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49ers-Eagles recap: Jim Harbaugh makes curious decisions

The San Francisco 49ers pulled out a 26-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4, but they did it in spite of some questionable decisions by head coach Jim Harbaugh. Here are a few of them.

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

The majority of the criticism directed at Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman during their time running San Francisco’s offense has mostly been unwarranted and misplaced. Harbaugh has balanced being aggressive in key situations with going conservative when the game situation and play of his team has dictated it. Relative to other coaches around the league, Harbaugh has done a good job of using his challenges in high-leverage situations that can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game. But against the Eagles, Harbaugh made several decisions that were questionable at best.

Challenging a spot on 3rd-and–1 less than a minute into the game. It didn’t take long for Harbaugh’s first head-scratching decision to pop up. On the game’s third play from scrimmage, Foles kept the ball on a zone read play. Though he initially appeared to be just short of the first down, a generous spot resulted in a narrow conversion. Harbaugh would challenge the ruling and predictably the call would stand. Less than a minute into the game and Harbaugh had lost his first timeout. More importantly, he limited himself to just one more challenge with 55 minutes of challengeable game time left.

Challenging a spot is rarely a good idea, especially in a short-yardage situation such as the play in question. There are simply too many bodies around to ever get a camera angle conclusive enough to overturn the original call. But this challenge was especially egregious because there was so little reward to be gained. Did Harbaugh really think that a third down conversion on the game’s opening possession would be more valuable than potentially limiting himself to only a single challenge for the rest of the game? It’s incredibly unlikely that would turn out to be the case.

Not going for the two-point conversion to tie the game at 21. Down 21–13 with 8:12 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, Stevie Johnson’s fantastic touchdown grab in the front corner of the end zone cut the 49ers’ deficit to two. This left Harbaugh with what should’ve been a no-brainer decision: go for two to tie the game at 21. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that Harbaugh made the correct decision in kicking the extra point because of San Francisco’s eventual victory. But there was obviously no way for Harbaugh to know the game would play out the way it did and that’s not how the decision should be evaluated either.

Using the two-point conversion chart as a starting point, Harbaugh should’ve opted to go for two if he thought the 49ers chances of converting exceeded 31 percent. San Francisco has attempted just a single two-point conversion in the regular season under Harbaugh, which doesn’t do much to give us an idea of the 49ers’ expected success rate. Using the 49ers’ success rate in general goal-line situations as a proxy, we can get a better idea.

Since the beginning of 2013, San Francisco has run 32 plays from the opponent’s 3-yard line or closer; they’ve gotten into the end zone on 56.3 percent of those plays. Go back to the beginning of Harbaugh’s tenure and the conversion rate is 53.2 percent on 77 plays. Purely by the numbers, going for two was the correct call.

Even when you consider the game situation, it still makes sense to go for two. A failure to convert would not have materially changed the game. A Phil Dawson field goal still gives San Francisco the lead. Had the rest of the game ultimately played out exactly how it did, Philadelphia would have still needed a touchdown late. But it’s in the scenarios in which the game plays out differently that the two-point conversion becomes more important.

Without playing through every single scenario, the most worrisome is if the Eagles are able to get in the end zone and extend the lead back to eight. By having kicked the extra point earlier, the 49ers are simply postponing the two-point attempt to a point later in the game in which it will be more difficult for them to overcome a failure. Failing the conversion after Johnson’s score leaves the 49ers with roughly 23 minutes of game time and likely three more possessions to get an additional score to take the lead. Failing the conversion later likely forces San Francisco to have to get a stop and execute a drive in the final few minutes of the game to pull ahead. Which sounds like the more appealing option?

Challenging Maclin’s catch with three minutes remaining. In a vacuum, this is a very good challenge. It’s a high-reward situation with only one minute of challengeable game time remaining. A successful challenge forces Philadelphia into a 4th-and–14 with a stop there giving you an opportunity to end the game without the Eagles possessing the ball again. In most situations, even if you’re not sure it will get overturned, it’s worth having the referees take a look.

The problem was that, after Colin Kaepernick burned two timeouts earlier in the half to avoid delay of game penalties (one of which was completely inexplicable), Harbaugh had just one timeout remaining. Say Bethea isn’t there to make the aforementioned stop on McCoy at the goal line. Suddenly your offense is looking at two-minute drive without a timeout. You can argue whether that timeout is more valuable than the potential reward of overturning Maclin’s catch, but given there were no replays that showed any evidence of an incompletion, I’d have preferred to have the timeout.