Jim Schwartz, Mark Dantonio, and Playcalling

>> 9.28.2010

Scott Linehan and Jim Schwartz have taken a beating from Lions fans over the past few days.  Schwartz’s decision-making has been “gutless,”  and “too conservative.”  Scott Linehan’s playcalling has been even worse: “ultraconservative.” Therefore it only follows that Scott Linehan “is the Anti-Christ,” right?

As @pdavidy8 put it on Twitter last night:

It reminds me of a paraphrased Gandhi quote: "Your Lions I love, its your Lions fans that I can't stand."

Playcalling is one of those things that fans and coaches spend their mutual lives arguing about, it’s always been so, and always will be.  I first heard this maxim from George Perles—and he wasn’t the first coach to say this, nor will he be the last—but coaching decisions are judged like this: if it works, it’s smart.  If it doesn’t, it’s stupid.

Example A: Bill Belichick, a visionary genius coach whose thorough understanding of the rules and willingness to make decisions that not only run counter to hackneyed old football traditions, but in fact would never even occur to lesser coaches gave Belichick the inspiration to win an unwinnable game with a magnificent play call.

Example B:  Bill Belichick, a blithering idiot whose total lack of common sense prompted him to make the second-stupidest decision in the history of Boston sports, which despite probably actually working except for a bad spot by the refs was nevertheless solely responsible for nullifying the fifty-some minutes of football that preceded it, turned glorious victory into cripping defeat with a horrible play call.

The truth is that there is no “right call” or “wrong call” in any given situation, but instead a vast range of probabilities.  Check out a bit of the incredible work done by MGoBlog’s The MathleteThe Mathlete has done several studies on fourth-down decision-making (albeit based on NCAA drive results and not NFL), and come up with some data that strongly challenges traditional thinking on when to punt, when to go for it, and when to kick a field goal.  Go check it out, and then come back.

Lesson One: when you have a good offense, the special teams should stay on the sideline far more often than common wisdom holds.  This is likely because when common wisdom came around, there was no such thing as a three-wide-receiver set; offenses gain more yards in bigger chunks more frequently than Fielding Yost and Biggie Munn ever dreamed possible.  When fans talk about “playing the percentages,” they likely have no idea what “the percentages” actually are—and likely, neither do many of the coaches.

In fact, Schwartz is a Belichick disciple, and has often been lauded for his intense commitment to understanding the game on every level, of learning what the latest research has to say about what the chances of success in any given situation are.  If any NFL head coach has a firm grasp of what all the odds and probabilities are from anywhere on the field, it’s likely the man I’ve been calling The Grandmaster.

Lesson Two: Coaches call plays by feel.  Their level of confidence in their own team, their idea of what “the percentages” are, the vibe coming off of their players, the preparation they did all week, any advantage they think they’ve got or weaknesses they think they’ve identified, that all swirls around in their heads, swirls around the black hole in the center of their psyche: the fear of failure.

When a person, such as you or I, pop Madden NFL in our chosen gaming console, and we face a four and three, we think only one thing: “I can get three yards.”  We have infinite faith in our ability to get three yards—and why wouldn’t we?  We know we’re going to beat the computer like a drum, either way.  We also know that if we lose, it doesn’t matter.

With head coaches, though, there’s something at stake: their job.  Their livelihood.  Their house.  Their wife.  Their children.  The livelihood, houses, wives, and children of both their coordinators.  The livelihood, houses, wives, and children of all their position coaches, and all their assistants, and . . . all of those people’s lives are riding on every single decision a head coach makes.

Why was that “the call of the year”?  Why did Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel, and Urban Meyer fall all over themselves praising the “magical,” “gutsy” call that made them “nervous?”  Because Dantonio’s season was at stake.  Because Dantonio was facing down the man who finished second to him in the MSU coaching search—who then took over his old Cincinnati program and elevated it to dizzying heights.  Because every instinct a coach has developed from decades of being around football says “kick the field goal and hope you live to fight another round” . . . but Mark Dantonio was more confident in his team executing this play to seal a victory, than in his kicker trying a long field goal that would merely keep them alive.  They’d practiced the play many times, even used it in last season’s bowl game.  Dantonio had faith in his teams’s ability to execute—and the balls to make the best decision, even if it wasn’t the “correct” one.  He’ll be celebrated for it, and rightly so.

But what if it didn’t work?

