Thank You for Not Coaching, Week 3

The Thank You for Not Coaching docket was pretty much all booked up by the time the 1 p.m. games were over on Sunday. Bouncers weren’t letting any silly timeouts or fourth-down blunders into the column unless they had showed up for the early session. Plays that would normally be locks couldn’t find a table unless they slipped somebody a 20. Pete Carroll calling for a spot challenge against the Jaguars? Nope. Mike McCoy’s pair of fourth-and-1 punts inside Titans territory? Not this week. Rex Ryan’s pair of spot challenges on consecutive plays? Believe it or not, we’re all full up. It’s a full #TYFNC slate for Week 3.

Let’s start, though, with some of the better decisions from last week’s action before working our way down to the three worst calls.

THE THREE NIFTIEST DECISIONS FROM WEEK 3

3. The Packers go for it on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter.

How can a play that quite possibly cost Green Bay the game be a good choice? Well, because you have to evaluate the decision based upon the process that went into the call without evaluating it based upon its one outcome. And, in this case, the Packers were right to attempt a fourth-and-1 conversion: They were up 30-27 with 4:01 left and had the ball on Cincinnati’s 30-yard line. They had been very effective running the ball in the second half with Johnathan Franklin, in for an injured James Starks, and had a chance to possibly seal the game by not handing the football back over to the Bengals.

The other options weren’t particularly appealing. A 47-yard field goal is probably right near the edge of where you start feeling squeamish about Mason Crosby’s range, and even if Crosby hit the field goal, you would still be vulnerable to a touchdown. A punt might literally have seen Aaron Rodgers strangle Mike McCarthy on the sideline. At some point, you have to trust that your notably great offense can pick up a yard. Of course, that’s not what happened, to a comical degree: Franklin got stacked up and fumbled, and the Bengals recovered, fumbled, and then recovered the fumble again before taking it to the house for the game-winning score. It’s safe to say that the odds of that happening are remarkably slim. Given the possibilities and his team’s strengths, McCarthy was right to go for it. As for the rest of that game? I’ll get to that later.

2. Marc Trestman challenges that an Earl Bennett would-be touchdown catch was made in bounds.

This one is simple. Scoring plays are automatically reviewed, but near-scoring plays outside of the final two minutes in each half are not. That makes your challenges less valuable than they once were, but it’s still incredibly important to try to use them on high-reward plays like would-be scoring opportunities. You also want to try to use them in situations when you’re unlikely to get the same opportunity without using the challenge, which is why a challenge on a run that comes up six inches short of the goal line on a play that will give your team first-and-goal anyway isn’t very useful.

In any case, Trestman’s challenge of the near-miss Bennett touchdown was made to order. It was a third-and-5 pass from the 17-yard line deep in the fourth quarter of a one-score game; it was a narrow play that might not have had indisputable evidence from a conservative referee, and it had been ruled an incompletion on the field, but the possibility of a touchdown was well worth the risk. And, as it turned out, Trestman even had the bonus of being right.

1. Ron Rivera does the damn thing on fourth down.

He did it! After being excoriated in last week’s TYFNC for passing up a chance to win the game on fourth-and-1, Rivera finally used his short-yardage game to help gain an early advantage against the Giants.

The magic happened twice on one possession. After the Panthers and Giants traded three punts, Carolina built up to a third-and-1 on the Giants’ 28-yard line. The old Rivera might have considered trying a field goal on third down just to play it extra safe, but no! This is the new Ron Rivera! He’s trying aggressiveness on for size! He let Cam Newton line up under center and sneak it for an easy first down. On the next play, the Panthers lined up in the shotgun and let Newton run the read-option — you know, the thing they introduced before it swept the league and they made noise about abandoning it — past a befuddled Jason Pierre-Paul for 15 yards.

And then, when the drive stalled short of the goal line, Rivera actually did it. On fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line, Rivera lined up his troops and let them go for it. As the Panther fans roared their approval (and Brian Billick gave a bizarre explanation of how Rivera had previously been thinking with reason and was now thinking with emotion), Newton handed the ball to Mike Tolbert, who scored a touchdown with relative ease. They won’t all be that simple. But the decision should be.

