Grantland logo

Thank You for Not Coaching, Week 9

Sean Payton

I have to begin this week’s column by passing along my best wishes to John Fox and Gary Kubiak, who each had medical episodes this weekend that caught them by surprise. In both cases, fortunately, it seems like the symptoms manifested themselves before they could become bigger problems, and it doesn’t appear that there will be long-term effects to either coach’s health. Kubiak’s ailment, in particular, seemed so scary; to see a coach doing his job (very well, mind you) for a half on national television and return from a commercial break to see him surrounded by doctors on the ground was surreal and terrifying. In a way, it was a relief that Kubiak’s episode occurred at Reliant Stadium on game day, when he could be immediately treated by doctors and whisked away by a waiting ambulance to a hospital minutes away from the stadium. You obviously hope that nobody ever has to deal with anything like this, but were this going to happen to Kubiak, it happened in the best possible location. It’s great to hear that Kubiak and Fox are in stable condition.

This was a strange week of action in the NFL, and the decision-making by coaches on Sunday was no different. One of the head coaches in the running for worst team leader in league history pulled out all the stops and ended up on the positive side of the ledger. Meanwhile, a coach with a Super Bowl ring had such a high-variance day that he finished with one each of the three best and three worst calls of the week. And then, to finish the week off on Monday night, there was a call so boldly aggressive that it might even have been too strong for my tastes, and I’m basically a freak in terms of running or passing on fourth downs. Let’s get into it.

The Three Best Calls of Week 9

3. The Colts go for two down 24-12 at the end of the third quarter. Why would you go for two down 12 points with just more than 15 minutes to go? This is why. When the Colts scored the touchdown that began their comeback over the Texans, they were presented with an interesting opportunity. Kicking the extra point puts Indianapolis down 11; they still need a field goal, touchdown, and two-point conversion to tie. The only way they don’t need a two-point conversion is if they score two additional touchdowns.

If the Colts fail on their two-point conversion attempt, regardless of when it happens they will need to score a total of three touchdowns to take the lead. That’s no different from the scenario in which they never attempt a two-pointer at all and can’t tie with a field goal. Only by going for two once can the Colts change their comeback requirements from three touchdowns (for a win) to two touchdowns and a field goal (for a tie). And going for two early is the right move because it allows you to make more informed judgments about the rest of your play-calling decisions. If you kick the extra point on that first score to make it 24-13, then kick a field goal to make it 24-16, and then score a touchdown before setting up for the two-pointer at 24-22, your entire game likely comes down to what happens on that two-point play.

Instead, the Colts got their information early. They failed on their first two-point attempt, keeping it at 24-12, and knew they couldn’t settle for a field goal on any of their subsequent drives (remember, just as they would if they never attempted a two-pointer). Indy scored another touchdown to go down 24-19 before taking the lead on another Andrew Luck touchdown pass to go up 25-24. Even though they had failed on a two-pointer earlier, by going for two early, they also gained an extra piece of information: They would end up wanting that three-point lead. Indy went for two again and converted on a pass to Coby Fleener, giving them the 27-24 final score.

2. Doug Marrone’s high-reward challenge against the Chiefs. I’ll get to teams employing David strategies in a moment, but I really liked Marrone’s throw of the challenge flag on a long would-be catch by Marquise Goodwin on second down with 6:58 left to go in a 20-13 game. The catch was one of those rare plays in which a head coach has to make a judgment call; the pass was ruled incomplete on the field, but there was just enough on replay to suggest that Goodwin had caught the pass.

It’s worth a challenge — even risking a timeout in a close game — because the potential reward is so enormous. The catch would have advanced the ball from Buffalo’s 6-yard line to midfield, providing a dramatic field-position shift while dramatically improving Buffalo’s chances of scoring on the possession. Given that the Bills were starting Jeff Tuel against the virulent Chiefs defense, it might have been Buffalo’s last chance at a big play. The Advanced NFL Stats win probability calculator estimates that a successful challenge would have increased Buffalo’s chances of winning from 8 percent to 23 percent. I think that underestimates the shift, given Kansas City’s defense. Marrone ultimately did not win the challenge, but it was a shot worth the risk.

