To football fans of a certain generation, the sound of John Madden’s voice brings on a wave of nostalgia and a rush of sensory recall. The sound of John Madden’s voice means it’s 4:46 p.m. on a late-autumn Sunday. Outside, it’s chilly, and the light is fading. Inside, a big pot of spaghetti sauce is burbling on the stove — maybe in your house, it was red gravy; in mine, it was sauce — or a roast is browning in the oven. You’re in middle school, or high school, or home from college for the weekend. You’re sitting on the couch with your dad, your brothers, your uncles, your friends. The Eagles are playing the Giants at the Meadowlands or the Cowboys at Veterans Stadium. The game is on CBS or Fox. Pat Summerall is letting the action speak for itself, and John Madden is teaching you football and making it so much damn fun.

When Madden died last Tuesday, it was natural to think back to that era and marvel at the reach he had and the respect he commanded for his insights and opinions on football. Beyond the WHAPs and the BOOMs and the Gatorade buckets and the turducken, Madden was giving fans their first accessible, inside view of how NFL coaches and players thought, why and how they did what they did.

There was no RedZone, no stream of highlights on social media, no social media. No All-22 tape was available to the masses, and few experts (real or otherwise) delivered game-film breakdowns at the click of a remote control, let alone a mouse. What Madden said was gospel, and if he said it about your team, it might become part of your team’s mythology — even if what he said might have been wrong.

‘You have to punt’

With respect to the Eagles, perhaps the most memorable moment of Maddenism came on Dec. 10, 1995. You know the story. Ray Rhodes’ team beat the Cowboys that day at the Vet, 20-17, after Barry Switzer went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 29-yard line late in a tie game.

After the Eagles stuffed Emmitt Smith for a loss, Switzer got a reprieve when the officials ruled that the two-minute warning had nullified the play. But then he had the Cowboys not only go for it again, but run the same play. The Eagles swarmed Smith once more. Gary Anderson kicked the winning field goal. Instant ignominy. To this day, it’s rare to find anyone who suggests Switzer didn’t screw up.

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On the telecast, Madden’s incredulity at the decision added a spice of schadenfreude for Eagles fans. Before Dallas’ first fourth-down attempt, Madden said, “I don’t believe in this. I think a tie score in this situation, I think they cannot go for it here. … When you’re in that area of the field, you have to punt the ball.” After Dallas’ second attempt, as Fox went to commercial, he was even harsher.

Summerall: “Same play, same result.”

Madden: “They deserve to lose.”

But did they? Though Madden was often a forward thinker — consider his mid-1980s take on playing through a concussion — he was a man of his time when it came to fourth-and-short situations. For example, early in the fourth quarter of that Eagles-Cowboys game, with Dallas up 17-14, Troy Aikman completed a short pass to Daryl Johnston on third-and-3 from the Eagles’ 8-yard line. As the officials lined up the chains for a measurement, Summerall and Madden batted around the question of whether the Cowboys should go for it.

Summerall: “Well, I think they’ve got to go for the first if it’s [short], but nobody asked me. I’ll ask you: What would you do?”

Madden: “I’d kick the field goal. I wouldn’t want to kick the field goal. As a coach now, you’re hoping like heck it’s a first down. The percentage says you have to kick the field goal if it’s not.”

As it turned out, the question became moot. The measurement revealed that Johnston had gotten the first down, and the Eagles recovered a Smith fumble on the next play. But Madden’s assertion, that “the percentage says you have to kick the field goal,” wasn’t quite right.

In an influential piece for the New York Times in 2014, writer and analyst Ben Baldwin, drawing on 10 years worth of statistical research, argued that “teams need to go for it much more often than they do.” More to the point, Baldwin wrote: “As a rule of thumb: On fourth-and-1, go for it any place on the field where that is possible, starting at your 9-yard line.” In other words, 20 yards short of where the Cowboys were with two minutes left.

A broadcaster’s influence

Over the 26 years since that game, the conventional wisdom around the value of being bold on fourth down has changed. For a variety of reasons — rules that encourage more passing and more points, the rise of analytics, etc. — teams go for it much more frequently than they once did. The Eagles won a Super Bowl following that trend, a trend that Madden, in fairness and like a lot of people at the time, probably couldn’t see coming.

That said, it’s interesting to view Switzer’s decision through the prism of hindsight. One could make a reasonable case for either side of the argument. On the one hand, the Eagles didn’t have a high-powered offense. Their quarterback was Rodney Peete, and their best player was a running back, Ricky Watters. Why risk handing them the ball so deep in your own territory? Punt the ball and make them drive into the field-goal range. On the other hand, the Cowboys had Aikman, Smith, Johnston, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek, and a great offensive line. It was understandable — and would be much more acceptable today — for Switzer to say to himself, If we can’t get one yard with these guys, we deserve to lose.

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Either way, the call wasn’t nearly so cut-and-dried as Madden made it out to be. But part of what has made the decision so infamous and the game so memorable is Madden himself. He determined that Switzer had made a terrible mistake, and his reaction has helped to frame the perspective on and discussion of that moment ever since. That was his influence as an analyst. That was his power as a broadcaster.

Right or wrong, that was John Madden at his best.