Thank You for Not Coaching, Week 2

Another week in the NFL has brought us another bevy of coaching decisions to analyze in this Tuesday’s edition of Thank You for Not Coaching. One of the goals in moving TYFNC to Tuesday was to make sure that some of the better decisions made by coaches during each weekend’s action got their proper due; while coaches make a healthy number of missteps each week, there are a fair amount of decisions that do go right and a number of processes that make sense. Each week from here on out, I’m going to start this column with the moves that stood out to me as the smartest ones of the week, work my way down through some of the more curious decisions made by teams, and then finish with the three worst calls. So, now, let’s get started with the smart stuff!

Thank You for Coaching: The Best Calls of Week 2

3. The Vikings are aggressive underdogs in Chicago.

As six-point underdogs on the road, the Vikings couldn’t afford to go blow-for-blow with the Bears. They’re a team built to hold a lead, with a great pass rush and a dominant running game, so the wild shootout that ensued Sunday didn’t fit Minnesota very well at all. In response, the Vikings both leveraged their greatest strength and incorporated a David strategy by going for it twice on fourth-and-1, both times in situations when many other teams would have punted. They succeeded both times, once on a Christian Ponder scramble on their own 43-yard line early in the third quarter, and then later on an Adrian Peterson carry on the Chicago 18-yard line.

The second one was the braver move: It came with 11 minutes left in a tie game, when most teams would have insisted upon taking a narrow lead and hoping the other team stopped scoring. The Vikings rightly realized that they probably weren’t going to be able to stop the Bears for two or three more remaining drives and likely needed a touchdown to win. In the end, the Vikings’ drive stalled and they kicked a field goal anyway, but going for it was the right call in that moment, regardless of the outcome.

2. The Packers go for it on fourth-and-3 to score the first touchdown against Washington.

Washington’s defense is cover-your-eyes awful. Aaron Rodgers is very, very good at football. It should really just be that simple. With the Packers up 3-0 after a long drive produced an early field goal, they faced a fourth-and-3 on the Washington 35-yard line. The conventional wisdom here is obviously to try a field goal; there have been only 23 other cases since 1999 of a team passing up a 50-plus-yard field goal on fourth-and-3 to go for it. This was the right situation to do it, and the Packers were even rewarded for their gusto, as Rodgers found Randall Cobb for a 35-yard touchdown pass that began a blowout.

1. Gary Kubiak challenges for — and gets — a safety.

Ideally, coaches are supposed to use their challenges in situations with high rewards; they want to dramatically improve their team’s chances of winning the game by throwing the red flag. As the reward grows higher, the level of certainty you need in throwing the flag decreases, which makes sense on the lower level; you wouldn’t throw a challenge flag on a meaningless five-yard gain if you thought you had a 60 percent chance of winning it, but you might if you knew it was a sure thing. The opposite is true for really high-reward challenges; if the reward is big enough, it can be worth the risk to make a challenge with imperfect information.

That’s the move Kubiak made in the fourth quarter of his team’s tight contest with the Titans. In a 14-10 game, the Titans were backed up to their 1-yard line and tried to gain some space with Chris Johnson, but he was stopped just outside the end zone, with the refs placing the ball inside the 1-yard line. A replay suggested that Johnson might have been down inside the end zone without the entire ball crossing out onto the field of play, and while spot challenges aren’t frequently rewarded with a win, Kubiak rightly challenged the verdict. The reward is too juicy: If Kubiak wins, he gets two points and takes a possession away from the Titans while creating a new possession for his team, likely with excellent field position. That’s exactly what happened: The Texans won the challenge, giving them two points and a fresh possession on their own 44-yard line, which itself is worth about 2.4 points, meaning Kubiak’s challenge was worth more than four points to his team. In a game that ended up going to overtime, you can imagine how much that challenge was worth.

