With 43 seconds remaining in Sunday's Week 3 thriller between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, fullback Kyle Juszczyk powered his way into the end zone to give the 49ers an opportunity to take the lead on what was the biggest touchdown of the game.
Robbie Gould's extra point was good, giving San Francisco a 28-27 lead. The only problem? Future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers had one last shot to get his team within field goal range with 37 seconds remaining.
After taking the lead, 49ers' kickoff specialist Mitch Wishnowsky gave the ball back to Green Bay on a booming kick out of the end zone, resulting in a touchback. If the kickoff was shorter and in-bounds, it likely would have resulted in a few more seconds being taken off the clock. A few seconds that could have been the difference in the game if Rodgers was unable to march down the field in time.
49ers Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower explained why the team decided to kick the ball out of bounds, instead of potentially taking extra time off the clock with a shorter kick in-bounds.
"At the end of the game, we have a lot of respect for [Green Bay Packers RB Kylin] Hill," Hightower told 49ers media Wednesday. "He had a 41-yard, big return, explosive return the week before where he got those guys to like the 50-yard line or something like that, or somewhere it was half a field [Green Bay Packers QB] Aaron [Rodgers] had to work with and they went down there and scored. So thought process on that is basically we’ve got a lot of respect for the guy and make them go longer than they have to there.”
Throughout the week, special teams players practice this exact scenario. Knowing that Packers return man Kylin Hill was back returning kicks, the 49ers didn't want to risk him breaking off a big return.
“Yeah, that's a discussion we have during the week," Hightower said. "So we have it way before we get to that actual play and you try to do as many of those scenarios and situations that you can when you come down to it. And at the end of the day, that kid has broken so many tackles and done such a good job. In our personal opinion, we didn't want to give him an opportunity to give our defense a short field there.”
In hindsight, a few extra seconds off the clock would have made Rodgers' job a lot harder on what ended up being the game-winning drive. The 49ers' decision not to kick short makes sense given the risk involved with allowing Hill a chance to break off a big play. They elected to give the Packers less-than-optimal field position and chose to trust their defense.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Aaron Rodgers exists.