Open the Swinging Gate

When Chip Kelly went for an early two-point conversion against the Chiefs, he pulled out the swinging gate, a play that had most recently been the subject of derision as a fake field goal from Jim Zorn during the end of his time with the Redskins. “It’s too early to go for two!” “Send that play back to college!” It’s the laziest outcome-driven argument out there: If the play worked, nobody would have said, “Oh, that worked, but it looked weird, so don’t do that again.” And since it looked funny and didn’t work, everybody suddenly became an expert on how two-point plays work.

The truth is that it should have worked. As Jimmy Kempski noted on philly.com, the Eagles only attempted the play because the Chiefs didn’t adjust to the swinging gate’s shift properly and ended up with a numbers disadvantage on that side of the field, with five Eagles blockers and a receiver versus five Chiefs defenders. (Had the Chiefs adjusted their numbers properly, the Eagles could have shifted back into a traditional extra-point play without a problem. Or maybe you force the Chiefs to burn a timeout. If you mess up on the shift, you just take a delay of game or a false start and kick the extra point from the 6-yard line, which is still a chip shot.)

Teams shouldn’t run two-point conversions most of the time because the true success rate of two-pointers is less than 50 percent. If you’re running a player behind five blockers against five defenders and only need two yards, though, your chances of succeeding are way better than 50 percent. That’s a gimme that just about any coach in the league would take on any play from scrimmage. Therefore, when you get those numbers in that box, you’re correct to try the two-point play. Arguments that you don’t “need” to go for two are naive; in the vacuum of the first half, you’re trying to score as many points as possible, and a two-pointer with a (my estimate) 65 percent chance of success is going to produce more points, on average, than an extra point.

So why didn’t it work? Because the Eagles didn’t execute properly. That likely falls on the shoulders of rookie Lane Johnson, who didn’t bother to block Tamba Hali. It’s true that the Eagles required more out of Johnson on this two-pointer than they would on an extra point, but it’s not exactly a complex blocking scheme for that play. In any case, the mental mistake doesn’t make the decision to throw the play out there a bad one. Kelly put his team in a situation in which it could gain a competitive advantage, and his players rightly recognized that they had the opportunity to exploit it. That’s exactly what you want your coach and his decisions to do.

Fourth Downs Aren’t Created Equal

Look at the Buccaneers-Patriots box score from Sunday and you’ll see that the Buccaneers went 0-for-4 on fourth downs. Sure, the execution might not have worked, but the Buccaneers were right to pursue a David strategy by being really aggressive on fourth down, no?

Well, not so much. As it turns out, the Buccaneers went for it several times in no-man’s-land, that range where it’s too far away for a field goal and too close to punt. They went for it on fourth down with five yards to go from the 34-yard line, 13 yards to go from the 34-yard line, and one yard to go from the 38-yard line, failing all three times. They also threw in a fourth attempt from the 17-yard line on their final offensive snap of the game, down 23-3 in the final quarter. In those cases, Greg Schiano is not deciding to go for it because he trusts his offense: He’s going for it because he doesn’t trust his special teams.

That likely owes to a first-quarter play on which, coincidentally, Schiano should have been aggressive. On their first possession of the game, the Buccaneers lined up for fourth-and-2 on the New England 20-yard line and decided to kick a 38-yard field goal, which Rian Lindell pushed wide right. Getting an early score or the early lead on the Patriots doesn’t mean anything; there’s no way a 3-0 lead is going to hold up over the course of the remaining three-plus quarters. The field position you give New England with a miss is roughly equal to the field position from a typical kickoff with an average return, so that’s not really a factor, either. It’s about playing to your team’s strengths, and Tampa has a good running game and a group of big receivers who can box out in short yardage. Schiano should have trusted his team to get two yards and try to get an early touchdown.

But, of course, the Buccaneers didn’t get that yard on fourth-and-1 later, so was Schiano right? Depends on whether you believe that one outcome is indicative of how things would go on every short-yardage opportunity. Of course, we know that if you give a team 100 chances to punch the ball in from one yard out against a given defense, they’re not going to succeed 100 times or fail 100 times. They might succeed 45 or 55 or 65 times, but there will be plays in which the blocking breaks down and plays in which the defenders are on skates. One outcome isn’t enough to prove that Schiano would be right or wrong. That’s where judging things based on the broader process and likelihood of success comes into play. Coaches seem prone to doing this: They’ll try something aggressive once, and if it fails, they won’t do it again for weeks or even years. No strategy is perfect, of course; coaches need to weigh those risks appropriately and know the difference between one bad outcome and a flawed process.

The Week in Half-Ending Draws

Want a new pet peeve? Join me in hating the meaningless draw play to end the first half, a move that coaches run even though it offers downside without virtually any upside whatsoever. Three teams ran those draws in Week 3, and, amazingly, they were quite possibly the three teams who should have been least likely to do it.

Start with the Giants, who have had fumbling problems galore this season while struggling to find a running back they trust. With 12 seconds left in the half, they handed the ball to Da’Rel Scott on their own 20-yard line. Why? Is Scott going to run for 80 yards? Is he going to manage 55 yards in eight seconds or so to get your team in field goal range? Of course he isn’t. The downside is that Scott fumbles and the Panthers get a free shot at a field goal, or that somebody on an already-creaky offensive line gets hurt. (I suppose somebody on the defense could get hurt, too, but that seems like a pretty stupid reason to run a play.) There’s no strategic or schematic advantage to be gained, and nobody’s gaining any momentum from a short run on the final play before the half when you’re already down 17-0. Just kneel and get out of there alive.

The Jaguars managed to top that by adding in another wrinkle: They used a running back who was already injured. Maurice Jones-Drew went into Sunday’s game against the Seahawks with a bad ankle, but he made it all the way through without reaggravating the injury. Why, though, did the Jaguars think it was wise to hand the ball to MJD in a basically identical situation to Scott’s? They gave him the ball with 10 seconds left on their own 20-yard line, down 24-0 as opposed to 17-0. After barely moving the ball on offense for two and a half games, were the Jaguars suddenly going to come together and seal off an 80-yard touchdown run? Why put an unnecessary carry on Jones-Drew’s legs? They did gain six yards, so in all fairness, it was one of their best offensive plays of the day.

Matt Forte was given three carries under slightly more difficult circumstances. The famously injury-prone back got the ball three times with 1:48 to go at the end of the first half while the Steelers only had one timeout. In this case, I think Trestman got caught between two mind-sets: He wanted to run clock and prevent the Steelers from getting the ball back, but he also wanted to see if he could run a drive. There’s no solid in-between here. The Bears had enough time to launch a meaningful drive, but that would likely require throwing the ball. They were almost surely going to get nowhere fast running the ball three times. In any case, once Forte picked up four yards combined on his first two carries and set up a third-and-6 with 15 seconds left, the Bears just should have kneeled. A Forte run, from his own 35-yard line, was almost surely not going to put them in scoring range. The Steelers were going to use their timeout anyway, so Chicago should have kept Forte out of harm’s way for that extra carry.

Marvin Lewis Can’t Lose

What a wild mix of decisions in Bengals-Packers! I already covered McCarthy’s good call earlier, so now it seems fair to get to his bad one. Trailing 14-10 in the second quarter, the Packers faced fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and … kicked a 19-yard field goal. I don’t doubt that Cincinnati’s defensive line is stout, but it’s just not very difficult to get one yard. I covered the math on this one before the season, and with the likelihood of making it and the fallback plan of excellent field position even with a stuff, kicking in that situation is inexcusable. I’m not going to be so myopic as to suggest that the four-point difference between a field goal in that situation and a touchdown had anything to do with the four-point difference in what ended up as the final score, but it was absolutely a missed opportunity.