Le'Veon Bell was the intended target on that play; he was blocked out.  Aaron Bates found Charlie Gantt anyway . . . but what if he hadn’t?  What if he threw it out of bounds, or to the wrong shoulder, or Gantt dropped it, or a defender made a play?  The Spartans would have lost on the spot, and the home crowd would have left the stadium with a nasty feeling in the pit of their stomach—and a bone to pick with Coach D.  We’d have spent the following week chiding Dantonio for his reckless stupidity instead of lauding him for his elephantine cojones.

So what of Schwartz?  In the heat of battle, with the game clock ticking down, a veteran kicker beating himself up about his prior miss, a quarterback with a questionable deep ball, and an offense he suspects might not get many scoring drives, and a sideline full of his friends and colleagues trying to provide food for their families?  It’s no wonder he didn’t have a Dantonio-esque level of confidence in his teams’ ability to execute without making a mistake.

Especially when everyone ripped him up and down just a few days before for going for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal.

This is the issue: last week, the Lions needed a field goal to win, so Schwartz was “overthinking” himself and “too aggressive” when he passed up the guaranteed three for the chance to keep the ball and maybe get seven.  This week, the Lions needed touchdowns to win, so obviously settling for a sure three was “gutless” and “conservative” and “wussy” and whatever else you want to call it. 

When it’s time to make a call, as it is hundreds of times during a game, while the clock is ticking and the crowd is screaming and the coordinator’s in your ear and the players are all around you and you cast an eye up to the owner’s box, there might be a hundred different opinions on what the “right” decision is.  Whether you’re going by the book, going by the Football Outsiders Almanac, or going by the opinion of the drunk guy in section 347, everyone has a different idea of what to do.  No coach is ever going to make the right decision every time.  But sometimes, even if you can figure out what the “right” decision is, and you have the stones to make it, it turns out wrong—because we’re dealing with probabilities and human beings, not mathematical equations in a video game.

If you want to look at the reasons why the Lions lost on Sunday, let’s start with Stefan Logan’s fumble.  Let’s point to C.C. Brown’s blown coverages.  How about penalty flags nullifying a sack, an interception, and a crucial third-down run?  How about, after all that, the Lions still had two drives in the last five minutes that should have scored the two touchdowns the Lions needed to tie the game—and twice, Shaun Hill threw interceptions instead of touchdowns?

Indeed, that’s the grand irony here: Jim Schwartz elected to kick a field goal at the end of the first half because he was afraid Shaun Hill might throw a pick in the end zone, and the opportunity to score points would be lost—and at the end of the second half, that happened not once, but twice.  Jim Schwartz’s lack of faith in his team, in that instant, with those injuries, against that opponent, in that stadium, might be disappointing . . . but it was undoubtedly well-founded.



19 comments:

TimT September 28, 2010 at 5:21 PM  

Good job, Ty. Lot's of malcontents out there in Lions fandom. Now if you could somehow turn your points into a bat that could reach through my computer and ding people over the head with, then we might be getting somewhere. Alas, the "Linehan is a moron" and "Schwartz is a wimp" chants will continue.

Only one thing gonna fix this.
Winning.

I'm taking a hiatus from being the "voice of reason". You're doing an excellent job, just don't let them wear you down.

Anonymous,  September 28, 2010 at 5:46 PM  

Dantonio was so smug in the interview after the game.

Anonymous,  September 28, 2010 at 6:41 PM  

And Dantonio deserved to be.

Bob September 28, 2010 at 8:15 PM  

Excellent again Ty. I generally never have a problem with aggressive playcalling whether it succeeds or fails. My only issue with last weeks 4th down go for it decision was the decision to run it up the middle on 3rd and 4th down. Up the middle isn't the best -in my mind- at any time. I still have faith.
And I'll post a tweet in a bit predicting a W over the Packers! (Even I just chuckled at that thought!)

A Lion in ViQueen Territory,  September 28, 2010 at 10:06 PM  

we got this, we got this. Keep the little blue flame burning.

I like Schwartz. I like Linehan. When their system is working, it works well. Duh. The problem is in the execution and consequently the confidence the coaches have in the players. Maybe it'll be different once Matt Stafford returns.

cjpops September 29, 2010 at 12:46 AM  

"If you want to look at the reasons why the Lions lost on Sunday, let’s start with Stefan Logan’s fumble..."

These are all legit points. However, the fact remains that this Detroit coaching staff does not utilize Calvin Johnson effectively at all.

1) He's ignored for large stretches of the game.

2) No 'jump ball' play to him in the red zone.

3) Many of his red zone routes do not even take him into the end zone (see: last INT against Minny).

That needs attention.

