on the sideline at Stanford. When Harbaugh elected to go for it on fourth down, it was with conviction. He had the utmost confidence in his players to convert, and they did more often than not.

Here's a look at how Stanford has fared on fourth down in the past five years:

2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
Attempts 16 17 15 18 18
Conversions 11 10 9 8 6
Conversion % .69 .59 .60 .44 .33
Nat'l Rank (Attempts) T-68 T-53 T-79 T-68 T-50
Nat'l Rank (Conversion %) 13 T-28 T-28 T-81 T-96

 

Stanford ranked near the middle among FBS teams in fourth-down attempts during Harbaugh's four years at the helm, so he was far from a reckless fool with an aversion to punting. Still, some of his questionable decisions that didn't pan out are even more memorable than those that did. We may never understand why he called two pass plays, the second one intercepted by Mike Mohamed, instead of giving the ball to Toby Gerhart on first and second down at the end of the 2009 Big Game.

One of the wilder games of the Harbaugh Era took place earlier that season, a 43-38 loss to Arizona. The Cardinal and Wildcats combined for more than 1,000 yards of total offense and more passing touchdowns (6) than punts (4). Arizona spoiled Andrew Luck's coming out party by outscoring Stanford 14-0 in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of a couple of Cardinal miscues and a gamble that didn't pay off in the red zone. 

Leading 38-36 and facing a 3rd-and-5 from the Arizona 11-yard line, Stanford called a timeout with 6:06 remaining in the game. Gerhart rushed for three yards on the ensuing play, setting up fourth and short from inside the Arizona 10. Rather than calling upon Nate Whitaker to redeem himself after missing a 36-yard attempt earlier in the quarter, Harbaugh decided to go for the jugular. The decision wasn't out of character for Harbaugh, but it was a little surprising given that Gerhart had limped off the field with an ankle injury after his last run. 

With Gerhart unavailable, Luck threw a quick hitch to a wide open Chris Owusu. The play would've gone for a first down, but Owusu dropped the ball. It was a brilliant call, but in hindsight, it may not have been the best one.

"I wanted to punch it in there and make it a two-score game," Harbaugh said afterward.

Arizona scored a touchdown to take a 5-point lead. Needing a touchdown to win, Luck led Stanford back into the red zone in the final minute, but his fourth down pass for Owusu fell incomplete. Looking back, it's easy to second guess Harbaugh's decision to go for the first down, but there was no guarantee that Whitaker would have made two field goals to win the game. It's more interesting to wonder what David Shaw would have done in the same situation.

Stanford outscored its opponents by nearly 23 points per game last season, so it didn't face many pivotal fourth-down decisions. (The Cardinal didn't attempt a single fourth-down conversion in its 37-35 win against USC.) More than likely, Stanford will play a game this season that turns on a fourth-down decision to go for it, punt, or attempt a field goal. We came to know what to expect from Harbaugh in those situations--in some cases, the unexpected--but Shaw is his own man. If the new head coach is facing crucial fourth-down decisions before Stanford's trip to Tucson on September 17, the Cardinal has bigger problems. 

What did you think of Harbaugh's fourth-down decision making? Would you like to see Shaw be more conservative, less conservative, or about the same?

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