Thank You, Coaches
Bill Barnwell [ARCHIVE]
January 28, 2013
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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...
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