Clusterfox,  September 29, 2010 at 10:04 AM  

Great Read Ty!

Anon-I don't think Dantonio was smug I think he was trying to keep his heart from jumping out of his chest, Literaly. He knew he just stuck his neck way out and was in a state of shock/awe as he was shaking hands and having microphones stuck in his face.
CJpops-the fact remains that this Detroit coaching staff does not utilize Calvin Johnson effectively at all.
He's ignored for large stretches of the game-Linehan doesn't make the descision of who to throw to. and last time I checked if its a pass play, and CJs on the field, He is running a route and is a available to be passed to, (though he will be double teamed)but that is not on Linehan.
Many of his red zone routes do not even take him into the end zone- If his route left him short of the endzone its because he ran his route leaving him short of the endzone.Again Linehan didn't say "Hey CJ the games on the line I'd really like to see you 1 yard shy of the endzone on this one". If anything CJ probably figured he'd be more open and trusted in himself to get the rest after the catch. But again not on Linehan.
But I do agree whole heartedly with your comment, but I think CJ works best with a QB that can fire 9ft lasers, 35 yards down the field,we don't have that right now. Hopefully soon.

Keep up the great work Ty,
Clusterfox

Anonymous,  September 29, 2010 at 10:36 AM  

Relying on Backus and Riola and drafting a tight-end, an undersized safety,and a flashy-but-lightwieght rb instead of tackles, guards, and centers; there's your problem. The scheme and the in-game decisions don't matter when the personel is inadeuqate. Schwartz admitted as much when he settled for the field goal. The Lions remain a WCF managed product, clearly signaled by the Mayhew for Millen move. The fans are driving a Pinto in a Covette race!

Ty September 29, 2010 at 10:58 AM  

TimT--

"Now if you could somehow turn your points into a bat that could reach through my computer and ding people over the head with, then we might be getting somewhere. "

I've tried. BELIEVE me, I've tried!

"I'm taking a hiatus from being the "voice of reason". You're doing an excellent job, just don't let them wear you down."

It is hard, hard work keeping this fire going . . . but I'll be here; it's a labor of love. I don't know how to not.

Peace
Ty

Ty September 29, 2010 at 11:22 AM  

Anon 1, Anon 2--

I'm with Anon 2. If you can't take a little pride in THAT win, then why play football at all?

Peace
Ty

Ty September 29, 2010 at 11:53 AM  

Bob--

Thanks! Even if they weren't just positioning their field goal with a run up the middle, we should be able to execute that. It's not really the plays as much as the execution . . . if they're not executing, it doesn't matter what play you call.

Peace
Ty

Ty September 29, 2010 at 12:05 PM  

ALiVQT--

"I like Schwartz. I like Linehan. When their system is working, it works well. Duh. The problem is in the execution and consequently the confidence the coaches have in the players."

Bingo.

"Maybe it'll be different once Matt Stafford returns."

. . . that's what we have to hope. Then again, we KNOW what a difference he made last season, right?

Peace
Ty

Ty September 29, 2010 at 12:08 PM  

cjpops--

"These are all legit points. However, the fact remains that this Detroit coaching staff does not utilize Calvin Johnson effectively at all."

I don't think that's true. What they don't do is constantly feed him the ball, despite being double-covered. I may write a whole article about that.

Peace
Ty

Anonymous,  September 29, 2010 at 1:44 PM  

Hear, hear.

Play calling + execution = result.

Fans that want to to be knowledgeable need to better understand how to deconstruct the result into those two components.

Then they can understand why a coach will make a certain play calling decision to maximize his expected result GIVEN his assumption about execution.

cjpops September 29, 2010 at 3:10 PM  

Cluster -

Herman Moore played for the Lions. He was on the field and available to pass to. In fact, he became the Lions all time receiving leader with Scott Mitchell (or worse) at QB. Herman did it by beating double teams, demolishing DBs in single coverage and having the OC take advantage of his natural height and leaping ability - like utilizing the 'jump ball-fade' in the end zone.

Double teaming is a poor excuse. When Herman Moore played I remember the coaching staff intimating (can't believe I'm harkening back to Wayne Fontes' time) that "if he's singled covered, we consider him open." The Lions players and their current coaching staff continue to beat the drum for utilizing CJ more as soon as another receiver is there to take away the constant double team. It's an old excuse and a lousy one at that. I'm tired of the blame game. If he's one of the best receivers in the league and a dominating talent, let's see it. If not, fine. Stop blaming his production, or lack thereof, on other receivers.

I also find it amazing that an athlete of CJ's stature can't beat a double team on his own every once in a while. If it's not the coaching and play calling, it's the player. In other words, either the play calling isn't good enough or we've been mislead about CJ's 'game breaking/changing' abilities. I, for one, am still waiting to be convinced that he's one of the best receivers in the game. Still waiting for the consistent production.

"If his route left him short of the endzone its because he ran his route leaving him short of the endzone.Again Linehan didn't say "Hey CJ the games on the line I'd really like to see you 1 yard shy of the endzone on this one". If anything CJ probably figured he'd be more open and trusted in himself to get the rest after the catch. But again not on Linehan."

How do you know this? How do you know how Linehan drew up the play? Is it really out of the realm of possibility for a play to be drawn up where a route doesn't go for the needed yardage (think about routes that take a receiver 4 yards on 3rd and 8)? And if CJ figured on his own to break off the route because "he'd be more open" that's another condemnation of his ability/lack of maturity. I have to assume that the players run the routes that are designed unless a mistake is made. Football is too complicated and OC's schemes are too important for players to make their own decisions in this case. He didn't get in the endzone on that final play. It's either Linehan's fault or CJ's. Neither option is a good coice.

"I think CJ works best with a QB that can fire 9ft lasers, 35 yards down the field,we don't have that right now. Hopefully soon."

If we don't have QBs who can throw this or the fade route from 20 yards and in, then we need new QBs. Period. If our QBs can't do this, then get someone who can. You have to play to your team's strength, which in this case is at wideout. If the Lions decide not to do that, again, it's management/coaching at fault.

Ty -

"I don't think that's true. What they don't do is constantly feed him the ball, despite being double-covered. I may write a whole article about that."

Even though I just don't agree with the double coverage excuse. I don't remember that being talked about with the great receivers like Rice, Moss, Moore, etc...I hope you do write the article, I'd love to read it.

Matt,  September 29, 2010 at 6:07 PM  

Ty, I'd like to see that CJ article. In the meantime, I have some thoughts on this topic.

cjpops has a very good point about double teams. All the great receivers face them and beat them, that's what makes them great receivers. Andre Johnson was the only thing going in Houston for a long time (they seem to have finally gotten more balanced this year with the ever-solid Kevin Walter, the explosive Jacoby Jones, and Arian Foster toting the rock - and this is all while perhaps their second best offensive player, TE Owen Daniels, is limited by injury) and he consistently put up elite numbers. Johnson beats double teams and destroys single coverage while simultaneously creating opportunities for those other players.

So let's use AJ as a comparison for CJ. I think there are several differences between their situations. First, the supporting cast. CJ has been the only show in town since he arrived and, with Best, Burleson, and Pettigrew all struggling through injuries, remains so. This means he gets TRIPLE covered, typically with a corner underneath, a safety over top, a linebacker bracketing, and the sideline providing a fourth defender. Any QB would be crazy to throw into that situation. This doesn't counter the "no jump balls in the end zone" argument, but I honestly think that's a fair one. What's not fair is calling for different QBs. If it was simply a matter of picking up an awesome QB, every NFL team would have one.

That is another difference between AJ and CJ. AJ has Matt Schaub. While not an elite QB (a guy that can win games all by himself), he's much better than average, learned the craft on the bench in ATL, and has several years of starting experience under his belt. He knows how to get AJ the ball as well as when to look elsewhere. CJ has had Stafford (sort of) and a bunch of nobodies. Stafford apparently has all the talent in the world, but that doesn't do you any good if you can't stay on the field. This is a point that should be very concerning to Lions fans. IF he comes back against the Rams and IF he stays healthy the rest of the year (both big, big IFs), he still will only have started about two-thirds of the games possible (with a few did-not-finishes in there). It's tough for a young QB to develop when he isn't consistently in the line-up, especially when HIS suppporting cast isn't consistently in the line-up either.

Finally, coaches. The Texans have an offensive-minded head coach, Gary Kubiak. Generally speaking, these guys want to win by outscoring their opponents (duh, but I think you know what I'm getting at). They are more willing to call plays that take shots down the field (the high-risk, high-reward stuff) and are more willing to coach their QBs to take those shots. One the flip-side, CJ has Jim Schwartz, a defensive-minded coach. And, yes, Linehan is given mostly free reign to run his offense, but there is still that overall team philosophy in the background: don't take too many chances, make the safe play, don't turn the ball over, at least keep us in the game, etc., etc.

