A Chronic Case of Leaguewide Cowardice

 

Coaching missteps are nothing new in the NFL, but over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a glaring number of errors in crucial moments. These win probability mistakes aren’t difficult; they’re actually quite elementary. I have never snapped a football or coached a down, but to me, the missteps belong are very obvious. And that’s not me tooting my own horn, I’m guessing most of you felt the same way if you were watching the games. Really, anyone with a basic grasp of probabilities and win outcomes should see the right moves. Or just people with brains. Let’s get to the examples.

 

Tennessee at Jacksonville – 11/19

The Situation: Jacksonville, leading by 3, had just intercepted the Titans in their own zone with roughly three minutes to go. On a 3rd and 1 running play, they come up inches short, and Tennessee burns their final timeout with 2:20 to play.

The Decision: Jaguars coach Gus Bradley elected to attempt the 36 yard field goal instead of go for it on 4th and six inches. A successful fourth down conversion would have drained the clock to the 2 minute warning, at which point the Jags could kneel out the clock.

The Result: Jaguars kicker Jason Myers made the field goal, pushing the lead to an all-important six points. With two minutes and no timeouts, the sad Titans offense managed to get the ball to around the Jaguars 25 yard line before running out of time. Jags win, 19-13.

 

Pittsburgh at Seattle – 11/29

The Situation: Trailing by 5, Pittsburgh began a drive at their own 40 yard-line with half a quarter to play. Thirteen plays later, the Steelers came up three yards short of the goal line and the lead on 3rd down.

The Decision: Coach Tomlin, the guy who has been the most aggressive in the entire league about going for two this season with the new extra point rules, elected to kick the field goal. Down 5. With 3 minutes left. In Seattle. Did he know Big Ben was concussed, and wouldn’t be returning to the field for the next Pittsburgh drive? I can’t imagine he did, but that doesn’t really matter either way. A very strange decision, knowing his history.

The Result: After stopping the Seahawks on first and second down, Seattle connected on 3rd and 10 for an 80 yard touchdown, taking a 9 point lead and sealing the win.

 

New England at Denver – 11/29

The Situation: After Chris Harper’s 4th quarter muffed punt gave the Broncos new life, Denver scored and got the ball back again, down 7 midway through the final quarter. They look set to tie the game until an incompletion on 3rd and goal from the 3 with 6 minutes remaining.

The Decision: Gary Kubiak opted against going for the game tying score, and instead sent out Brandon McManus to cut the lead to 4. He drilled the kick, and the Broncos suddenly found themselves only needing a – wait, still needing a touchdown in the games’ final minutes.

The Result: After trading punts for a few possessions, Denver got the ball back with two minutes remaining and scored, winning the game in overtime. Without a handful of fortuitous referee rulings, however, the home team may never have been able to get that last touchdown.

 

Baltimore at Cleveland – 11/29

The Situation: I swear I didn’t watch this whole game. After finishing the previous nights’ tele episodes, I flipped on the final few minutes. As is tradition, Matt Schaub threw what appeared to be a backbreaking INT at midfield in a 27-27 game and one minute remaining.

The Decision: With 55 seconds to play, two timeouts, and the ball at the Baltimore 46 yard line, the Browns seemed set up to get the ball into manageable field goal range. After a six yard completion to Brian Hartline, backup QB Austin Davis wasted twenty five seconds between Hartline being tackled and hiking the ball on second down. He gained seven more yards, at which point the Browns used their second timeout (with 9 seconds remaining). For those counting at home, that means the Browns got two plays off in 46 seconds, even though they had the ability to stop the clock twice. With one TO left, and the ball at the 33 yard line, Cleveland elected to run the ball up the middle instead of passing for a few more yards. No gain. After the timeout, out came kicker Travis Coons to win the game.

The Result: The 50-yard attempt (because why would you want to get your first year kicker any closer than the 33 yard line for the game winning attempt?) was blocked, and Baltimore scooped the ball and returned it for the game winning touchdown.

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The Kubiak and Tomlin instances aren’t even the most egregious such examples this month. In Week 9, Falcons coach Dan Quinn kicked a field goal with 2:30 remaining, down 4, from the 1 yard line! I could go on and on here – the above were only pulled from the last two weeks, and three of the four of them were from primetime, stand alone games – who knows what I’ve missed while RedZoning around a standard Sunday.

Like I said at the top, these errors are so basic, its kind of alarming. Gus Bradley opted against trusting his offense to get six inches in order to seal the game. Even if they had been denied, the Titans would have had to get into field goal range simply to send the game into overtime.

With Tomlin and Kubiak, it goes without saying, that lead-shortening field goals become less and less important as the clock winds down. Kubiak gets a bit more leniency, as six minutes remained, but neither team was having much success moving the ball in the snow; giving up that opportunity from the three yard line was insane. Additionally, one must quickly factor that, in the case of fourth down failure, Brady and Co would have been pinned at the 3 versus the 20 yard line that resulted from the ensuing kick off. Any time coaches decisions are met with snark such as “he must have money the game, plus the points,” you know the wrong decision was made.

Finally, the Cleveland failure was a different type; a clock management blunder of epic proportions. Producing only three plays, one being a spineless run for no gain, from that situation (55 seconds left, 2 timeouts, in plus territory and a field goal wins you the game) is downright laughable.

So what is the problem here? That coaches don’t study probability? I don’t think that’s it. It may have something to do with it, but I don’t believe you can make it to the NFL without the understanding of basic principles that millions of armchair coordinators can grasp. I don’t want to believe that. Otherwise, I should have a gig on an NFL sideline.

No, I think it’s the deep-rooted fear of sticking out, something that stretches into many workplaces around the world, not just the sideline. The fear of doing something so risky that anyone might call you careless, and start the public on a angry mob-course for your resignation. Why trust your offense to get you six inches, when you can try a field goal and then pray for dear life that your defense can hold your six point lead? Why go for it on fourth and goal when you can kick the field goal, get the points, and maybe get a chance to kick another one? Why manage the clock, call a few aggressive plays to get your kicker into a 35 or 40 yard field goal attempt, when you could just not do that?

With risk of sounding cliché, I think it could be summed up in one phrase. When in doubt, coaches should really ask themselves “What Would Bill Belichick Do?” Look to that guy, the one who coaches circles around everyone else every week, that isn’t afraid to take the logic less traveled if he believes it’s the straighter path to victory. Would he kick a field goal from the 3 with 3 to play, chasing 5? Not a chance.

Now who wants to make some WWBBD wristbands with me?