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The league
Posted at 10:05 AM ET, 09/29/2011

In the NFL, hindsight makes all coaches’ calls look like no-brainers

One of the best things about the NFL is that teams play one game a week. And one of the worst things about it is that they play only one game a week.

The extensive break leaves time for us to analyze and second-guess everything NFL coaches do. Or at least, everything they did that didn’t work.

Take the example of Jim Haslett blitzing eight Redskins on third and 21 on Monday night. (The video is here, with the play at the 5:07 mark) While some fans would have preferred a safer coverage-based call there even in real time, Haslett’s thought was based on a sound concept: Get to the quarterback quickly, and there’ll be no time for receivers to run 21-yard routes.

The problem was with the execution, not the call. The Cowboys stone-walled eight Redskins with seven blockers. Dallas’s five linemen and two running backs picked up all eight Washington players on the line of scrimmage, mostly because only four of them actually get upfield enough to flush Tony Romo to his right. On the entire play, only London Fletcher ever comes anywhere close to Romo; the middle of the rush mostly hangs back in the netherworld around the line of scrimmage, where they wouldn’t be helpful against a screen, square-in or short checkdown.

 Even as Romo takes the shotgun snap, a three-step drop and rolls to his right to unleash the pass to Bryant, his wide receiver is still only 19 yards down the field when he catches it. Bryant makes the grab in front of the first down markers and DeAngelo Hall, with the push to get past the sticks resulting in the facemask call on Hall that made the play even more successful.


Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant made the key play against DeAngelo Hall because the pass rush was ineffective. (Toni L. Sandys - Washington Post)
 Hall didn’t like being left alone in coverage in that situation, but more than his defensive coordinator, he should fault the seven of eight pass-rushers who never got near Romo on the play. The quarterback should have had to rush his throw, making Hall’s job easier.

That’s why Haslett’s call was sound. Romo didn’t rush his throw because the rushers were ineffective, and he had plenty of time to find Bryant. If the defense had been drawn up to send no pass rush and Dallas converted a third and 21, it would have been an equally bad call in the eyes of those who complained. A safety might have been around to help Hall, but the receiver would have had more time to get open.

Likewise, in the Eagles-Giants game, fans and analysts point to Michael Vick getting hurt and poor play of Philadelphia’s linebackers as keys to the game, which they certainly were. But just as important to the outcome was Philadelphia getting to the 2-yard line in the second quarter and the 1 in the third, and kicking a field goal both times.

 Philadelphia fans always know more than the coaches. And so it wasn’t good defense by the Giants or poor execution by Eagles players on the goal line. It was unimaginative play-calling by Andy Reid (nevermind that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg actually calls the plays).

The Eagles ran LeSean McCoy or Ronnie Brown on 10 of 11 plays to get to the 2 with 8:33 left in the second quarter. Then the Eagles lost a yard on a Michael Vick pass to McCoy, and were incomplete on a Vick pass to Steve Smith. They kick a field goal at that point to make it 14-3, and score a touchdown on the next drive on an 11-yard McCoy run.

The Eagles kick another field goal before the half to make it 14-13, and punt on their first possession of the third quarter. Then they use six runs and four passes to get to New York’s 2-yard line. Fullback Owen Schmitt nearly gets in on a first-down run, and Vick fails to sneak it in on second down. Then the Eagles go back to Schmitt on third, but the play is poorly blocked in the interior and Giants blow it up. The Eagles kick a field goal to take a 16-14 lead, but the moment is anticlimactic.

 Eagles fans quibbled with the lack of imagination in the run calls on the goal-line, even though in the second quarter, passing near the goal line failed. And the Eagles had run the ball with great success on both drives to get down inside the 5-yard line.

In the end, the Eagles fell apart and lost, 29-16, not helping themselves with another failed fourth and one, near midfield, with the lead, and given to their best threat, McCoy.
A stop of running back LeSean McCoy near midfield helped doom the Eagles. (Michael Perez - Associated Press)

On the day, Philadelphia ran for 177 yards at 4.4 a clip, a good reason for coaches to believe that gaining one yard running would work. Even in short-yardage situations where defenses are compressed and not aligned the way they are on long downs at midfield, there’s still a sense of security that comes with having run with success all day. Of course a coach believes he can do it when in need of one key yard.

Eagles fans didn’t complain the week before when McCoy scored against Atlanta on an unimaginative 2-yard run behind guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce. Because it worked, it was a good call.

 The benefit of hindsight, paired with time to think, makes all coaches’ calls look like no-brainers. Yet the reasoning behind failed plays can be sound; liken it to a losing hand in poker. Sometimes you make the right call and get the wrong result.

 Haslett and Mornhinweg got the wrong results. While snap judgments make that clear, the benefit of hindsight also gives us a chance to look into why each coach made the calls he did. One might or might not agree even then, but closer examination reveals that few situations in the NFL are no-brainers. And if the players don’t execute correctly, then no coaching move looks sound.

By  |  10:05 AM ET, 09/29/2011

Tags:  Keith McMillan

 
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