NFL coaches make thousands of decisions each week. On Sunday, three coaches made three particularly significant decisions. And those decisions may impact each of their tenures with their respective teams.
Every coach is tempted to try to make his players fit into his system and, failing that, to acquire players who best fit that system. For coaches in the first year or two of their contracts, that can be problematic. Generally, you’re stuck with the roster you inherit, whether they fit your system or not. On Sunday, Broncos coach John Fox confirmed that he is done trying to fit the proverbial square peg into the round hole. And his short-term success may lead to his long-term failure.
Had Kyle Orton played even a little better, Fox would not have had a decision to make. He could have kept running Orton out at quarterback for the rest of the season. But once Orton played himself out of the lineup, Fox had little choice but to bring Tim Tebow in.
Tebow’s first attempts to play a traditional pocket quarterback role were nearly disastrous, particularly if you credit the indecipherable quarterback ratings, where his score put him slightly above that of a corpse. The results were so horrendous that rumors circulated that Fox was setting Tebow up to fail, just so he could tell the Tebow-crazy Denver fans that he had given Tebow a shot. There can no longer be any question that Fox is not so calculating or mean-spirited.
On Sunday, Fox and his staff confirmed that they are doing more than most would do to set Tebow up to succeed. They stopped asking Tebow to do something he struggled with and instead installed an offense with which he excelled, at least on the collegiate level — the option. And it worked. The Chiefs defense looked completely baffled by the option, and understandably so. Except for the occasional trick play, most of them hadn’t seen the option since college, and it’s doubtful that they had spent much time in practice on it.
Running the option almost exclusively, the Broncos won their second game in a row and kept themselves in playoff contention. Tebow played the entire game and completed the stunning total of two passes, one of which was a 56-yard touchdown strike that worked precisely because the Chiefs had all but given up worrying about the pass. Statisticians were falling over each other as they raced to figure out the last time a quarterback had played an entire game and had only completed two passes. Or only had eight pass attempts.
Today, Broncos fans are celebrating, and they could be celebrating again on Thursday when they face a Jets defense that was exposed by Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday, and that will have little time to practice defending against the option. So Fox and his staff look like geniuses. For now.
Yes, the option has worked against the Raiders and Broncos. Perhaps it will work against the Jets. But it won’t work long-term. Defenses (and defensive coordinators) are too smart to let it work long-term. Now that the Broncos appear committed to the option, teams will prepare for it and shut it down.
And that’s where the problem arises for Fox. Installing the option for Tebow, and winning with it in the short term, may mean that the Broncos are stuck with Tebow and the option for the rest of the season. Perhaps longer. If they sneak into the playoffs this year running the option, don’t they have to start Tebow and run the option at the beginning of next season?
And if they have to run the option next year, what happens when it stops working? Don’t they then either have to remake Tebow, which they haven’t been able to do so far, or reinsert Orton (or Brady Quinn) into the lineup, which hasn’t worked? And isn’t that the beginning of the end of Fox’s tenure in Denver?
Overtime. Falcons’ ball on their own 29-yard line. Fourth-and-1. After first lining up to punt, Mike Smith sends Matt Ryan et al. onto the field to go for the first down. The thinking is that if the Falcons have to punt the ball, Drew Brees can get the Saints in line for a game-winning field goal in a matter of minutes. Of course, if the Falcons come up short, the Saints are already in position for the game-winning field goal attempt.
This is the type of decision on which a coach’s reputation is made. If Michael Turner picks up the first down, Smith gets credit for being a gutsy coach, even if the Falcons are a long way from putting up the points to win the game. If Turner comes up short, only a botched snap or a shanked kick will keep the Saints from a victory.
Of course, Turner came up short, the Saints kicked the game winner, and everyone and his sister is second-guessing Smith this week. And they are right to do so.
If the ball were at midfield or beyond, few would be picking this decision apart. Had that been the case and had the Falcons fallen short, the Saints still would have had to make a few plays to get themselves in position for the win. But that wasn’t the case. The ball wasn’t at midfield. At their own 29-yard line, the Falcons’ fourth-and-1 virtually guaranteed a Saints victory if the Falcons came up short. And it guaranteed the Falcons absolutely nothing if they made the first down.
The assumption beneath the call — that Brees would automatically lead the Saints into field goal position if the Falcons punted — was a faulty one. Brees had a good game, but the Saints were not running wild on the Falcons defense. The message Smith sent the Falcons defensive players — “I don’t think you can stop the Saints” — is one the players are unlikely to talk about publicly. But they heard it.
Had they punted, the Falcons still might have lost the game. But by coming up short on the fourth-and-1 from their own 29, they were all but certain to lose a game that they will remember in December and January when they are fighting for a playoff birth. Instead of being tied with the Saints with six wins apiece, the Falcons now have five wins to the Saints’ seven.
The Falcons’ season could come down to that call. And if they fall a game short of the playoffs, don’t be surprised if Smith has to answer to ownership for it.
Predicting that your team is going to win the Super Bowl each year is a great way to show faith in your players and to get your fan base excited. But you have to come through. If you fall short each year, your players and fans are going to lose confidence in you. And when that happens, it’s only a matter of time before you can start packing your bags.
Rex Ryan has predicted Super Bowl victories for the Jets since his first press conference. No, they haven’t won, but they’ve come closer than others might have expected. Ryan’s first few years as the Jets coach have been marked by stellar defensive play, a couple of surprising playoff runs, and the admiration of his players. Sunday, he made an unusual decision that could erode his players’ support.
With the Jets driving at the end of the first half, Mark Sanchez called a timeout. Immediately, the cameras caught a livid Ryan and his coaching staff, who understood that Sanchez was leaving time on the clock for Tom Brady to march the Patriots down the field to a score of their own before halftime. And, sure enough, after the Jets scored, the time Sanchez left on the clock proved to be more than enough for Brady and the Patriots to score themselves.
Was it a poor decision by Sanchez? Of course. You knew it. I knew it. The announcers knew it. But what happened next may prove to be a significant step toward Ryan’s exit from the Jets.
Apparently unable to control himself, Ryan did what he has been doing for his entire tenure as the Jets coach — he opened that big mouth of his. But this time, instead of hyping his team, he blasted one of his players. If the ABC reporters are to be believed, during a halftime interview Ryan called Sanchez’s timeout “the stupidest call in the history of the league,” or words to that effect.
Instead of protecting his quarterback, Ryan had just called the leader of his offense an idiot. While it may not affect Sanchez’s confidence — he has always seemed over-confident for someone with his skill set — it cannot be good for the relationship between the two, and it cannot be good for Ryan’s reputation in the locker room. Players played hard and well for Ryan because he watched their backs. Now, they can’t be so sure that he’s watching their backs.
Ryan will try to spin his comments in the coming days, perhaps even claiming he was misquoted, but the Jets players know the truth. They may have lost some trust in Ryan. And if Ryan can’t be a players’ coach anymore, what can he be?
If the Jets are to make the playoffs this year, Ryan needs to motivate them down the stretch. If he can’t motivate them because of his comments about Sanchez, or if the Jets fall short for any reason, Ryan will be on the hot seat. That’s what happens when you guarantee a Super Bowl. That’s what happens when you question the intelligence of the person who is supposed to lead you there.