Thursday, February 2, 2012

Will One Of The Coaches Blow The Super Bowl, Too?

After the AFC Championship Game I can't take it any longer.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business that not only dominates the sporting/entertainment landscape in the US, but has also managed to weave itself into the very cultural fabric of American life. The lockout this past offseason damn near took on the air of a national crisis as the possibility of games being cancelled became real toward summer's end.

The League's 32 teams are run by head coaches who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. They are men who inevitably once played the sport and have now worked their way up the coaching ranks from assistant to coordinator to head coach. Qualifications for the position include leadership, talent evaluation, organizational skill and charisma. In today's 24/7 sports-crazed society NFL coaches are as famous as movie and rock stars.

The charge of an NFL coach, very simply, is to win games. In the course of playing those games the coach is expected to make a host of important, time-sensitive decisions that will further the organization's goals of wins, lead to championships and add revenue to the bottom line. This job description is not unlike a senior manager's role in any organization. The difference is an NFL coach makes his decisions on the most-public of stages, in front of millions watching on television ready to critique and second-guess his every move.

And every week we learn anew that most of these coaches aren't capable of consistently making good decisions.

Calling timeouts, managing the clock and effectively using challenges seems beyond the skill set of most head coaches. Today, even though virtually every head coach has ceded offensive and defensive play-calling to his coordinators and his major responsibility is to manage the game, few consistently do it well.

What other industry would allow senior managers to repeatedly fail when making decisions that could impact the bottom line by millions of dollars and do nothing about it? Welcome to today's NFL.

Coaches aren't trained through simulation, they don't have the proper support staff and they have too many time sensitive decisions to make at once. How much in Super Bowl revenue, merchandise sales, potential ticket price increases and general cache do you think the AFC Championship game loss cost the Baltimore Ravens? If they went on to win the Super Bowl this week, what would that be worth to the franchise? $50 million, $100 million, $200 million? It isn't going to happen and their head coach's decision-making is probably as singularly responsible as anything else.

Let's take a sequential look back at the critical decisions that were botched in the AFC title game between the Ravens and the Patriots. We'll eschew the play-calling mistakes which Bill Barnwell does an excellent job of reviewing, and focus primarily on game/clock management.

#1 Situation: New England ball 3-and-10 on Baltimore 17, 3:11 left 2nd Quarter. Score tied at 10.

Bill Belichick doesn't make many mistakes. It makes the ones he does make all the more surprising. He certainly isn't going to win any points for charisma or media relations, but his record speaks for itself. (Here is an insightful read discussing some of BB's tactical moves in the Pats-Denver divisional playoff game and here is a good take on what his mindset might be like when making decisions.) But the Hoodie missed one in a crucial moment at the end of the first half of the Championship Game.

With the scenario set above, Tom Brady threw a pass to the left sideline to Rob Gronkowski. Gronk caught the ball past the first down marker, inside the 10, but the officials ruled that he didn't get both feet down. The initial replay seemed to confirm that view, but a second replay showed the ball actually made contact with Gronk's hands while one foot was on the ground. He then clearly got his next foot down inbounds. At this point, how the refs might have ruled on a challenge is unclear. What the Pats should have done is not. Belichick had all three timeouts remaining, and that is the key.

Because the initial replay was inconclusive the Pats weren't sure whether to challenge. The play clock was ticking and Belichick quickly sent out the field goal team. They had to make a decision. Or did they? If there was any chance that play could have resulted in an overturned reception and first down, the Pats needed to challenge.

What should they have done?

Called timeout.

This would have allowed them to take a couple of minutes to get a better look at the replay and decided whether to challenge. Having two versus three timeouts remaining at that point wasn't nearly as important as figuring out whether they had a first down inside the ten which could mean four more points on the board. And calling timeout means a challenge is less likely to be wasted because it would have allowed a better assessment of the replay. In the first half, this was clearly the move to make.

Needless to say the Pats didn't call the timeout and took the three points. Opportunity missed.

#2 Situation: New England ball 1-and-10 on New England 11, 0:58 left 2nd Quarter. NE 13 Balt 10.


And from here on in it was the John Harbaugh show.

In this situation both teams had two timeouts left in the first half as New England had a first down deep in its own territory with under a minute to go. In a bit of a surprise the Patriots came out in the victory formation and took a knee on first down, knowing they would get the ball to start the second half.