Marvin Lewis didn’t have a great day, either. At the end of the first half and with the Packers inside the Cincinnati 10-yard line, he failed to use his two timeouts to try to get the ball back for an abbreviated two-minute drill; instead, he used his second timeout to try to ice Crosby on a 26-yard field goal and donated the third one to charity. (The icing didn’t work.)

Lewis’s most controversial decision came with 3:55 left in the third quarter. There, the Bengals scored a touchdown to get within 10 points of the Packers, 30-20, pending the extra point. The Bengals had just completed their first lengthy drive for a touchdown since the opening drive of the day, with their second touchdown coming on a fumble recovery deep in Green Bay territory. Seven of their nine drives starting in their own territory had amounted to basically nothing. It was the right time to go for two and try to make the game a one-score contest; if they failed, the Bengals could still tie the game with a touchdown and a field goal. This isn’t a foolproof time to go for it — the footballcommentary.com chart suggests the break-even point is 48 percent — but given the way the game was going, I think a two-point try would have been the right call. Lewis kicked to go down nine points.

As it turned out, it was mostly irrelevant, as the Cincinnati defense took over shortly thereafter. They picked off Aaron Rodgers on the next drive, but ended up in no-man’s-land with a fourth-and-9 on the Packers’ 34-yard line and tried a 52-yard field goal, which missed wide left. They picked off Rodgers again on the subsequent drive and then produced a long touchdown drive that seemed to justify Lewis’s thinking, as it put them down 30-27, but the extra point was deflected. They would eventually produce the game-winning score on the aforementioned double fumble recovery on Green Bay’s fourth-and-1 try. A little more aggression from both coaches would have been nice.

Don’t Be Like Mike

Mike Smith’s conservativeness nearly cost the Falcons a couple of times last year, most notably in the divisional-round win over the Seahawks, which was a game Smith nearly lost by failing to consider a two-point try from a half-yard out in the third quarter. Even though he has one of the league’s best offenses, Smith has remained hesitant to make aggressive decisions since the playoff loss to the Giants, when the Falcons famously failed multiple times in short yardage. That conservative nature might have cost them a win against the Dolphins.

First, Smith went into no-man’s-land and came away with an ill-advised three points. After a third-down pass to Jacquizz Rodgers in the second quarter lost a yard, the Falcons passed on a chance to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 34-yard line so they could let Matt Bryant attempt a 52-yard field goal. Bryant — just 11-for-20 from 50 yards and beyond as a pro — hit the field goal, but that’s a very risky play given the excellent field position Miami would get from a miss.

His decision to kick later was more egregious. There, the Falcons were up 10-7 with 2:08 left in the second quarter, facing a fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line after Jason Snelling had been stuffed on the previous down. Was that one miss really enough to justify kicking a field goal from the 2-yard line with 32 minutes of football to go? The Falcons only needed a yard for the first down, which might actually have been the best possible outcome, since they would get four more shots at a likely touchdown while leaving less time on the clock for the Dolphins to run their own two-minute drill (which they did after the field goal, producing a field goal of their own). I can understand that the Falcons were missing Steven Jackson and left tackle Sam Baker, but the Dolphins were without Cameron Wake, their best player. Unless it ties or wins a game deep in the fourth quarter, the 20-yard field goal just shouldn’t be in a coach’s playbook.

Smith also neglected to use his timeouts at the end of the game. With Miami down to one timeout, it advanced the ball to the 8-yard line for a first-and-goal situation with 1:36 left at the beginning of the play clock. This possession was the entire game for the Dolphins, who were down 23-20. With three timeouts, the Falcons could have stopped the clock and left themselves time to launch a one-minute drill, regardless of whether the Dolphins scored a touchdown or kicked a field goal. (If Miami turned the ball over or decided to go for it and failed on downs, Atlanta could kneel twice to end the game.) Instead, Smith let the Dolphins wind the clock down and run a play with 56 seconds left, moving the ball to the 1-yard line. Smith waited several seconds after that play to use his first timeout, calling it with 43 seconds left. Miami scored a touchdown on the next play, and Atlanta eventually got the ball back down four with 38 seconds left. Had Smith used his timeouts optimally but seen his defense allow the same plays at the same rate of speed, the Falcons would have gotten the ball back with about 1:25 left to go. Do you think Atlanta could have used 47 extra seconds to work with at the end of that game?

