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Thank You, Coaches

Looking back on a season of heroic ineptitude and occasional brilliance from the keepers of the red challenge flags

Each Monday during the football season, I recap the previous week’s NFL action. The final section in most of those columns is “Thank You for Not Coaching,” which highlights some of the questionable decisions made by NFL coaches during games and analyzes why the process that went into those decisions was suboptimal. Occasionally, I’ll break down a smart decision or hit some low-hanging fruit, but the goal is to gain a greater understanding of how coaches should or should not think in terms of improving their teams’ chances of winning football games.

These, then, are the “Thank You for Not Coaching” awards. Now, if a coach shows up in here, it doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily a bad coach who should be kicked to the curb immediately. There’s just too much to being a head coach that we don’t see in front of our eyes on Sundays to rely solely on in-game decision-making when judging a coach’s abilities. How does the coach handle his team’s personalities and egos? How does he develop young players? Conduct his practices? Manage player workloads and health? Deal with the owner? Conduct himself with the media and fans? All that stuff matters, too.

With that being said, you can do a lot of harm with some terrible in-game decisions and make all of that other stuff seem irrelevant. It’s not a coincidence that many of the coaches who were featured regularly in this space didn’t hold on to their jobs for 2013. Let’s get started with one of the more obvious trophies to be handed out …

Worst Challenge of the Year

Jim Schwartz, Detroit Lions

In terms of directly affecting the score line and the game outcome, it’s impossible to top the touchdown that Jim Schwartz handed the Houston Texans on Thanksgiving Day when he prematurely threw his challenge flag after an 81-yard Justin Forsett run for a touchdown. In case you’ve forgotten, Forsett was clearly down on a play that would have been overturned by the automatic review that occurs after each touchdown, but because Schwartz threw his flag, the referees penalized the Lions 15 yards and were not permitted, by rule, to review the play. It’s a dumb rule, of course, but it’s one that Atlanta’s Mike Smith had run afoul of just one week earlier; Schwartz needed to keep his cool and coach by the rules. The score ended up being enough to eventually push the game into overtime, and the Texans prevailed.

Most Useless Challenge of the Year

Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns

Since that last award was basically impossible to give to anyone but Schwartz for his colossal blunder, the award committee felt it was necessary to hand out a second trophy for non-rule-breaking challenges. That one goes to Pat Shurmur, who might not want to get too comfortable, since he is probably going to make a few walks to the podium during this ceremony.

In the first quarter of Cleveland’s Week 8 tilt against the Chargers, Shurmur threw his flag on what could not have been a more meaningless play. On the first play of a San Diego drive from their own 18-yard line, the Chargers picked up six yards on a pass to Robert Meachem. Shurmur saw something on replay and decided to throw his challenge flag. The play was overturned, turning an insurmountable second-and-4 into a dominant position of second-and-10. With about 46 minutes of challengeable action left to go, it’s hard to figure that Shurmur got good value for one of his two opportunities to throw the challenge flag without worrying about losing the flag for the rest of the game. As I wrote at the time, “It’s like being granted two wishes and using one of them to have a genie take out the trash for you.”

Best Illegal Challenge of the Year

Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers

Ah, the replacement refs! The good ol’ days. Back when we were besotted with long delays to discuss even the simplest calls, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh managed to pull out an illegal challenge late in his team’s loss to the Vikings. After calling his third and final timeout of the second half to look over replays related to a possible Vikings fumble, Harbaugh then threw his red challenge flag onto the field. Instead of assessing the 49ers a 15-yard penalty for using a challenge they didn’t have, the referees reviewed the play, overturned the ruling, and awarded the 49ers the ball on Toby Gerhart’s fumble, and gave the 49ers their timeout back! Then, one minute later, the 49ers used that third timeout and challenged another play! The NFL game book actually has this down as “Timeout #4 by SF at 02:18” when it should really read something like “kladfadlfa football vomit system explode.”