1. The Packers (and Buccaneers) try unexpected onside kicks when they need them. I love the unexpected onside kick for teams executing David strategies, underdogs that need to create an extra possession while stealing one away from the opposition. It’s a high-risk strategy, but one that pays off about 60 percent of the time, making it one of the more lucrative moves a team can make when used sparingly.

The Buccaneers were the first team to try it this weekend, attempting one in the unfriendliest of road stadiums in Seattle. Tampa Bay actually executed the onside kick reasonably well, recovering the kick, but like the Bears in Week 7, Greg Schiano’s gambit failed because a member of his team was offside as the kick was booted.

Green Bay had more success last night. We don’t normally think of the Packers as a David Strategy team because they’re usually favorites, especially at home, but they usually aren’t throwing out an underprepared Seneca Wallace for most of their divisional matchups. With Wallace barely ready to go, the Packers needed to create a short field and an extra possession for themselves while taking one away from the Bears. Unexpected onside kick! And unlike the other aborted attempts this year, the Packers didn’t go offside before their unexpected onside kick, which allowed them to keep the prized football they recovered on the play.

That Bears Play

Let’s talk about what Chicago did with the game on the line, because it was certainly the most daring decision a coach made this week. Holding on to a 24-20 lead on the road at Lambeau, the Bears were facing a fourth-and-1 on their own 32-yard line with 7:50 left to go. They looked likely to punt, called timeout, and then Marc Trestman basically dared me to name the positive ledger of this column after him by going for it. He got just about the best outcome imaginable. Matt Forte was briefly hung up in the backfield before converting, and the Bears proceeded to take seven more minutes off the clock over the remainder of the drive before kicking a field goal to take a seven-point lead. It’s fair to say that Trestman’s decision ended up closing out the game for Chicago.

As you might suspect, just about every coach in the league would punt in that situation. Even Ron Rivera would hand over the reins of the riverboat to Trestman there. It’s a freakishly rare occurrence. I tried to find plays like it, but since 1999, there have only been three plays when a team with a lead of eight points or fewer in the fourth quarter went for it on fourth down inside its own 40-yard line, as the Bears did. (There are others on Pro-Football-Reference.com, but they were either on the final plays of games, elaborate safety routines, or fake punts.) You’ll remember one: It was the pass from Tom Brady to Kevin Faulk on fourth-and-2 against the Colts in 2009 that came up just short, eventually leading to a Colts win. The other two were a Marion Barber run from 2008 and a Clinton Portis carry in 2002, each of which moved the chains. So it’s rare. But was it right?

Advanced NFL Stats likely doesn’t think so. Its fourth-down calculator suggests the Bears only should have gone for it if their chances of converting were higher than 71 percent, using their Win Expectancy framework. That would be better than the Panthers in short yardage, and historically, Forte has been one of the worst backs in the league near the goal line and in short yardage. Chicago improved its offensive line this offseason, but it was still 21st in power run success percentage before this game.

Furthermore, the averages used by Advanced NFL Stats also don’t factor in that the Bears weren’t playing an average offense. The post–Aaron Rodgers Packers had enjoyed great success running the ball against the Bears, but Wallace had struggled to create plays in the passing game, something he would have to do during a two-minute drill to win the game.

I’m inclined to agree with the numbers here and suggest that going for it wasn’t the right choice for the Bears. They’re not a great short-yardage team, they were facing a middling offense, and the percentages just weren’t in their favor. I admire Trestman’s sheer gutsiness in making the move, and I’m happy he was rewarded for that aggressiveness with a favorable outcome, but I don’t think that play makes sense given the percentages.

David Heroes

As I mentioned earlier, there were a number of underdogs that stretched their chances by trying to make their own luck and create their own opportunities this week. Only one actually finished with a victory, but each of them came closer than most would have expected, thanks in part to their aggressiveness.