I can make a pretty convincing argument that Harbaugh should have used a timeout right there with about 0:53 seconds left on the clock, thus forcing NE to make a play-calling decision. It was 2-and-11 on their own ten. I don't think there was any chance NE would throw the ball, so they probably kneel again. But really it didn't matter because Baltimore didn't have three timeouts, one play was going to get fully run off the clock. The Ravens decided to do nothing, Brady ran the play clock down to 0:01, snapped the ball and knelt again with about 0:14 left on the game clock.

And then the Ravens coaching staff went brain dead. There was 0:14 left in the first half. New England had the ball on its own 9 yard line facing a 3-and-11 and the Ravens had two timeouts left. How is it possible John Harbaugh didn't call a timeout?

The Patriots obviously weren't going to throw the ball and risk a sack or turnover in that situation. They either call a running play or more likely kneel a third time leaving at least 0:10 remaining on the clock after the Ravens use their final timeout. This forces the Patriots to punt from their own endzone. What can happen next? The opportunity for an all-out punt block, with a roughing the kicker penalty having zero consequence with the Patriots so deep in their own territory and so little time? A punt return setting up a field goal? A fair catch and hail mary? Just the week before we saw Eli Manning throw a hail mary into the end zone against the Packers with 0:06 left in the first half for a touchdown.

Harbaugh did nothing and the half ended. There is no rational explanation for the Ravens to go into the locker room with two timeouts in their pocket. None.

Of course if Baltimore does everything I suggested most likely nothing changes. But they left an opportunity on the table and who can know how much of a difference a possible 2, 3 or 7 points would have made.

Situation #3: Baltimore ball 3-and-1 on New England 14, 0:22 seconds left 4th Quarter. NE 23 Balt 20.


From here until the end of the game you can question a lot of the Ravens decisions. I'll abbreviate the recap because it's been discussed ad naseum, but again I will argue that their failure was due to the fact the coaching staff was not adequately stress-tested to deal with what was being thrown at them with the time constraints and pressure they faced.

Facing the scenario laid out above and having one timeout remaining I think Baltimore had to run the ball in hopes of getting a first down. If they succeed, they can use their final timeout and have about 0:16 seconds left to try to win the game (making the assumption manage the clock correctly, which this whole piece is arguing might not happen.) If they don't get the first down, they run the clock down to 0:03, call timeout, have plenty of time to set-up and kick the field goal to get to OT.

As you know, they threw the ball, didn't get the first down, had some confusion on the sideline, rushed in to kick the field goal, missed and went home with a timeout in their pocket.

----

Being an NFL head coach is obviously not an easy job. But while often great leaders of men, we see time and again that these coaches are not capable of making good in-game, time sensitive decisions.

Covering the Steelers I watched Mike Tomlin, widely viewed as one of the best head coaches in the game, coach 17 games this season--34 halves of football. I would submit that I watched him mismanage the last few minutes in at least 5-7 of those halves. If you consider the fact that no decisions needed to be made in about 15 of those halves, that means Tomlin mismanaged the end of half situation about 33% of the time he had to make decisions this season.

The Steelers won 12 games, but had to play a wildcard playoff game on the road and didn't get a first round bye. One more win and rather than being the 5th seed, they would have been the 1st seed in the AFC. This would have given them a bye week to get healty, the potential (and revenue) of playing two home playoff games and a better chance of reaching the Super Bowl. Maybe if Tomlin manages the clock perfectly every game everything ends up exactly the same. But maybe not. I'm sure all the teams that missed the playoffs by a game can look back and point to a situation that the coaching staff could have handle better in one of those losses.

The NFL is a big business worth billions of dollars. It's amazing how poorly this particular aspect of this business is managed. Two experienced, tremendously successful coaches will be leading their teams in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Let's see how their game management impacts the final outcome. Millions of dollars are on the line.

4 comments:

mongo said...

i agree with you 100%. its incredibly how people at the top of a competitive and lucrative profession can be so inept. it will eventually change, though i suppose revenue sharing and the fact that many of the owneres dont understand the sport themselves are the reasons why inadequate coaches still abound. by the way, gms are no geniuses either...ever see mike tannenbaum speak?

RJW said...

What's even more amazing is these guys all love to brag about how they spend 18-20 hours a day preparing for these games. Really? You spent 100+ hours this week thinking about this game and you never go over different scenarios that could play out? I think it's simply ego and arrogance; as in "It was ME who put in this game plan, so how "I" possibly be wrong? It's like what Mike Tyson said: Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face." These guys can rarely handle a punch :)

The Hammer said...

LOL, have always thought the same thing about Tannenbaum.

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