Worst at Learning Lessons

Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons

It’s important not to be outcome-based and change your decision-making based upon what happened on one play in one game. That came up for the Falcons this season, when they were more conservative on fourth downs after going for it in a number of key spots last season and failing in each of them. That’s one problem. The bigger flaw is when an outcome reveals that you have a bad process and you don’t correct the process. Knowing the difference is key.

It wasn’t correcting his process that almost cost Mike Smith his first playoff win. The problem dates back to Week 10, when the Falcons lost their first game of the season, 31-27, to the Saints. When the Falcons scored a touchdown with 13:32 left in the fourth quarter to make the it 28-23, it seemed obvious that they should go for two to try to bring the score within three points. The numbers suggested that the Falcons should almost always go for two in that situation, since a team will recoup more value by going for two if they think they can succeed 23 percent of the time. Smith instead kicked an extra point to leave them trailing by four. The Falcons would later kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line that put them down one instead of tying the game, and after New Orleans tacked on a field goal of their own to go back up four, the Falcons had to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line after all, failing and losing the game in the process.

Distressingly, Smith said this after the game: “You don’t even start looking at the two-point chart until there’s seven minutes to go.” It’s a football truism that doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny. It’s one thing to avoid playing for a particular final score until it gets late in the contest, as the argument prescribes, but you have to know the situations where the value of adding an extra point is virtually nil relative to the significant value of attempting a two-point conversion. This was one of them.

Smith stuck to his guns in the playoff game against Seattle, and it came very close to costing him his victory. When Atlanta scored a touchdown to go up 26-7 with 17 minutes left in the game, Smith was asleep at the wheel and kicked the extra point to gain a 20-point lead. A two-pointer makes much more sense there, as the odds that having a 20-point lead will pay off are pretty unlikely; Seattle would need to get four possessions and produce two touchdowns and two field goals. Three touchdowns is a more likely bet, and that’s exactly what happened, giving Seattle a 28-27 lead with 34 seconds left before the Falcons miraculously came back and hit a game-winning field goal.

But that’s not all! Smith’s decision to kick the extra point from the 2-yard line was bad, but Seattle went offsides on both the first and second extra-point attempts, meaning that Atlanta would only need to convert from the half-yard line. Atlanta had run the ball very effectively up to that point, but even in a vacuum, the odds of picking up a half yard when all you need to do is break the plane are extremely high; even reaching the ball out immediately after taking the snap is usually going to be enough. Smith’s failure to improve his process and account for the situation he was in, regardless of his arbitrary rules, nearly ended up changing the course of the playoffs.

Most Insane Audible of the Year

Johnny Hekker, St. Louis Rams

Yes, an award for a player! Sometimes, coaches get blamed for their players’ ill-advised decisions on the field. Hekker’s first fake punt of the day in St. Louis’s 24-24 tie against the 49ers is a great example of just that conundrum. I often talk about how, ideally, coaches need to make decisions that are both low-risk and high-reward. Hekker did the exact opposite, producing a decision with enormous risk and virtually no reward.

Hekker’s audible into a fake punt came backed up on his own 10-yard line on a fourth-and-4 with 49 seconds left. He undoubtedly saw something in San Francisco’s formation that had come up in practice or film study and audibled into the fake punt, throwing a pass to safety Rodney McLeod that picked up a first down. Think about the upside: The Rams gained 21 yards on that play and still had first-and-10 on the 35-yard line with 44 seconds left. Considering the relative strengths of the two teams, the Rams were extremely unlikely to score in the given situation, even after the fake punt. Indeed, they ran three plays for minus-four yards and walked off the field. The downside is enormous: A drop or an overthrow gives the 49ers the ball on the St. Louis 10-yard line, virtually ensuring them at least three points. (Save your David Akers jokes for the “Thank You for Not Kicking” awards.) With three timeouts, if Hekker wasn’t confident that he could get the punt off without it being blocked by virtue of a formation, he should have called timeout (or just taken a delay of game) and lined up again. A fake punt is insane there. Fortunately for the Rams, they got away with the ill-advised decision from their rookie punter.