Tampa Bay got off to a shocking 21-0 lead against Seattle in the Pacific Northwest before capitulating and allowing Seattle to score 27 of the next 30 points, claiming a 27-24 victory in the process. I mentioned the surprise onside kick the Buccaneers tried earlier, but the Bucs also gave something bizarre a shot by attempting a pass with their forward-moving halfback near the goal line. Even better, the pass from Mike James to Tom Crabtree worked for a touchdown! Somehow!

The Buccaneers don’t deserve a lot of credit for their 2013 season thus far, but give that coaching staff some plaudits here. They recognized that their offense would struggle to run the ball in short yardage against Seattle’s front seven, and brushed off a play that would give them a chance near the goal line. Furthermore, this is the exact sort of play that a team like the 2011 Eagles would have run near the goal line, a fiasco for which we all still make fun of them to this day. (Like this Ronnie Brown pass in a similar scenario.) Had this play resulted in an incomplete pass — let alone an interception — it would have been subject to months of mockery, seen as the manifestation of Schiano’s failings as a coach, a play that was somehow simultaneously too cute and too generically violent. Instead, they didn’t care about the opinion, thought it would work, and executed it for a score.

Buffalo was in line for a shocking victory over the undefeated Chiefs, but the 10-plus-point swing that resulted from Tuel’s pick-six on the Kansas City goal line was enough to turn things in Kansas City’s favor. This game was close until the very end despite the score, but the Bills helped make it interesting by trying to create big plays. I don’t know that Tuel is my idea of a read-option quarterback, but there he was running the zone-read at home against the Chiefs on Sunday. The Bills also went for it against the conservative Chiefs on fourth down, with a fourth-and-2 attempt in no-man’s-land producing a bomb to an open T.J. Graham that fell incomplete. (A better throw would have yielded a touchdown.) At the very least, the Bills might have made Mercury Morris fetch a bottle of champagne. That’s something.

Minnesota went with a more conventional weapon for its David strategy: Adrian Peterson. Leslie Frazier’s team went for it three times on fourth down against the Cowboys on Sunday, converting twice. First, AD was stuffed on fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 16-yard line in a 3-3 game in the second quarter; give the Vikings credit for skipping the opportunity to take a lead, as if the final score in this game would be 6-3.

Some teams would remember that first failure and not go for it again, but the Vikings rightly have faith in their star running back, and Peterson delivered with that absurd run you’ve already seen to convert fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 11-yard line for a touchdown. Minnesota would also convert a must-have fourth down on its final drive to set up for a Hail Mary.

Cleveland was only a two-point underdog at home, but it still got the most out of Jason Campbell to create two big fourth-down conversions. On the first, Campbell was big-blitzed by the Ravens on fourth-and-goal with one of the same blitzes that won them the game against the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick a year ago. Campbell saw the blitz, got the ball out to (OK, in the direction of) his hot receivers, and picked up the score. Later on, the Browns went for it in no-man’s-land with a three-point lead and 3:12 to go. That took a Campbell scramble, but he eventually found Davone Bess (who had a monster game) for a first down.

The Browns did, however, leave one on the field. They eventually ran down the clock on that drive to 17 seconds before Billy Cundiff kicked a 22-yard field goal that put them up six points. I think they probably should have tried to convert on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line instead. Baltimore’s chances aren’t particularly high either way, but it seems like its chances of scoring a touchdown on the kickoff return after the field goal are higher than its chances of producing a long drive from its own 4-yard line with, say, 12 seconds left and no timeouts. (Say Rahim Moore and I’ll say Jacoby Jones.) It’s not a big deal in either direction, but it’s worth mentioning as a missed opportunity and unnecessary exposure to risk.

Halftime Draws

I think Marrone has done a fantastic job in Buffalo so far, considering that he has played the league’s second-toughest schedule and had to line up four starting quarterbacks in four months because of injuries. My only beef with Marrone? The halftime draws. On Sunday, he began a drive with 35 seconds left in the first half and the ball on his own 21-yard line by handing the ball to the already-injured C.J. Spiller, who went for two huge yards before the Bills gave up and ran to the locker room for halftime. Does Spiller really need the work? Is he going to forget how to run a draw?