All of this, I think, adds up to depress what CJ is capable of doing. All this being said, I do agree that he's being under-utilized. I don't recall an honest-to-god deep ball being thrown to him yet this season. The end zone fade has been used, but not often enough. Hopefully, and in theory, when Stafford, Best, Burleson, Pettigrew, and CJ himself are all healthy together (let's not forget that CJ has had his own injury issues), some of these boundaries will be removed and CJ will be free to dominate.

cjpops September 29, 2010 at 10:36 PM  

Matt -

Valid comparison to AJ. However, IIRC, Schaub is a late arrival to Houston. He had David Carr at first and still made a name for himself.

"If it was simply a matter of picking up an awesome QB, every NFL team would have one."

If the Lions QBs can't throw a simple fade route, they don't belong in professional football.

I would grant that Schwartz is a defensive minded coach. But, Linehan (if I'm not mistaken) was the OC for Minny in the days of Culpepper - Moss. I don't remember Randy M having any trouble getting the ball game in and game out. This makes the CJ disappearing act even more puzzling...unless he just isn't a dominant receiver as we've all been led to believe. Maybe he's just tall.

Matt,  October 1, 2010 at 11:53 AM  

You're right, Linehan was in Minny from '02 to '04. Also in Minny at that time were Moss and Culpepper (who certainly was better than Shaun Hill and, at that time, better that Matt Stafford has been up to this point). The Vikings combined Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, and Moe Williams into an effective rushing attack (not to mention Culpepper). They had secondary receiving weapons in Nate Burleson, Marcus Robinson, Dwayne Bates, Jim Kleinsasser, and Jermaine Wiggins (plus the RBs). Bryant McKinnie, Matt Birk, David Dixon, and Chris Liwienski were mainstays on the O-Line. My point is that the Vikings were a better top-to-bottom offense while Linehan was there than Detroit has been during the "Megatron Era." They also went 23-25 over this span and Moss split for Oakland the next season.

Moss put up 266 catches, 3746 yards, and 37 TDs in 45 games (that's 6, 83, and .8 per game; 89, 1249, and 12 per season). Those averages, both per game and per season, are virtually identical to what CJ did in 2008 playing for the first 0-16 team in NFL history. Let's also not forget that, in Moss, we're comparing CJ not merely to an elite receiver, but perhaps the (second) greatest receiver of all time. I am always loathe to compare any player to a GOAT at his position. It just isn't quite fair.

So, let's go back to AJ (elite, but not yet GOAT). He arrived in Houston in '03 and through '06, with Carr at QB, averaged 78 catches, 988 yards, and 4 TDs a season (with highs of 103, 1147, and 6). Good, but not exactly setting the world on fire. For comparison, CJ averaged 64, 1023, and 7 through his first 3 seasons. Kubiak arrived in '06 and Schaub arrived in '07 (which happened to be an injury-shortened season for AJ). Since '07 and not including this season, AJ has averaged 92 catches, 1332 yards, and 8 TDs. It is undeniable that the arrival of Kubiak/Schaub contributed heavily to the ascension of AJ to elite status.

So what's my point? I absolutely agree with you that CJ's lack of production so far this season is disturbing. However, you have to consider the mitigating circumstances (both this year and for his career as a whole). You can't just go "He's supposed to be an elite talent, he should produce like one no matter what surrounds him." It is ridiculously unfair (or, at the very, very least too early) to start writing him off as a bust - which is how I interpret "Maybe he's just tall." There are MANY more factors which contribute to his lack of production than his own talent level. At this point, you can fairly say he's not the greatest receiver of all time, but that's about it. In my opinion, the jury is still very much out and will remain so until legitimate, stable talent surrounds him.

Matt,  October 1, 2010 at 12:15 PM  

Two addendums - first, a hypothetical: if the Lions put CJ on the trade block today, don't you think many teams would be falling all over themselves to give the Lions multiple draft picks (including a 1st-rounder) for him? I would say so and offer this as hypothetical proof that the problem is CJ's talent.

Second, QBs - didn't Shaun Hill hit CJ for a game-winning TD fade in Week 1? You can't put the non-catch on Hill. I only remember one other (unsuccessful) attempt at an end zone fade this season. And I agree with you, that's on Linehan, not Hill. And Hill's our #2 guy. I don't think Hill's any great shakes, but as a #2 guy, he's been fine this season. My greater concern at the QB position is the health and short/mid/long-term durability of The Franchise. As I said before, this is my biggest concern as a Lions fan right now. I have full confidence that, if he's actually on the field during a game, Matt Stafford is perfectly capable of throwing a fade to Calvin Johnson.

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