Most Improved Coach

Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings

Although it’s easy to give Most Improved Coach to the guy at the helm of a team that saw a dramatic uptick in the win column this year, Frazier really did improve from season to season in terms of his decision-making and selective aggressiveness. He might have won the game against the 49ers in Week 3 by being aggressive near the goal line, and while the Vikings weren’t blessed with a great quarterback, Frazier (along with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave) was generally very smart about managing situations and not placing any more pressure on Christian Ponder than he needed to. Frazier didn’t have a negative appearance in my column until the playoffs, when he punted while down 21 points in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-2, but you could forgive him for being sick of Joe Webb by that point.

Worst Coaching Decision of the Year

Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers

It was a terrible process and an even worse outcome. Why on earth did Ron Rivera think that his $102.8 million backfield of Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart (let alone Mike Tolbert) couldn’t pick up a half yard against the Falcons with a one-point lead and 1:44 left? They’d actually done it on third down, only for Newton to fumble backward after converting and fall on the ball short of the sticks again. They’re now 34-for-41 (82.9 percent) converting runs on third- or fourth-and-1 into first downs since Rivera took over. Instead, Rivera punted, and while Carolina did manage to put the ball on the Atlanta 1-yard line, the Falcons drove 77 yards in 49 seconds and kicked the game-winning field goal with 10 seconds to spare. ESPN Stats & Information calculated that Rivera decreased his team’s chances of winning by 26.1 percent by punting, and that’s without adjusting for how good Carolina is in short yardage. Rivera could have not watched a single second of Atlanta film all week and it would have been less damaging to his team’s chances of winning than punting in that situation.

Best Coach of 2012

Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers

Harbaugh was the only coach in the NFL who failed to show up in TYFNC for a negative play all season, and it wasn’t because of my disinterest and neglect. A few other coaches managed to avoid the cut, like Mike Munchak and Dennis Allen, but that’s because their teams were in so few interesting, relevant games that I just didn’t notice any of their coaching mistakes. Harbaugh’s brilliance is obvious: He’s aggressive when he should be, conservative when it suits his team and the game situation, and he uses every little trick in the book to gain advantages for his team up and down the field. Last year, it was the abrupt shifting that forced opposing teams to jump offsides. This year, in addition to his four-timeout masterpiece against Minnesota, Harbaugh declined a safety that would have given the Seahawks a sliver of a chance to win, ran seven offensive linemen out there for some sets, used his challenges brilliantly all year, and integrated Colin Kaepernick into the lineup as a part-time player before giving him the full-time job in mid-season. It’s not even that he’s the new Bill Belichick. He’s the first Jim Harbaugh.

Worst Coach of 2012

Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns

It’s not that Shurmur made one bad decision in one particular aspect of the game in 2012; it’s that he made obviously wrong calls in so many different spots. He failed to go for two up 15-10 in the fourth quarter in Week 1 and it cost him the game in a 17-16 loss. He used a timeout before punting on fourth-and-1 from the Indianapolis 41-yard line with 6:38 left in a close game and ended up having to go for it on fourth-and-6 later on. He called nine pass plays on third/fourth-and-short in one Ravens game alone.

If Shurmur had developed his young talent into successful players, you would excuse his play-calling blunders. Instead, Shurmur failed to develop either Colt McCoy or Brandon Weeden into anything resembling an NFL-caliber starter, ran an injured Trent Richardson into the line for no gain for most of the season, and left the Cleveland organization with a lot of young players who have failed to reach anything resembling their potential. Bizarrely, he was hired by Chip Kelly to serve as Philadelphia’s new offensive coordinator, a role that thankfully is unlikely to include play-calling duties. You have to assume that the Eagles are hoping whatever skills Shurmur showed in St. Louis coaching Sam Bradford come out again with Nick Foles in Philadelphia. It’s possible that Shurmur could be a better offensive coordinator than a head coach, but only because it’s hard to imagine anybody being a worse head coach.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, NFL, People, Sports, Jim Harbaugh

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell