The stupefying outcome capped an opening NFL Sunday in which coaches made a spate of game-management decisions that would have made a teenager stand up and hurl his Madden ’16 controller at the television. Jay Gruden cost the Washington Redskins about 15 seconds in their effort to come back by mistiming a timeout. John Fox committed a mistake coaches invariably make during the Chicago Bears’ comeback bid.
Every week, costly errors pile up by men hired to coach NFL teams. It is not because they’re fools unqualified for the job. It is because NFL head coach, not unlike President of the United States or Donald Trump’s hair stylist, has become a job too big for one man.
Some NFL teams have realized that a head coach simply has too many tasks, in too chaotic of an environment, to always make a level-headed decision. The Denver Broncos’ director of analytics, Mitch Tanney, can speak directly to Coach Gary Kubiak via headset during games. The Baltimore Ravens, Kubiak’s former team, have quietly used a similar system for years. Jets Coach Todd Bowles told reporters this week that he assigns an assistant coach the gameday role of sitting in a box above the field and assessing clock management and game-situation decisions.
There is a fog-of-war element to NFL sidelines that coaches, no matter how well-prepared otherwise, frequently succumb to. Brian Burke, a former Navy pilot who lives in Reston, started his own statistics-based Web site to analyze coaching decisions years ago.
“I had this very outsider view,” Burke said. “These dunces, these dummies, they can’t add two plus two, they can’t do the right thing.”
After his site gained traction – he now works full-time for ESPN – Burke began consulting with a handful of NFL teams. He changed his opinion on the coaches. These were not dunces. They were “really, really smart guys” in an atmosphere ill-suited to sound decision-making.
“When you get on the field and there’s 70,000 people screaming, trying to make those decisions under the time pressure and situational pressure can be really, really difficult,” Burke said. “I think back to my flying days. It was not even in combat, but there could be bad weather and I’m low on gas. I’m trying to figure out, ‘How much gas am I going to need?’ and I can barely do third-grade math. You can barely think. It’s the same on an NFL sideline. There’s just too much going on for one single person to do well. Football is just that complicated.”
As the play clock ticks, NFL coaches must decide what they think the other team is going to do, choose the proper personnel group to send on the field, study players for fatigue, perhaps converse with a referee, plan ahead for subsequent plays, track injuries and who knows what else, all while stadium speakers blare and fans roar.
Bowles, the Jets coach, wanted to be prepared in his first year as an NFL coach. He assigned outside linebackers coach Mark Collins the explicit job on Sundays to consider game situations and communicate the appropriate information to him in real time from the coaches’ box, high above the cacophony of the sideline.
“For me, I always have somebody in the booth [upstairs], and I always quiz myself,” Bowles said this week in a news conference. “You’ve got to be in the moment at the game for that stuff to happen. I take it when it comes.”
For coaches who make baffling decisions, it can be maddening for fans. Sunday, trailing by seven after a first-down defensive stop, Gruden could have used one of his remaining timeouts to stop the clock 17 seconds before the two-minute warning. (We’ll leave aside that he burned a timeout after an incompletion on Washington’s previous offensive possession.) Theoretically, he could have used a pair of timeouts and, assuming his defense held, used the change of possession to get the ball back with just less than two minutes left.
Instead, if the Redskins had not yielded on third and 8, the Redskins likely would have started their drive with around 90 seconds left in regulation. Gruden added to the confusion when he called the choice “easy,” explaining that he felt he could gain a timeout if the Dolphins passed on third down.
The call turned out not to matter, like another decision from Sunday that was equally excruciating. Late in the fourth quarter, trailing by 15 against the Packers, the Bears scored a touchdown. Fox made the same inane choice almost every coach makes. In a nine-point game, Fox elected to kick the extra point instead of going for two, making it an eight-point game.
The decision stemmed from the backward process of favoring hope over practicality. The Bears choose to keep it a one-possession game, but at no benefit. It still needed a two-point conversion to tie. But now it had sacrificed the chance to know whether it would require only a touchdown or a touchdown and a field goal. The Bears surrendered the opportunity to know how aggressive it should play strictly for the sake of appearance.
It is not easy to make the right decision every time as an NFL coach. As more of them will surely prove this coming, it might be impossible.
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