The Worst Decisions of Week 3

3. Smith’s time-wasting at the end of the Falcons-Dolphins game.

All three of these decisions are plays in which a coach did something or failed to do something for which there is virtually no defense. Smith, I guess, could argue that the Dolphins have a young quarterback and he didn’t want Ryan Tannehill to get time to settle down. Tannehill didn’t end up having much of a problem punching the ball in even with Smith saving two of his timeouts, and a timeout also might have given Smith’s pass rush some fresher legs. The upside of giving his offense nearly a full minute of extra time to work with to try to win the game, regardless of what Miami did, was far more meaningful. It was a blunder, plain and simple.

2. Leslie Frazier invokes the Schwartz Rule.

I think Frazier is generally a very good coach given the limitations of his quarterback, but he made an obvious mistake by throwing his challenge flag onto the field after a muffed punt by the Browns was recovered by his team and returned for a touchdown. It’s unclear what Frazier was even challenging: His team was ruled on the field as having recovered the fumble, and the rules also clearly dictate that a muffed punt cannot be advanced if recovered by the kicking team. In either case, any turnover is automatically reviewed by the booth, so Frazier’s challenge was against the same rule that Jim Schwartz’s infamous challenge failed to consider last Thanksgiving.

Frazier’s not the only one who should come in for criticism, though. Referee Bill Leavy noted that Frazier threw his flag and correctly penalized him, but he produced the wrong punishment. Under the changes made to the Schwartz Rule this offseason, Frazier should have been charged a timeout for his transgression; instead, Leavy penalized Frazier for unsportsmanlike conduct and issued a 15-yard penalty. (If a team is out of timeouts, the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is issued.) The penalty didn’t materially affect the game, but it was an unnecessary mistake.

1. Chuck Pagano kicks an extra point to go up 20-7 in the fourth quarter against the 49ers.

You can forgive Pagano for being excited when his team scored at the end of a lengthy fourth-quarter drive to basically seal up a win over the 49ers in San Francisco. Andrew Luck’s bootleg gave the Colts a 19-7 lead with 4:27 to go, pending the extra point. Pagano emphatically threw one finger up in the air, and the ensuing extra point put Indy up 20-7.

What was that extra point supposed to add? It moved Indianapolis’s lead from 12 points to 13, which is only a meaningful difference if the Colts expect San Francisco to score a touchdown and kick two field goals. That would have been virtually impossible to pull off with the limited time available; the 49ers would never be in a situation where they would pass on going for it and attempt a field goal in the hopes of attempting another onside kick and kicking another field goal.

In either case, San Francisco was going to have to score two touchdowns in the final 4:27; it’s the only way the game gets extended and Indy’s extra-point decision means anything. If Indianapolis kicks the extra point and San Francisco scores two touchdowns, the Colts merely lose by one point as opposed to two. If they go for two and succeed, they’ll have a tie game and still have a shot at winning the game in overtime. If they fail and remain up 12, well, they lose to two touchdowns anyway. This is a no-risk, moderate-reward two-point conversion.

It’s probably true the Colts were going to win regardless of what Pagano did, but that’s not the point. The point is that Pagano wasn’t thinking ahead. If he didn’t consult his chart, he was too in the moment to think forward to how the decision might affect his chances. If he did consult his chart, his chart is wrong to a scary degree. Really good head coaches need to have this stuff down pat like it’s second nature, because there will be a time when an obvious decision like this one will end up costing you a game. A decision that wasn’t half as obvious nearly cost Mike Smith his only playoff win last year. As the Colts grow into a more experienced team and eliminate mistakes, their head coach will need to make the same strides.

Filed Under: Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, NFL, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

photo

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell