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 Mathlete. The 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.