The Ice Palace

Let’s talk about the other head coach in that game. Mike Munchak put us all through a lot of field goals for no real reason, and in doing so, he illuminated the difference between meaningful game management and the illusion of impact. Given six timeouts to work with in regulation, Munchak managed to use three of them on that closely held refuge of subpar coaches, icing the kicker.

Well, technically, he used one to “thaw” his own kicker. He took a timeout with four seconds left in the first half as Rob Bironas lined up for a 47-yard field goal, one that he would hook, but with several members of his team no longer blocking, since it was well after the whistle. His second kick was true. There’s no research on “thawing” or icing your own kicker, but we know from research conducted in Scorecasting that icing the opposing kicker at the end of a game has no impact whatsoever.

That led to a chaotic final five seconds of regulation. With the game tied at 24 and 22 seconds left, Texans kicker Randy Bullock lined up for a 51-yard field goal after having already missed two attempts from 50. Munchak let Bullock line up for the kick and then iced him just before the kick, which Bullock hit. When the teams returned, Bullock’s second attempt was blocked, but the Titans were offside, giving Bullock a new kick from 46 yards out. That allowed Munchak to use another timeout, which was used to ice a third kick attempt, which Bullock missed. Then, on his fourth attempt, Bullock got his kick off without being iced or blocked and hit the upright, pushing the game into overtime. Phew.

Did Munchak’s plot to ice the kicker work? Hardly. Because there’s no broader evidence that icing the kicker helps in these situations, it’s close to impossible to prove that correlation is causation, and that Munchak’s icing materially changed Bullock’s chances of making this kick. In other words, Bullock could very easily have made or missed those kicks in that same order without Munchak icing him, just as he did when he missed the first two kicks from the same distance without being iced earlier in the game. You can piece together an anecdotal argument given the circumstances — something like “the young kicker couldn’t handle the pressure of having to make the same kick multiple times” — but there’s no proof that was actually the cause. It’s retrofitting an explanation onto independent events. Pretend that the kick successes were flipped, and Bullock missed the first iced kick before hitting the second one. You would piece together another anecdotal argument that would make sense on its face — “the young kicker was nervous for the game-winning opportunity, but he calmed down once he got a practice kick in” — and would totally fit that one given situation (and its two outcomes), even though there was no evidence the “practice kick” really helped his odds of making it. This situation is no different.

What’s the harm in icing the kicker if it doesn’t actually change anything or have any meaningful impact? Well, for one, it’s a good way of telling whether your coach has any interest in developing smart processes. More importantly, it might very well encourage your coach to mismanage his timeouts to ensure he had one left for icing the kicker. If that sounds ridiculous, well, consider that the Texans ran the ball on third down here with 22 seconds left. After the play, Munchak could have used one of his three remaining timeouts to stop the clock with 18 seconds left, forcing the Texans to kick the ball while leaving as much time on the clock as possible. If the Texans missed the field goal, Munchak’s offense would have 18 seconds and two timeouts with the ball on its own 41-yard line, which would give the Titans plenty of time to throw the ball twice in an attempt to pick up about 25 yards and set up their own game-winning field goal attempt. Instead, Munchak let the Texans run the clock down to five seconds, preventing his team from having any shot at winning the game in regulation. That’s the harm.

Bizarre Challenges

• Let’s start this with Rex Ryan in the Thursday-night game. In the first quarter of a game that was clearly an attempt to eradicate America’s interest in professional football, the Jets challenged a third-and-1 completion to Stephen Hill that was ruled to be short of the sticks. The call was confirmed upon replay, costing them a challenge and their first timeout with 45 minutes of football still to go. Again, the Jets have to consider the reward therein. Having a new set of downs would have been nice, but it still would have only given the Jets a first down on their own 30-yard line, a full 70 yards away from scoring a touchdown. If the overturn was a sure thing upon replay, you could understand the decision. If it gave the Jets a first down deep inside Patriots territory, it would make some sense. But it was too far away from scoring and too close of a call to justify the challenge.

