On Taking the Wind

>> 6.17.2013

Marty Mornhinweg is not the worst head coach in NFL history.

Deadspin's Drew Magary and Dom Cosentino asserted the opposite late last week, based partly on Mornhinweg's 5-27 record as head coach, but mostly on the HILARIOUS STUPIDITY of taking the wind in overtime.

The article makes a lot of cogent points about the NFL having moved beyond coaches getting "hired to be fired," straight into a swirling vortex of hiring blatantly unqualified candidates to turn around talentless rosters, and poleaxing them if they don't immediately succeed.

As I've written before, trying to catch "lightning in a bottle" is the wrong way to hire a coach. As often as not, the young coach who pretends to have the NFL figured out is found out. (see: McDaniels, Josh).

Mornhinweg, in a way, was the model for this particular way to fail. Not only was he not an experienced NFL head coach, the 38-year-old had never been a head coach at any level. He'd been calling plays under Steve Mariucci in San Francisco for only two years, and the 49ers were 10-22 over that span.

Mornhinweg was hired to be fired, quite literally. As rumor had it, Matt Millen's relationship with Mooch was part of the reason the Ford family entrusted the franchise to Millen. Mornhinweg was basically there to install Mariucci's flavor of the Bill Walsh offense and keep Mooch's seat warm.

On December 31st, 2002, Millen announced that the Lions would be retaining Mornhinweg for a third season. Then Mariucci was unexpectedly let go by the 49ers. Three weeks after the public vote of confidence Mornhinweg was awkwardly terminated; a week after that the prodigal Yooper returned.

Marty Mornhinweg was then, and is now, a gifted offensive coach with a bright future. Mornhinweg did a lot of learning on the job, which included a contrived move-for-move reenactment of a Mike Holmgren training camp tirade-and-motorcycle-peel-out. Lions veterans profoundly did not buy it.

One thing Mornhinweg got right, though—or at least, did not get as wrong as everyone thinks—was taking the wind on that fateful day.

Now-defunct site Football Commentary did a beautiful win-probability analysis of the decision back in 2004. I can't find anything today that backs this assertion up, but my memory is that all 34 points scored in regulation that day had been scored with the wind.

I've talked and written many times about football's hilariously risk-averse culture, wherein even the game's greatest coach is pilloried for maximizing win probability instead of "playing the percentages" when he doesn't get a result.

In reality, Mornhinweg's mistake was accepting a holding call on a 3rd-and-8 incompletion that would have forced the Bears to send Paul Edinger out for a 42-yard kick into the hellacious wind—or even wave the white flag and send out Brad Maynard to punt it away. Had the Lions gotten the victory with that decision, Mornhinweg's outside-the-box decision would have been lauded as crazy-like-a-fox, instead of idiotic.

[Ed.- Per request, I used the Advanced NFL Stats WP calculator to judge this decision. The Bears had a 0.68 WP at 4th-and-8 from the 35, and an 0.62 WP at 3rd-and-18 from the 45. However, this is based on modeled leaguewide historical expectations, and wind into the teeth of which none could score is certainly unexpected.]

Continuing to shame Mornhinweg over that call is stupid and destructive and misses the point: Marty Mornhinweg was a great position coach, hired as a Plan D, and put into an impossible situation. 

Mornhinweg took over a not-talented-enough roster filled with veterans not much younger than he was, a brand-new front office with no idea what they were doing, got saddled with a No. 3 overall rookie quarterback he wanted nothing to do with, then was forced to lie through gritted teeth that he was completely on board hitching his career to Joey Harrington.

Mornhinweg made a lot of mistakes, but taking the wind wasn't one of them. Unlike Rich Kotite or Dennis Erickson or many of the others on the list, Mornhinweg has proven he's a quality NFL coach—and before long, will get another head-coaching gig.

Let's just hope he stays away from motorcycles.


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