Bozo the Coach no more: Time has proven Barry Switzer right for fourth-down call

Bozo the Coach no more: Time has proven Barry Switzer right for fourth-down call

Some criticized Dan Campbell’s go-for-it fourth-down decisions. But no one called the Detroit Lions coach an idiot. That’s because football has changed, and now we know the truth.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Feb 4, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Feb 4, 2024, 6:00am CST

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

The Detroit Lions faced fourth-and-2 from the 49er 28-yard line with seven minutes left in the third quarter last Sunday. Detroit led the NFC Championship Game 24-10. Lions coach Dan Campbell kept his kicker on the sideline and ordered a fourth-down pass, which fell incomplete.

Then the Lions faced fourth-and-3 from the 49er 30-yard line, with 7½ minutes left in the game. San Francisco had taken a 27-24 lead. Campbell kept his kicker on the sideline and ordered a fourth-down pass, which again fell incomplete.

The 49ers won 34-31 and are Super Bowl-bound.

Some supported Campbell’s decisions; others criticized the strategies. But no one called Campbell an idiot. No one produced a headline of “Bozo the Coach.” No one called Campbell’s 1-2 misfires “Dumb and Dumber.”

Football has changed. And now we know the truth.

Three decades ago, Barry Switzer was on the cutting edge of analytics, even if he didn’t know it.

“Ahead of his time, without a doubt,” noted Switzer critic Randy Galloway said with a laugh Friday.

On December 10, 1995, Switzer’s Dallas Cowboys lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 20-17. The game was tied 17-17 as the clock ticked down to the two-minute warning. The Cowboys faced fourth-and-inches from their 29-yard line. Dallas was going into a stiff north wind.

Switzer kept his punter on the sideline. Offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese sent tailback Emmitt Smith up the middle via a handoff, and the Eagles stuffed him. But the Cowboys received a governor’s reprieve. Officials ruled the two-minute warning had preempted that fourth-down snap, so Switzer got a do-over.

Again, Smith was sent into the meat of the line of scrimmage, and again he was stuffed.

The national outcry was fierce. “Dumb and Dumber,” the 1994 comedy film, became the Switzer tag. The always-biting New York Post produced the “Bozo” headline.

Fourth downs were sacred in 1995. Coaches were to treat them with tender loving care. Fourth down was the time for kicks. Punts or field goals. Only ultimate desperation was warranted for a fourth-down offensive play. 

These days, of course, Campbell is not an outlier. National Football League coaches routinely keep their offenses on the field for fourth down — the NFL staged 799 fourth-down attempts in the 2023 season, then 39 more times in the playoffs. That’s 838 fourth-down tries, in 557 games. An average of 1.5 per game.

NFL fourth-down offensive plays have gone from somewhere around 10% on fourth downs at the turn of the century to 19.5% by 2022.

In today’s culture, Switzer would have been roasted if he had punted. But in 1995, getting stopped at your 29-yard line with two minutes left in a tie game led to ridicule. The Eagles won 20-17 on Gary Anderson’s field goal.

Among the fallout? Jimmy Johnson, Switzer’s predecessor as Cowboy coach and in some ways his arch-rival, wrote in a syndicated column that Switzer’s decision would permanently destroy his reputation as an NFL coach.

And maybe it did. Even though those Cowboys won the Super Bowl that very season, people still remember Dumb and Dumber; they haven’t forgotten Bozo the Coach.

But some came to Switzer’s defense. A week or so after the Cowboys-Eagles game, the Dallas Morning News published a series of letters to the editor over the perceived Switzer gaffe. Including a dispatch from Gordon Wood, then retired as the football coach at Brownwood, where he won 405 games, setting the Texas high school record. Wood in 1995 was a Lone Star State icon.

I would have punted,” Wood wrote. “If I would have had 30 minutes to think about it, I would have ran with it. Coach Switzer is a very smart coach and a deep thinker. In two minutes, he made the right choice, and his critics still have their minds closed.”

Dallas’ John Jett had punted three times into that December wind, kicks that went for 23, 36 and 38 yards. That’s a 32.3-yard average. Punt, and Philadelphia was going to be set up with tremendous field position.

“Circumstances dictated it to me,” Switzer said Friday, 28-plus years after that fateful day. “The time of the game and all that. We punted the ball the previous (possession), and the damn ball flew back at us.”

Analytics had not really come to football in 1995. Decisions were based on tradition and intuition and consensus. Don’t take points off the board. Don’t run your quarterback. Always run physical practices.

Times have changed. Analytics immediately tell us the Lions’ chances of winning if they make the first down or are turned back, and the chances of winning if they make or miss the field goal. 

And we have learned that for a century, coaches punted far too often. That’s one of the rare times fans knew more than coaches, all those years when they would chant “Go! Go! Go!” on fourth down.

It’s hard to imagine a modern NFL coach punting in Switzer’s situation that windy day in Philadelphia. 

“And Campbell kind of leads the pack,” said Galloway, now 10 years retired from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and ESPN-Dallas radio. He was a 50-year mainstay in the Metroplex, and he was gadfly to many a DFW coach and player. Switzer foremost among them.

Galloway referenced current Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, saying, “this guy here, McCarthy’ll do it. From their 35. Used to never see that. And I don’t know if it’s the analytic crap or what, but you’re right, it’s become a different game for sure.”

Galloway was cheering for the Lions last Sunday. He got to know Campbell when the Cowboys signed him as a tight end 20 years ago. 

“I have been a huge Detroit fan, but even I was screaming, ‘kick it!,’” Galloway said.

That’s what Galloway screamed in his Dallas Morning News column in 1995. He wrote that Switzer had made a “national fool of himself” and suggested that Jerry Jones ought to fire Switzer.

“Those were the days,” Galloway said Friday with the same brash personality that made him a DFW superstar.

But Galloway admitted that maybe Switzer was just ahead of his time. Which is funny, because despite his wild wishbone offense and a swashbuckling personality, Switzer always was a conservative coach. At OU, he’d routinely choose to kick off, even in the days before teams could defer. Switzer was fine with a third-and-long running play, knowing a punt was not disastrous.

Heck, Switzer isn’t even on the Dan Campbell train.

“They should probably take the points,” Switzer said. “It’s hard to turn down points in that league. If they kick the field goals, they win the damn game, right?”

For his role in fourth-down history, Bozo the Coach is not defiant. He points out it was fourth-and-inches. Says he might have punted on fourth-and-a-real-one.

Either way, “different time, different era,” Switzer says today. “It was just a gamble, like anything else. You win some, you lose some.”

Switzer’s reasoning — so admired by Gordon Wood — was this:

*The Cowboys had tailback Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. “The best north/south runner,” Switzer said. “He made 17,000 yards (18,355, counting two years with the Cardinals), and every damn one of them inside the tackles.”

* Dallas had a magnificent offensive line, with guards Larry Allen and Nate Newton, center Derek Kennard, and tackles Erik Williams and Mark Tuinei.

* With the Philly wind, the Eagles were primed to turn a short punt into victory via even a long field goal.

Over the years, Switzer has said he wishes he had ordered a Troy Aikman quarterback sneak.

But you can’t second guess yourself. Bozo the Coach was ahead of his time. Turns out he was right, even if it took all these years for the rest of us to come around.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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