I can’t ask those same obnoxious rhetorical questions about the Colts, because their starting halfback has forgotten a lot about how to do basic running back things since his time at school. Trent Richardson’s backup, Donald Brown, carried the ball for 11 yards on second-and-10 with 29 seconds left in the first half and the ball on the Indianapolis 20-yard line, but the Colts promptly ran off the field and went to the locker room. If 11 yards isn’t enough for Indianapolis to use one of its three timeouts and see if Luck can coax a field goal out of the passing offense, it never should have run Brown on that play in the first place.

Weird Challenges

Mike Shanahan is one of the league’s most experienced coaches, but he made a very curious challenge against the Chargers on Sunday. With 6:47 to go in the fourth quarter, Shanahan had enough faith that a seven-yard reception by Danny Woodhead on second-and-10, deep in San Diego territory, was worth a challenge. It wasn’t; the play was low-reward, and Shanahan didn’t even win his challenge. Using the challenge itself isn’t quite as big of a deal with 4:47 of challengeable time left in the day, but that’s a timeout that could very well have come in handy in such a close game.

Not to be topped, Schiano challenged that a five-yard catch by Ricardo Lockette on second-and-8 at the end of the third quarter was an incomplete pass, hoping to force the Seahawks into a third-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 23-yard line. Schiano lost the challenge, but the Seahawks failed on third-and-3 anyway and kicked the field goal after all. Schiano, like Shanahan, cost himself a timeout that he really might have wanted in a close game, and all to try to pick up a measly five yards.

The Three Worst Calls of Week 9

3. The Dolphins punt on fourth-and-2 from the Cincinnati 40-yard line in overtime. Others disliked Cincinnati’s punt in overtime more (on fourth-and-8 from the Miami 39-yard line), but I thought the Dolphins absolutely needed to try to convert on fourth-and-short against a team missing the star defender in the interior of its offensive line on Thursday. If the Dolphins can merely pick up the first down in that situation, they’re three to five yards away from getting off a field goal attempt with some hope. Since it wasn’t the first possession of overtime, a made field goal would have won Miami the game.

As it turned out, punting worked out perfectly for Miami; it downed the ball on the Cincinnati 8-yard line and sacked Andy Dalton in the end zone three plays later to end the game. But without knowing that, I think going for it on fourth-and-2 would have been the right call.

2. That Saints end-around thing on fourth down. The Jets successfully psyched out the Saints by icing their fullback. After Jed Collins had converted a third-and-1 in the fourth quarter to keep his team’s chances alive, he popped up to find out that the Jets had called timeout. On the ensuing third-down try, Collins was open in the flat for an easy conversion, but he dropped Drew Brees’s pass. The Saints decided to go for it on fourth down while trailing 26-17 with 7:54 left. All this makes sense …

… up to the point when they called for the play to be an end-around to little-known third-string tight end Josh Hill, who was handed the ball and immediately hit by Quinton Coples for a loss. I understand the desire to try to use misdirection to take advantage of the aggressiveness of the Jets’ defense, but why not try a screen or a draw or something that doesn’t end up with your backup tight end trying to run horizontally across the field? Don’t run that play again.

1. The Packers save their timeouts for another day. I really am not sure what Mike McCarthy was thinking about late in the fourth quarter of this game against the Bears. Whether it’s too soon to call Matt Flynn without seeming like he’s desperate? If he still has Brett Favre’s number in some flip phone from 2006?

Instead, McCarthy mysteriously waited to use his timeouts until the last possible opportunity. He let the clock wind past the two-minute warning all the way to 1:14, at which point the Bears ran a first-down running play and miraculously held a Packers player, giving McCarthy a free timeout that he turned down by accepting the penalty. The time stoppage there is far more valuable than the 10 yards, especially considering that the Bears are already in the red zone and more interested in burning clock than they are in scoring a touchdown. But McCarthy accepted the penalty, giving the Bears another play with which to burn clock (and another chance for McCarthy to be stuck having used all three of his timeouts on defense, which is exactly what happened). It was lost in the Rodgers fracas after the game, but it’s hard to imagine mismanaging the clock at the end of the game worse than the Packers did.