• Chip Kelly stretched his streak of somewhat-bizarre challenges to two, having challenged an obviously dropped pass at the beginning of the Washington game a week ago. (That play at least fit the first-down-deep-in-opposition-territory criteria from above.) Here, Kelly challenged a first-quarter sideline catch by Malcom Floyd that would have turned a nine-yard completion on second-and-12 into an incomplete pass. The two replays shown between the completion and the ensuing snap raised some doubts about the catch being valid without making it clear that Kelly would win the protest, but again, the context didn’t make much sense. The upside of the challenge was turning a third-and-3 from the Philadelphia 19 into a third-and-12 from the Philly 28-yard line. Given how bad the Philadelphia defense is, I wouldn’t trust them to stop Philip Rivers in either situation; you’d rather force the opposing team to need 12 yards, but is that difference worth throwing the flag on a call that was ruled a catch on the field without seeing any indisputable evidence suggesting otherwise? I have to think it wouldn’t be the case.

• The much-maligned Greg Schiano also got one of these off. His Buccaneers allowed Mark Ingram to rip off an eight-yard run in the second quarter, which is shameful enough in itself, but Schiano then challenged that Ingram had fumbled at the end of the carry. You know how there’s usually some corresponding evidence of a fumble? A pile starts? The crowd begins to scream? The announcers raise their voices and start speculating that the ball might have been out? Nah, none of that here. Instead, the play ended, the announcers moved on to an anecdote, the camera went to Sean Payton, players walked on and off the field, and then Schiano threw his challenge flag to the befuddlement of all around. The play-by-play guy literally said, “What would Greg Schiano be challenging here? He got the first down by six yards.” I personally think he just wanted to challenge Josh Freeman to a fight, but that’s not a valid usage of the red flag.

Replays showed a ball that was moving around after Ingram’s shoulder hit the ground, but with three Buccaneers surrounding him, there was no possible way that any camera would have been able to produce an indisputable angle suggesting a fumble. The broadcast found such little evidence supporting the fumble, in fact, that they went back to their pre-prepared anecdote and video package talking about Payton’s old knee injury as opposed to showing replays of the would-be fumble while the booth was reviewing the call. And then they showed Payton, staring at the video board with a look on his face that said one thing: “I sure am lucky to to be a coach in a division with Greg Schiano and Ron Rivera.”

Two-Minute Timeouts

Payton did slip up later on by not using his timeouts properly around the two-minute warning. With the Buccaneers driving down the field and the Saints down by one point, Tampa converted a third-and-2 on the New Orleans 38-yard line to pick up a new set of downs with 2:32 left. Payton let eight seconds slip off the clock before using his second timeout, which was a minor blunder. When the Bucs came back, they ran the ball with Doug Martin on a play that ended at 2:20, at which point the Saints … let the clock run to the two-minute warning?!? And to think I was a knight in your snarky service just one paragraph ago, Sean Payton!

The difference doesn’t amount to a ton, but it would have been enough for another play for the Saints, had they needed it. It’s the same mistake Mike Tomlin made during the Monday Night Football game, too. Take your final timeout before the two-minute warning: I promise it helps.

Twofer Tuesday

Let’s just keep going after Super Bowl–winning head coaches, because that never looks foolish. Tom Coughlin’s Giants didn’t have much of a prayer of launching a second-half comeback against the Broncos on Sunday afternoon, but Coughlin could have aided his team’s efforts by being aggressive with two-point conversions. When the Giants scored on a Da’Rel Scott touchdown catch with 4:10 left in the fourth quarter, it left the Giants trailing by a 38-22 margin. An extra point made the game a 38-23 contest, meaning the Giants would need two touchdowns and one two-point conversion to tie. It was the wrong call.

Why? Well, think about the possible outcomes. No matter what, the Giants need to go for two eventually. They can’t assume that the other team is going to score, since another score probably puts the game out of reach, anyway. If they go for two on this first touchdown drive and fail, the score is 38-22; they’re down 16 points, which means they can still go for two on each of the two subsequent drives and tie the game. If they kick the extra point here and go for two on the second drive and fail, it’s 38-29, which means they’ll need a fourth scoring possession to make up the nine-point deficit. The same is true if they kick the extra points on the first two drives and try on the third drive; failure there would leave the game at 38-36, forcing another drive.

