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No sidestepping kicking game


This one's a second-guessers delight; guaranteed to drive the week's talk shows and fill e-mail baskets. Where do you wanna start? With the coaches or the officials?

All right, let's start with Tom Coughlin and Brian Billick, both of whom were faced with some of the stickiest decisions of their gameday careers. The only difference between Coughlin and Billick is that Billick won, which will keep the Baltimore "wolves" from howling as loudly this week as their Jacksonville brethren.

But let's not dismiss Billick. Had his Ravens lost to the Jaguars Sunday, he would've been faced with this juicy and somewhat unanswerable question:

• Why did he throw the ball on third down outside the two-minute warning? The Jaguars were out of time outs. Another run would've sent the game clock to the two-minute warning. Instead, Billick's decision to throw on third down allowed the Jaguars the equivalent of another time out.

But Billick will probably avoid intense scrutiny from fans and media for that third-down gaffe. Winning makes allowance for error.

Coughlin doesn't have that luxury. This one will be especially difficult to digest and he will be harshly second-guessed. The law of averages did not apply on this day. Nothing seemed to even out. The coach couldn't catch a break, and that fact was made perfectly clear to him by reporters in the coach's postgame press conference.

The questions came with rapid succession. Had he lost confidence in his kicker? Why did he challenge a ruling that amounted to nothing more than a six-yard loss but resulted in a lost timeout? Was attempting an onside kick the wise choice?

"I'm not going to kick a 50-yard field goal. For him, that's a long field goal," Coughlin said of Hayden Epstein, Coughlin's beleaguered rookie kicker. "I feel we have a range. I didn't expect to (punt) it into the end zone, either."

Coughlin's reluctance to use Epstein was the major issue. Change was immediately expected.

Maybe it was inevitable that it would come to this. Epstein was a .500 kicker in the preseason, but the usually quick-to-fix Coughlin expressed undying confidence in his seventh-round pick. The coach loved his young kicker's leg strength; those touchbacks on kickoffs. In Baltimore, those "touchbacks" fell at the 10-yard line.

This past Sunday, the situation cost the Jaguars a game. Though Coughlin denied a lack of confidence in Epstein caused decisions to "go for it" on fourth down and decline field goal attempts of 29, 48 and 42 yards, most figured Coughlin was just taking it easy on Epstein in the postgame. Why make it any tougher on the kid than it already was?

But there was no denying the effects of an iffy kicking game. In a 17-10 defeat, one short field goal attempt missed and three other opportunities not exercised certainly qualify as the difference in the game.

Most would agree that had Coughlin's kicker been Lou Groza or Jan Stenerud or even Mike Hollis, the call would've been kick, not go. And maybe the Jaguars would've won and Coughlin wouldn't have to endure all the second-guessing.

"A couple of times I just went (for the first down) because it was a gut feeling we could make it," Coughlin said of a fourth-and-two call at the Ravens 12-yard line in the second quarter and a fourth-and-seven decision at the Ravens 24 early in the fourth quarter.

"Go for it, yeah," wide receiver Jimmy Smith said in supporting his coach. "What do we have to lose? I agree with his calls to go for it. It's a big momentum booster to go for it and get it. I'm glad he has the confidence in us to go for it."

Well, it worked in Kansas City in week two. Then, it was also thought lack of confidence in Epstein caused Coughlin not to order a field goal attempt of moderate length late in the first half. Mark Brunell and Smith turned the decision into genius by making the fourth-down play go for a touchdown. But if you play that game long enough you will lose because the fourth-down odds are not in your favor.

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