By going for two on the first of the three drives, it allows them to pick up the needed two-point conversion while still keeping the team within two scoring drives regardless. It’s a no-brainer. And yes, it’s most likely an academic point with 4:10 left, but stranger things have happened. Furthermore, it’s pretty important to remember to implement this sort of stuff for a more meaningful context, like when this same game situation pops up with, say, 11 minutes left. That’s a move Coughlin — or any coach in this situation — needs to make next time.

The Bills, meanwhile, benefited from an aggressive two-point call. When the Bills scored a touchdown to bring themselves within 14-12 of the Panthers with four minutes left in the third quarter, they surprisingly called for a two-point conversion and nailed it on a throw to Robert Woods, tying the game up at 14. The Bills, with their excellent running game and a mobile quarterback, are a great candidate for being aggressive on two-point tries. When the Panthers proceeded to kick three field goals (to Buffalo’s one) over the final quarter, Buffalo’s touchdown drive to end the game became a game-winning drive as opposed to a game-tying one. The Bills didn’t know that when they went for two, of course, but kudos to them for aggressively employing their personnel without arbitrarily choosing a time when it’s acceptable to go for two. In a close game with scoring at a premium, it made a lot of sense for the Bills to make the choice they did.

The Three Worst Calls of Week 2

3. The Lions run two handoffs at the end of the first half.

Detroit has dealt with injuries to its running backs for close to a decade now, with players from Kevin Jones to Jahvid Best failing to reach their potential. The Lions already have an injury issue at running back, with Reggie Bush suffering through a number of ailments that might keep him out of Sunday’s showdown with a desperate 0-2 Washington team in Landover. It’s essential that the Lions keep their backs healthy.

So why on earth did Jim Schwartz hand the ball off twice to end the first half deep in their own territory against the Cardinals? First, they handed the ball to Bush with 53 seconds left on the Detroit 21-yard line, and he ran for no gain. Arizona expressed no interest in using its two remaining timeouts, so Detroit used one with 15 seconds left before handing the rock to Joique Bell, who lost a yard before the teams headed into the tunnel for halftime.

I wrote about this last week, and that was without even realizing the Buccaneers had handed the ball to Martin on a pre-halftime draw and actually had their star back fumble the football before falling on it. All these plays might do is accrue some fantasy football yardage; Bush isn’t scoring on an 80-yard draw play before halftime. It’s the worst sort of decision: It has no upside and all downside, with injuries and turnovers far more likely to occur than offensive touchdowns. If you’re going to give up, just kneel and go to halftime. If you want to try to mount a drive, throw the football.

2. Jason Garrett kicks a 53-yard field goal to bring the game within one point in Kansas City.

Facing a fourth-and-10 with a four-point deficit and 3:55 left, Garrett was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He chose neither. A punt from Kansas City’s 35-yard line would inspire ridicule and force the Cowboys to use their timeouts stopping the Chiefs before getting the ball back. Going for it would make sense, although the Cowboys had just been stopped on offense with three straight incompletions. Instead, given the three options, Garrett decided to pick the worst one: He attempted a 53-yard field goal with Dan Bailey. Advanced NFL Stats used its calculator to suggest the Cowboys decreased their win expectancy by a full 18 percent by going for the field goal. Pretty brutal. Bailey made the kick, because of course he did, but this was a terrible process by Garrett to pick the worst decision of the three.

(Advanced NFL Stats also did a great analysis of the similar decision made by Schiano to kick a field goal at the end of the Bucs-Saints game.)

1. Ron Rivera kicks on fourth-and-1 to go up six in Buffalo.

What could go wrong?

Filed Under: NFL, Sean Payton

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell