Week Eight: October 23, 2006
After weeks and weeks of games that lacked fascinating strategic dimensions, the college football season suddenly gave its fans a superabundant supply of situations that lured the second-guessers out of the woodwork. An Autumn bereft of tough tactical tensions finally provided--in week eight--the kinds of scenarios and outcomes that are sure to light up the Monday talk show phone lines.
Texas-Nebraska, UCLA-Notre Dame, and Iowa-Michigan were three games loaded with deliciously layered coaching issues... the kinds of issues, frankly, that haven't been brought forth by this season's games. With so many high-profile contests in 2006 being decided well before the fourth quarter, or with a bevy of mistakes, coaches have--in a weird but real way--faded into the background this season. There haven't been that many games this year in which coaching decisions have truly affected the outcome of a contest. Saturday, though, we finally got at least three such contests, and some fans might contend that other battles (Boston College-Florida State; Rutgers-Pittsburgh) were affected by the decisions coaches did or didn't make.
Let's get down to brass tacks, shall we?
It's appropriate to make one thing clear at the outset: coaching is a demanding, detail-oriented craft, and it would therefore be unfair to rake coaches over the coals without knowing the fuller realities of the situations they face on their sidelines during a game. The more times I write columns about play-calling and strategy (this is the fifth year of the Monday Morning QB), the more I realize that my targets are not individual coaches, but the coaching profession as a whole. The point isn't to single out coaches when they make questionable decisions, but to illustrate larger strategic principles that emerge from various gameday chess moves.
Football--like any other sport (or industry, if you like to view sports as businesses more than as games)--is not a static entity, and so--as the years go by--we ought to be picking up more ideas about how the strategic side of football can evolve. Let's put it this way: it would be pretty lame if, in the year 2013, coaches wind up doing the same things they did in Lincoln, South Bend and Ann Arbor this past weekend. It must be said that the moves made on Saturday by Mack Brown, Karl Dorrell, and Kirk Ferentz were entirely understandable and filled with plenty of conventional football wisdom. The larger point, though, is that one must re-evaluate the value of the prevailing conventional wisdom in the coaching fraternity. The philosophies and standard practices of coaches in 2006 should not be allowed to stand unchallenged... not this season, and certainly not several seasons from now. Coaches didn't coach poorly on Saturday; they merely made conventional decisions that, one would hope, will not be made years from now as the coaching craft grows in sophistication (something it necessarily does every year). So with these important foundational statements on the public record, we can now discuss the specific situations in question from Saturday's games.
First in the crosshairs? Mack Brown, who--it should be said--had his team mentally ready to play a morning game (11:15 a.m. kickoff) in horrible conditions on the road.
The decision Brown faced in the Texas-Nebraska game was--in its immediate details--quite different from the decisions Karl Dorrell and Kirk Ferentz faced in their games. Yet, at the same time, all three decisions pointed to the same basic dilemma: do you take the high-percentage route that gives you a slightly better position but doesn't seal the outcome of a game, or should you take the lower-percentage route that dramatically improves your position and, in the endgame (or near-endgame) stage of the proceedings, seals an outcome altogether?
Here, in short, is what Brown's situation was: up 16-14 with roughly 6:15 left in the game, Texas faced a 4th and goal at the Husker 4. Texas' defense had conceded a touchdown on Nebraska's previous drive, but that came courtesy of blown Longhorn tackles... as was the case on the Big Red's first touchdown earlier in the game. All in all, the percentages did indeed suggest that extending a two-point lead to five was a wise move, given that the Texas defense was reliable and Nebraska had not yet scored a touchdown that came without any mistakes from Gene Chizik's crew. Sure enough, Brown decided to kick the 21-yard field goal for a 19-14 lead. Nebraska, however, managed to respond with a touchdown--aided by a huge personal foul penalty from Texas--for a 20-19 advantage that almost held up.
In light of the way the final minutes played out, some people might be blaming Brown for his decision, but upon further examination, it's really hard to find fault with the Texas coach... at least according to the conventional coaching wisdom. Coaches--a conservative lot by nature (more on this as the column goes along)--would, if polled, side with Brown's decision in this case. If Texas had the ball at the Nebraska 1 instead of the 4, you might see the conventional wisdom tilt in the other direction, but not in this situation. Again, it bears repeating: Mack Brown didn't coach poorly in this situation; however, it's just as important to stress that the conventional wisdom--and future decisions made under these conditions--should face withering scrutiny and reconsideration.
It's possible to disagree with a coaching decision and yet view that same decision as a good and logical one. Why? Because the scenario Mack Brown faced in Lincoln is the kind of scenario that requires coaches to have a sixth sense about the ebb and flow of a football game. There are times when coaching decisions are matters of art more than science, and Brown's fourth-down choice was one of those occasions. Coaching moves are rarely "wrong" in a purely objective sense when these moments arise; but just the same, the better coaches' hunches will be rewarded and affirmed more than those of their less accomplished counterparts. Brown is unquestionably an elite coach, but with that having been said, there was a time when he hadn't yet merited elite status (not as a gameday chessmaster, at any rate). On Saturday, he didn't make an incorrect move, but two years from now in an identical situation, he might opt to go in a different direction.
Here's why the Monday Morning Quarterback officially disagrees with the decision to kick a field goal when up by two and facing 4th and goal from the 4 with just over six minutes left: while Brown's move was full of longstanding football wisdom--and therefore not a bad one--it did choose to slightly improve a team's position with a high-percentage approach, instead of seeking to seal a game's outcome with a lower-percentage approach. In the spirit of upholding coaches' individual decisions while questioning the deeper conventional wisdom of the coaching profession, it's this football analyst's considered opinion that the coaching craft should gradually come to embrace the lower-percentage approach that, if successful, will seal the outcome of a game. After all, if Brown had decided to go for the touchdown and Colt McCoy had delivered the goods, Texas would have had a nine-point lead. That's two possessions, folks. Bill Callahan wouldn't have had a chance to spring a trick play on the Horns and steal a late lead that nearly held up. Yes, Mack Brown should be angry at Marcus Griffin for giving the Huskers a get-out-of-jail-free card, but the point still stands that the field goal--while undeniably adding to Texas' advantage in the fourth quarter--also left the larger outcome still in doubt. A touchdown would have removed all, or almost all, remaining uncertainties about the outcome of the game. This raises a fundamental point: much as any favored team suffers the longer the outcome hangs in the balance, it should then follow that coaching decisions--in future seasons--should begin to place much more emphasis on sealing outcomes as soon as possible, instead of taking a safer and more incrementalist approach. After all, while coaches think that--by playing percentages--they enhance their chances of winning, they fail to realize that sealing an outcome gives you a 100 percent chance of winning. And if you're mindful of percentages, you can't do better than a 100 percent chance (or, to be open to the possibility of a Washington-Cal miracle or some similarly answered prayer, 99.5 percent). This is why Mack Brown can be deemed logical and sound in his decision making, even while some writers think that the substance of conventional coaching wisdom should change over time. Sealing outcomes with bold moves, instead of slightly improving percentages with safe moves, should be the direction coaches can take in the coming years and beyond. But Mack Brown shouldn't have been expected--by me or anyone else--to personally start this trend on Saturday.
The same basic principle applies to Karl Dorrell, who gets the next spot under the microscope. Dorrell, like Brown, chose to take a high-percentage route of safety, rather than a lower-percentage route toward certain victory. Here's the situation he faced: his Bruins led Notre Dame by four with 2:26 left in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game in South Bend. Notre Dame had three timeouts (memo to coaches: Charlie Weis is at the head of your profession when it comes to saving his timeouts for the endgame phase; this one overlooked and underappreciated aspect of the coaching craft is something that has helped the Irish to pull out these Houdinis over the past two years), but UCLA had been moving the ball largely on the strength of its passing game. However, a complicating factor was that Patrick Cowan--the Bruins' signal caller--was a backup thrust into a very daunting road environment.
Dorrell's decision? He drained Notre Dame's three timeouts with pedestrian running plays, giving the Irish the ball back with 1:02 left and 80 yards in which to get a touchdown against a previously stout UCLA defense that had pounded Brady Quinn (and ND's offensive front) into submission over the game's first 58 minutes and 58 seconds. Yes, the Irish came roaring downfield to cover the 80 yards in just three plays. Much as Brown will catch heat for his Nebraska decision--given that the Huskers scored a go-ahead touchdown after Texas' field goal from the 4--so it is also the case that on the L.A. talk shows, Dorrell will receive some noise from callers because the Irish won. It's much like the moves baseball managers make: they're judged simply on the basis of whether they work or not; damn the percentages or logic of the moves. That's the world of human nature and the emotional investments of sports fans.
It's not the world of mature football analysis, however.
Dorrell's decision in South Bend, as far as it goes, was entirely sound and rooted in a great deal of logic... just like Brown's field goal in Lincoln. Given the way UCLA's defense had been balling against Notre Dame's charmin-soft offensive line, it was hard--if not impossible--to think that the Irish could flip the switch--ironically, UCLA's modus operandi on offense last season--and immediately create a late-game comeback with no prior momentum. There was a lot of wisdom behind Dorrell's decision, and that reality can't be denied.
Yet--see the theme we're building here, folks?--one can still disagree with Dorrell's decision and argue that conventional coaching wisdom needs to be updated.
The verdict here is that while Dorrell's decision could never be called "wrong" in any objective sense, it was nevertheless a reflection of shortcomings in the philosophies currently undergirding the entirety of the coaching profession. What might be hard to understand for Dorrell and his colleagues in the business, though, is that on the surface of things, there might not seem to have been any credible alternative for the UCLA coach in those final minutes against the Irish. After all, with the possible exception of Mike Leach and a few others, the entire roster of Division I-A football coaches would fundamentally agree with the view that if placed in an identical situation, draining the opponent's three timeouts would be a no-brainer. This column, moreover, shares that view. Yes, all three timeouts should have been drained. So the question becomes this: what's the decision Dorrell should have made? Put in a larger context, here's the bigger and more central question: what's the tenet of conventional coaching wisdom that should be reconsidered in this case?
While Dorrell was entirely correct to drain Weis' three timeouts and trust his defense, the one element of Dorrell's strategy that demands examination is his decision to use pedestrian runs, as opposed to bold or creative running plays in the process of exhausting Notre Dame's timeouts. We see this all the time in endgame phases of college football contests: coaches don't just value the clock and timeouts over first downs; they take absolutely no chances in the process of valuing the clock and timeouts over first downs. One must ask the fraternity of college football coaches (and NFL coaches, for that matter) the following question: can't there be a more creative way to drain the other team's three timeouts in an endgame situation? That's at the heart of the matter. Seriously: just because you want to drain three timeouts with three running plays that stay in bounds, you don't have to (then) run three billy-basic running plays right into the teeth of a defense that's stacking the box in expectation of... what else?... one of those very same billy-basic running plays! You don't have to pass the ball if you're a coach looking to drain timeouts in the endgame phase of a contest, but you ought to come up with more creative running plays. How about a reverse mini-option from a spread formation (a Steve Spurrier special)? What about a fake fullback plunge that becomes an end-around (not a reverse, something broadcast commentators need to get straight, by the way)? And why not consider a simple naked bootleg that could sucker a defense intent on stuffing a power run up the gut? Please, don't throw three passes or do anything stupid, but in the same breath, why not give a little flavor to conventional coaching wisdom by trying some GUTSY runs instead of the pedestrian runs that basically allow the opponent to get the ball back... even if it's with little time left and no timeouts? Karl Dorrell did absolutely nothing wrong, but in future seasons, one hopes that the fraternity of college football coaches would use more creativity in trying to drain an opponent's timeouts in the endgame phase of a Saturday showdown.
We now come to the third and final case study from a fascinating weekend: Kirk Ferentz of Iowa against Michigan. Unlike his two colleagues from Austin and Westwood, Ferentz didn't face a wrenching endgame dilemma. But just the same, the head Hawkeye did stare down the same basic decision faced by Mr. Brown and Mr. Dorrell: take the safe, high-percentage route and slightly improve one's fortunes, or take the riskier route that offers the possibility of establishing a much more commanding position.
Here was Ferentz' situation, which actually came about on two separate occasions in slightly different forms: twice in the third quarter, Iowa penetrated the red zone of Michigan's awesome defense, the "English Majors." On the first occasion, Iowa trailed 3-0 and had a 4th and 1 at the UM 17. On the second occasion, Iowa trailed 10-3 and had a 4th and goal at the Wolverine 5. The backdrop to these two situations was that Iowa had a banged-up team and a defense that was playing exceptionally well. For these reasons, it was in Iowa's best interest to shorten the game while trusting its defense, and that's why Ferentz chose to kick a field goal on both occasions.
Once more--and with feeling--you can't immediately fault Ferentz's thought process, just as you couldn't really fault Brown or Dorrell for their thought patterns. On the 4th and 1, Ferentz opted for a game-tying kick that, in a defense-first game, makes a lot of sense. On the lower-percentage 4th and 5, Ferentz--who probably would have gone for the touchdown had the ball been on the 2 or the 1 (similar to what Mack Brown faced against Nebraska)--stuck with the conventional wisdom and collected points, still not a bad idea in a tight game. It bears mentioning: much as Brown's and Dorrell's defenses let them down in the fourth quarter of their games in Lincoln and South Bend, so it also was that Ferentz's defense let him down in the fourth quarter of Iowa's game in Ann Arbor. The Iowa coach could come in for criticism based on the way the fourth quarter played out, but upon further review, it's hard--yet again, folks; yet again--to truly fault Ferentz for his decisions, especially when you compare them to the decisions 98 percent of other Division I-A coaches would make. With the exceptions of Leach and Spurrier, plus a possible additional trio of Pete Carroll, Charlie Weis, and Tommy Tuberville, just about every other college head coach would have done what Ferentz did. The Iowa coach coached the way conventional wisdom says you should; as a result, his moves should be viewed as sound and logical.
Wanna guess what statement is going to come next?
Yes, sir (we hope you're beginning to get the hang of this by now): while acknowledging the plentiful amount of logic in Ferentz's decisions, one can still disagree with them and argue that conventional coaching wisdom needs to be re-examined.
Ferentz's good and sound decisions can still be disagreed with because the power of the English Majors--or any other truly awesome college defense--suggests that your offense won't make very many forays deep into the opponent's red zone. Possessions--and touchdowns--are at a premium against a defense as good as Michigan's. For this reason, Ferentz--in defiance of conventional coaching wisdom--could have gone for a first down when down 3-0 and sought a touchdown when trailing 10-3. It would have been a risky strategy, but had his offense come through, Iowa could have had a 7-3 lead (which would have altered the trajectory of the game, not to mention the pressure on Chad Henne's back) after the first red zone encounter, and then tied the game at 10 on the second trip into the UM red zone. One can't hold these decisions against Ferentz, but one can begin to question the core philosophies and working assumptions used by the college coaching fraternity as a whole.
Mack Brown, Karl Dorrell and Kirk Ferentz all faced very difficult choices on Saturday, and in their three unique situations, they all sided with conventional wisdom by taking safe, high-percentage routes that slightly improved their teams' chances of winning, but did not seal the outcomes of the games in which they were involved. In each of their situations, these coaches made decisions that did not lead to the ideal scenarios they hoped for. Yet, that very reality doesn't mean their strategic choices were in any way illogical or deficient; moreover, almost all of their coaching colleagues would have likely followed the same paths. At the end of the day, the head coaches at Texas, UCLA and Iowa did not coach poorly, especially from an objective standpoint; yet, their decisions do demand that the conventional wisdom employed by the coaching fraternity should receive fresh--and intense--examination.
* * *
Week Nine: October 30, 2006
USC's hopes of remaining unbeaten in the Pac-10 and contending for the national title were sidelined on Saturday... literally as well as figuratively.
If you want to look beneath the surface and get a much deeper feel for the struggles of Pete Carroll's Trojans, the sideline is a good place to start. Well, no, that's not a reference to the coaches themselves; we're talking about the actual sideline here, that thick white boundary on the side of the field. Yes, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian need to do some tweaking--that part of the "USC sideline" needs to get better for sure--but the main point of focus in this week's MMQ is the physical sideline, which played a leading role in derailing Dwayne Jarrett and the Trojans against an Oregon State team with some smart corners.
The starting point for this discussion is a basic truth that links play calling and player execution: namely, if the players aren't executing, the play callers are put in a box. This was very clear in games other than USC-Oregon State from the past weekend. Florida's play calling, for example--under Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen--found few good answers against Georgia, but the horrible execution of Chris Leak and the Gators' offensive line had a lot to do with the unsuccessful play calling and substandard production. If players aren't doing their jobs, play callers have no leg to stand on. This has to be kept in mind by Trojan fans who might be inclined to rip the combo of offensive coordinators known as "Sarkiffin."
Here was the clear thought process of Sarkiffin in the Oregon State game. The two-headed play calling monster knew that Dwayne Jarrett had to get untracked. Given Jarrett's sizeable and tall frame, the best course of action seemed to be: "throw the ball to the boundary in places where only No. 8 can catch it." There was a considerable amount of logic behind this strategy, especially when you consider the turnover-prone nature of John David Booty's recent performances... which, by the way, didn't leave the building on Saturday. Sarkiffin wisely reasoned that if Booty--the biggest problem with the USC offense when it's all said and done--is struggling, the guesswork and complexity need to be taken out of the offense unless or until the quarterback gets a better rhythm. Accordingly, Sarkiffin tried to trust Jarrett with the difficult playmaking and overall heavy lifting, while making the exercise simpler for Booty. This involved sideline routes that tried to get Jarrett in one-on-one situations where he could outmuscle and outmaneuver corners for catches. In theory, it was a very sound tactical decision on Sarkiffin's part.
But here's where the big, bad sideline--and some failures of nuance from both the coordinators and the quarterback--did USC in.
If you've been reading this columnist for any appreciable length of time, you know that the one NCAA football rule that simply MUST be changed in my world is the asinine provision that a receiver has to get a foot (or knee, etc.) in bounds for his catch to be legal. If the corner or safety can hit a flanker in the air and push said flanker out of bounds on the fly, there is no "force-out" provision, unlike the NFL. If a corner is smart enough and strong enough to hit or lift a receiver out of bounds and prevent that receiver from coming down with a foot in bounds, it's an incomplete pass. Forget the fact that the receiver smoked or outjumped or otherwise outperformed the corner to catch a ball two or three yards inside the field of play; if the corner can hit the receiver out of bounds, it's no catch. This rule--if we want to reward players for making reasonable plays, a fundamental goal of every sport--has to be changed. Coaches committees and rules subcommittees need to address this item along with eliminating the new clock rules when they convene to reform the on-field product of college football.
With that rule in mind, then, it has to be acknowledged that while the sideline is an extra defender at any level of football, it is an especially good defender in the college game--more so than in the NFL. On Saturday, none other than Dwayne Jarrett was denied a catch (and a rather impressive one at that) because of this very rule. It was part of an afternoon in which Jarrett was literally sidelined at every turn. Unfriendly rules hurt the tall receiver, but a lack of attention to detail--from Sarkiffin and Booty--also prevented No. 8 from scoring six points on a number of occasions.
Sarkiffin's noble and logical attempt to take the guesswork out of Booty's decision-making process--and set up Jarrett to make plays in isolated matchups--was undone by the trajectory of Booty's passes to that big, bad sideline. Throughout the afternoon in Corvallis, and especially in the red zone, Booty did indeed trust Jarrett to make plays by throwing the ball his way in traffic. In this sense, USC's offensive braintrust got what it wanted. However, Booty didn't trust Jarrett in the particular way he should have. Confused? Here's the explanation.
While it's true that Booty trusted Jarrett on a general level, by merely throwing the ball in Jarrett's direction, Booty lacked trust in Jarrett in a more specific sense. A constant feature of the unsuccessful passes Booty threw to Jarrett in the red zone was their decidedly flat trajectory. Booty threw the passes as though they were out routes or similarly directional passes that are thrown with an appreciable amount of zip. If Sarkiffin could have changed one aspect of their red zone attack against Oregon State--specifically with respect to involving Jarrett in the passing game--they would have instructed Booty to avoid zipping the ball on those sideline routes that continued to meet with failure. Instead, SC's coordinators would have told their quarterback to throw soft, high-arcing pop-ups, true jump balls that receivers from Maurice Stovall to Weegie Thompson to R.C. Owens (do Google searches on those older names if you don't know them) would own. Jarrett's tall and rangy frame demands that he be given the chance to win vertical jumping and stretching contests. Throwing a sideline route with normal zip and a flat trajectory actually diminishes Jarrett's ability to make a play.
To Sarkiffin's credit, the USC braintrust finally began to tweak their red zone pass routes late in the game against Oregon State. Steve Smith's last-second touchdown came on a sit-down route, in which the receiver stops short and boxes out the defender. This was a brilliant move by Sarkiffin, because they knew that Oregon State's corners--based on SC's previous red zone forays--would have expected a fade or another kind of sideline route when the Trojans pushed the ball downfield in the final minute of Saturday's game. Right after that sit-down touchdown to Smith, Sarkiffin tried the same sit-down to Jarrett on the other (left) side of the field. The smart part of the call was that it made Jarrett's body more of a factor in the play, while also taking the big, bad sideline out of the equation. But the negative part of the call was that the sit-down route demands that a ball be zipped, not lofted, and when the Beavers got pressure up front, Booty's pass got tipped at the line of scrimmage. The lingering deficiency of Sarkiffin's play selection--which wasn't nearly as bad as many would make it out to be--is that when Dwayne Jarrett is involved in the offense, he is not given true jump balls. If Sarkiffin want to get Jarrett involved in the red zone attack for USC, they must insist that John David Booty learn to throw pop-ups that bring Jarrett's towering height into the equation. Pete Carroll's offensive coordinators never embraced this need, and that deficiency proved to be crucial in the Trojans' upset loss. Against Oregon and Cal, look for the ways in which Sarkiffin tweak the SC passing game, especially in relationship to Dwayne Jarrett's role--and the trajectory of John David Booty's throws--in the red zone.
The other major story from this past weekend of play calling and strategy came in the Tennessee-South Carolina game, where Phil Fulmer got back at Steve Spurrier by doing something Spurrier often does to opponents. Spurrier has become a decorated coach for many reasons, but high on the list is his combination of competitive cockiness (pun not intended, given his association with a team named the Gamecocks and a mascot called Cocky) and deceptive simplicity. Spurrier has won many games--and unintentionally irritated opponents--by calling the same play on back-to-back snaps, or otherwise sticking with a basic formula if he feels the opposition isn't in position to stop it. "Balance for the sake of balance"--one of the worst and most overused coaching approaches (sadly) alive today--is a philosophy that has never been adopted by Spurrier, and that's why he gets so much out of his given pool of talent, no matter where he coaches.
On Saturday night in Columbia, Fulmer and his close friend, Volunteer offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, showed a similarly stubborn streak that paved the way for a huge Tennessee victory.
On the decisive drive of the game, the Vols' go-ahead touchdown march that bridged the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarter, Fulmer and the man called "Cut" decided to be relentlessly stubborn with the passing game. For the old offensive lineman from Winchester, Tenn., running the ball or--as they like to say in Knoxville--"pounding the rock" is the preferred mode of transportation for an offense. But against South Carolina's defense, which emphasized taking away the run, Fulmer and Cut were open-minded enough to throw the ball relentlessly, and it was this very intentional decision--along with Erik Ainge's guts--that legitimately propelled the Vols to their go-ahead score, which came precisely when the Gamecocks--with a stop--could have substantially cemented their newfound scoreboard advantage. A longtime proponent of the ground game was willing to take to the skies, and that's why Phil Fulmer should be on cloud nine today after besting Spurrier in a very well-coached game.
The final part of this week's column--a good case study in the realm of football analysis--is a necessary response to a fan base that perceived a given set of analytical statements to be lacking in merit and, most regrettably, an insult to their team. The fan base is a Nebraska Nation that felt it was insulting to say that Texas gift-wrapped the Husker victory that almost was on October 21.
In continuing to explore the relationship between football writers and fans, it must be said that a very understandable and natural source of friction is the simple fact that the national columnist doesn't live in the neighborhood where fans of a given team reside. I don't eat breakfast at the local Omaha diner seven mornings a week, or even three. I don't know the librarians in Lincoln or the optometrist in Ord. Safe to say, no national writer can ever enjoy real conversational intimacy with a local fan base... unless you're Mitch Albom and you wind up going anywhere and everywhere because of non-sports books you crank out that obliterate the boundary between you and a previously foreign constituency. Nebraska fans were quite personally pissed at me, and frankly, I can't blame them.
But this is where the long twilight struggle of forging better football conversations, and establishing a better architecture for astute analysis, continues.
Passion is the friend of college football from an aesthetic standpoint. Emotion makes this sport sing, giving each snap the crackle of intensity that electrifies the gameday experience. But in the sober, cerebral world of football analysis and discussion, emotion is an enemy, for emotions color perspectives. Fan loyalties--borne from connections to a school, a college town, and a state--necessarily run deep, and they give college football a level of enthusiasm the NFL can never hope to match. The deeper bonds between team and community that exist in the college game lie at the heart of its appeal and goodness. But when it comes time to talk straight football--and to discuss the ins and outs of football journalism that inevitably arise from such conversations--emotions have to be laid aside. It's just that simple.
A fundamental reality I've observed from this columnist's chair over the course of (nearly) six years is that fans will not allow a writer's words to mean merely what they in fact mean. (If you want a book-length treatise on this subject, you may e-mail me and request extended writings that I penned in January of 2005.) With respect to the hubub and hoohah that erupted over my Texas-Nebraska commentaries, one must look at an analytical statement in a levelheaded manner. If a writer says that Texas gift-wrapped a victory for Nebraska (with Nebraska then marking the package "return to sender," a comment I should have made in my initial pieces but didn't... that's a small mistake I freely acknowledge), the statement must be allowed to mean exactly that... no more, no less. Such a statement is not code for "Nebraska displayed insufficient effort and didn't deserve any of the good things that came its way." Yet, Husker fans perceived that very meaning behind the surface statement. One Husker fan viewed the "gift-wrapped" terminology as "condescending."
The difficult element of this situation lies in the fact that postgame analysis of Texas-Nebraska--at least from a Nebraska perspective--did not come in the MMQ or Weekly Affirmation, the two feature-length or "long-form" forums I have for providing college football analysis each week. Instead, my analysis of the game came in two "short-form" analytical forums: the "Five Thoughts" segment and the "Instant Analysis" pieces that are filed no more than 90 minutes after the conclusion of the week's biggest and most noteworthy games. When strong statements are made in "short-form" forums, there is a greater potential for comments to be taken the wrong way. But this is where a brief discussion of journalism and, more specifically, editorial commentary/news analysis, is necessary.
In the endlessly polarized world of college football, where fans of every team and conference think they are the unique victims of entrenched institutional media bias (not merely innocent bias, which every human being unavoidably possesses), the big, bad "B-word" is unfailingly applied to commentaries from national writers that: A) are laced with appeciably strong or unapologetic comments; and B) cut in a direction that's unfavorable to the local team. And may I say--as someone who acknowledges with sadness the failings of journalism, in the sports world as well as in the hard-news realm--that it's good for fans to be vigilant about media bias. A journalist isn't worth a warm bucket of spit if s/he refuses to engage or listen to readers. The writer who refuses to learn from fans--and who lacks both the courage and the common sense to make acknowledgments of mistakes or concessions about the limitations of his (her) football analysis--is a writer who will not grow on personal or professional levels. For these and many other reasons, fans should indeed nail writers to the wall if there's real and unmistakable proof of a bias that goes beyond "innocent" and reaches the level of entrenched, institutional, systemic and patternistic prejudice that unfailingly cuts against a team, school, coach or player.
With that having been said, then, one must emphasize a simple point: if one is to claim entrenched, institutional, systemic and patternistic biases--the kinds of biases that are truly unprofessional, unacceptable and mean-spirited, and which point to the existence of real condescension on the part of writers--a fan base (or an individual reader) must come up with a thick stack of press clippings over an extended period of time to document and point out the abuses committed by the writer/columnist/editorialist. It's fine to level a serious charge if you have the evidence; if you're just shooting from the hip, though, you can't claim the moral high ground or any attendant credibility. Using the blanket "the media is biased" reference won't cut it. It's good to make specific claims, but that's just it: specific claims, not general ones. It's not too much to ask. Not if we, the football writers and columnists of America, have to absorb these body blows on a weekly basis.
So with that little journalistic aside over, let's get back to the comment about Texas "gift-wrapping" the Nebraska victory that almost was, and more specifically, to the idea that such a comment was "condescending" to Nebraska fans and an insult to the team. First of all, from an historical standpoint, this columnist has been quite independent-minded about football analysis with respect to the Huskers. Last year, after a very hard-to-analyze game between Nebraska and Texas Tech, the subsequent "Instant Analysis" piece I wrote--a result of careful and withering self-scrutiny--chose to place a tonal and substantive emphasis on the quality of the Huskers' performance, even though they lost the game. Meanwhile, the piece took a more critical route in dissecting the performance of the winning Red Raiders, who needed an inordinate amount of good fortune to escape Lincoln with a win. If there was any possibility that this writer possesses entrenched, institutional, systemic, patternistic bias against the Nebraska Cornhusker football team and program, it went out the window with that game. The problem, of course, is that in this instant-communication (and instant analysis) age of ours, attention spans are understandably short. While writers will remember what they wrote several years ago on a given topic, fans won't. This is not the fault of fans, who don't get paid to keep tabs on writers and who have more important things to do in their lives. But ah, if a fan wants to register a claim of entrenched bias and make a legitimate complaint, s/he must then enter into that very world where tabs--and press clippings--must indeed be kept over many years. If remarks on the 2006 Texas-Nebraska game are to be perceived as "condescending," prior comments on significant Nebraska games in past years must also be brought into the discussion. Otherwise, a columnist--especially if s/he comes to a public forum (Scout.com's Nebraska message board) and explains his (her) comments--deserves what is called "the benefit of the doubt."
When I said that Texas gift-wrapped the Nebraska victory that almost was, I came from a very specific place with a fully mapped-out mental architecture and intellectual framework. Mind you--and this is where the point about analysis not being fact, only one person's carefully-considered opinion/interpretation of news events as they played out, bears repeating--this was not the only intellectual framework one could erect in response to the Texas-Nebraska game. But it was one framework, and if it is supported with reasonable contentions, it should be viewed as reasonable analysis. Not perfect or comprehensive, but reasonable. Many Nebraska fans were man (or woman) enough to forthrightly acknowledge this: they disagreed substantially with my analysis, but could see where I was coming from, especially after I elaborated on some points. They also relaxed after I relented and conceded the point that Nebraska's second touchdown, a 49-yard Brandon Jackson romp off a shovel pass from Zac Taylor, had a lot to do with Jackson himself, and was not the sole result of poor Texas angling/tackling, as I had originally contended. (This represented a substantial concession, because if one attributes 14 Nebraska points to bad Texas tackling, but then concedes that seven of those 14 points--i.e., half--were actually attributable to Husker excellence instead, one is shifting 50 percent of an argument to the other column. Statistically if not for other reasons, that is undeniably a substantial concession. There is no way to counter that particular contention.)
But here's the biggest foundation for my analysis of Texas-Nebraska, and it's a point I never made in weeklong discussions with Husker fans (when I was frankly more concerned with explaining journalistic issues than football-only issues): the heart of my UT-NU analysis, and all comments that flowed from it, was the bad weather that clearly impacted the game.
In a bad weather football game, football becomes a simpler game, and it therefore becomes more of a running game. The fact that Texas ran the ball much better than Nebraska therefore represented, for me, a much bigger reality in comparison to other football analysts. This is not to say one's personal analysis is superior (it's most assuredly not), but it is intended to show that one's personal analysis comes from a very specific and well-mapped-out place, which therefore makes it reasonable. That's the humble standard being advanced here.
The bad weather in the UT-NU game also led me to the view that in such a contest, a nine-point lead is the equivalent of a much larger lead in good weather conditions. Texas might have had a lead no larger than 16-7, but I viewed that lead to be a huge bulge in a game with necessarily minimalist play calling. The ability of Texas to forge all of the sustained scoring drives (in contrast to Nebraska's small handful of home-run plays) resonated with my particular mental architecture as a football analyst. Had Nebraska beaten Texas cleanly on all three of its touchdown plays (instead of just two; and keep in mind, I conceded that Nebraska did beat Texas on two of the three plays, not just one, as I originally contended), this point of analysis would have been appreciably modified in a postgame write-up. But, of course, the game didn't play out (quite) that way. Thus, the core of the analysis deserved to remain.
Here's the final reason why the "gift-wrapped" reference wasn't condescending to Nebraska players, fans or coaches: the bad weather--while also affecting the ways in which I viewed the running game and sustained drives as indicators of Texas' (perceived) dominance--also limited Nebraska's and Bill Callahan's playbook. Here's what Husker fans needed to understand--but which couldn't easily be said in a "short-form" analytical outlet: I viewed the bad weather as a big disadvantage for Nebraska. Naturally, this was a disadvantage that had nothing to do with Nebraska's effort level or any other assessment of the Huskers' courage, grit and perseverance, which were--for the record--in abudant supply against the Longhorns. In fact, Nebraska's relentless and noble effort is the very thing that enabled the Huskers to grab a lead on a day when they (in my mind, maybe not someone else's mind) got severely outplayed by Texas. Nebraska should have been lauded for its collective will, which enabled a team to find its footing against a formidable opponent. When it was said that Texas "gift-wrapped" the victory Nebraska almost attained, the statement was made in light of the fact that Nebraska was disadvantaged by the weather, not to mention the fact that Texas left seven points unclaimed by way of missed kicks. The statement had no remote connection to any subtle or unspoken assumptions about Nebraska's supposedly poor effort level. In fact, had some (not all) Husker fans chosen to ask questions first and then shoot bullets at a football writer later on, they would have heard me say that "effort level" was Nebraska's foremost strength in the Texas game, not its glaring weakness.
Football is a game of emotion. Football analysis is an enterprise where emotions have to leave the building. Nebraska fans are stone-cold smart about their football, and they made me concede a number of important limitations and weaknesses in the "short-form" football analysis I provided on the Texas game. But they--like the partisans in any other fan base--must avoid projecting their own (unavoidable) emotions into the analytical realm, especially if they are to make serious charges about my moral character (it's pretty substantial to be called "condescending", at least if you sincerely try to be an honorable moral being when you walk the earth every day) or take the equally radical step of laughing a given piece of analysis off the stage, as if to suggest that said analysis doesn't deserve to be heard in the first place.
If a fan base laughs off a given piece of analysis, such an action clearly indicates an unwillingness to hear other divergent viewpoints. And if one side of an argument refuses to hear the other side, we don't have a discussion. The enterprise of football analysis ceases to have any claims to objectivity, in that case. After all, objectivity and truth transcend one viewpoint in a given argument; the reality of a situation, any situation, is always a fusion of the best points provided by two competing claims. If the truth of the Texas-Nebraska game (or any other game) is to be accurately arrived at, the best of the Nebraska perspective must be brought to the table--and it certainly was brought to me by astute Husker fans--but the Texas argument must also be heard as well. This is just the lastest--and quite necessary--extension of the ongoing project to make football analysis better. We'll see what the next few weeks will bring to the college football roundtable.
* * *
Week Ten: November 6, 2006
In a game decided by 10 points (17 if you discount garbage touchdowns), there's only so much one can say about the immediate strategic dimensions of the West Virginia-Louisville showdown from Thursday night. However, a contest this significant cries out for extended examination.
The first thing that needs to be said about this game is that both coaches shone brightly. Let's start with West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.
Even in defeat, Rodriguez--as counterintuitive as this might sound--refuted this columnist and, for that matter, any of his doubters in the college football world. Yeah, that's a weirdly strong statement to make, but it rings with truth. The explanation is pretty simple: Pat White lives in a world ordinary mortals know nothing about.
Before kickoff, it was believed by some that the Mountaineers would suffer from their lack of a passing game, and more specifically, from the small amount of passes West Virginia had thrown in its first seven games of the season. There would be times when Pat White would not be able to complete a big pass on situations such as, oh, a 3rd and 9. But darned if White didn't do exactly that in the first quarter, one play before Steve Slaton strolled into the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown. White didn't throw many passes on the night, but the Mountaineer quarterback was appreciably accurate with his high-velocity delivery. Rodriguez presided over an offense that accounted for 540 yards, 318 of them on the ground. When you rush for over 300 yards even when eleven defenders are hell-bent on stopping your ground game, you don't need much of a passing game. His team lost, but Rich Rodriguez' methodology was largely validated.
Here, though, is the big question about West Virginia's offense and the way in which Rodriguez is bringing his team along: when White becomes a junior next season (yes, folks, he's only a sophomore), will this same approach be justified? Given White's youthfulness, it makes sense--and Thursday night's game affirmed this contention--that Rodriguez would make this offense easy for White to run. Make a few basic reads, react accordingly, and unleash the athleticism. Period. Why complicate an offense or insist on run-pass balance when you can win with simplicity and a run-first, run-second, run-third approach? Why try to throw long passes when bubble screens and intermediate routes of 12-15 yards can do the job? This year, a conceptually simple approach has worked for West Virginia, given that it passed the biggest test of the season. (It was, of course, a combo of horrible defense and dubious special teams that truly killed the Mountaineers in this loss to Louisville.).
With all this having been said, though, one must point out that when things don't go well in a big game, a team's chances are strengthened if it has more contingencies and options. While there's no question that West Virginia really doesn't need to throw the ball often to be effective (Pat White soundly refuted any opposing arguments on Thursday night), what is also true is that the Mountaineers still could have used a passing game that--with the presence of White and Slaton--could fool a defense and hit an 80-yard touchdown play at some point. While a pass-based offense risks interceptions, it can also hit a huge play with greater ease and immediacy. Given that the Mountaineers fumbled the ball several times on running plays, the ability to hit one big pass play is something that would have bolstered their cause. As awesome as West Virginia's offense already is, imagine how good it could be if extended time was truly devoted to the passing game. When a big game comes across the calendar, you want to have the ability to hit a home run with either the run or the pass. Next year, with White a year older and wiser, Rich Rodriguez will improve his team's chances of winning big games if he can cultivate a big-play passing game that's nearly as devastating as his already overwhelming ground attack.
You want to have a full menu of options at your disposal in spotlight contests; West Virginia didn't quite have this on Thursday against Louisville, but then again, Pat White's youth probably necessitated a simpler approach from Rich Rodriguez. The results produced by the Mountaineer offense affirm their head coach's overall strategy. Next year, though, Rodriguez will want to spend a lot of time in his football kitchen, so that a full menu will be served against big-name opponents. If Rodriguez still has a porous defense that figures to give up 30-40 points, the West Virginia offense has to be potent enough to score 50. This means having a home-run-hitting passing game along with a breakaway running attack that can score from anywhere on the field at any time.
Now, to the other side of the coaching collision from Thursday night's game.
Bobby Petrino--given his offense's red zone struggles--wasn't able to sequence his red zone plays as well as he would have liked against West Virginia. However, the Louisville mastermind was still able to call a great game from the sideline, as his charges--led by Brian Brohm--scored 30 points while gaining 468 yards. As a play caller, Petrino--with the exception of his red zone forays--approached this game with the aggressive mindset that has to emerge in a high-stakes battle. The Louisville coach didn't choose to dink and dunk; he worked the deep middle of the field, enabling his passing game to hit several strikes of 25 yards or more. The vertical nature of Louisville's passing game enabled Petrino to toy with and manipulate West Virginia's defense throughout the game. A more minimalist game plan wouldn't have opened up opportunities with the same degree of regularity. Petrino had a thoroughbred in the shadows of Churchill Downs, and that studly horse was Brian Brohm. The coach had the good sense to trust his star quarterback, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Brohm's grasp of Petrino's offense--not to mention Petrino's mind--was so complete that the signal caller made all the right reads and audibles against the Mountaineers. More specifically, Brohm's use of the short pass was so wise and selective that when he did throw underneath, he usually put his receivers in position to tally huge totals of RAC (run-after-catch) yards and create big gainers. On the few times when plays seemed to be on the verge of collapsing, Brohm--with uncanny pocket presence and alertness--used nimble feet and deceptive upper-body strength to avoid pass rushers and gain precious fractions of seconds. Given this extra bit of time, Brohm hit receivers to convert third downs and cover large chunks of real estate. A coach was smart enough to be stubborn with the downfield passing game, and his quarterback rewarded him for maintaining that aggressive posture throughout this Big East brouhaha.
While Petrino the play caller was extremely good, Petrino the coach and executive decision maker was even better. In a game that had a very fragile and volatile feel until Louisville broke it open early in the third quarter, Petrino had the sense to realize that big second-half plays--not big first-half plays--would make the difference. As a result of this mindset, Petrino didn't allow this game to get away from Louisville late in the first half. With his team trailing 14-13 late in the second quarter, Petrino--admittedly because of some bad play calling--put his team in a 4th and goal situation at the Mountaineer 1. The temptation to go for a touchdown was considerable under the circumstances, but with West Virginia already riding a wave of momentum after stuffing Louisville on the previous three plays--and set to get the ball first in the second half--it was imperative for the Cards to get three points and a lead. When you recall that the Mountaineers had blown away Petrino's defense on their previous possession to take the 14-13 lead, Petrino needed to think a few moves ahead when he confronted this 4th and goal. If West Virginia scored a touchdown at the beginning of the second half, Louisville needed to be down five points, not eight; if the Mountaineers' momentum was to be blunted, the Cards needed three points and the psychological boost of having the halftime lead--they certainly did not need the emotional letdown of trailing at the break.
Those who regularly read the Monday Morning Quarterback during the season might be wondering: "Why, all of a sudden, are conservative decisions being applauded? Aren't coaches supposed to go for the jugular in big games?" It's a very valid pair of questions, because conservative decision making does indeed run counter to the modus operandi of many of football's most decorated coaches, college or pro. Bill Parcells has ample fourth-down guts. So does Pete Carroll. Ditto Charlie Weis. Same for Steve Spurrier. Same for Bob Stoops at Texas A&M (more on that a bit later). On this night and in this particular game, though, Petrino was wise to take the safe approach.
Here's the reason: the first half of this game in Papa John's Stadium was loaded with gobs of flop-sweat-filled, nerve-centered, anxiety-based mistakes. The fumbles and personal fouls that West Virginia and Louisville liberally provided were too frequent for any team to establish real dominance. Because the first half was defined more by mistakes than by excellence, any coach--if placed in a similar situation--would have been wise to re-focus his team in the halftime locker room, and impress upon his charges the need for a clean second half. When your team is making mistakes or is deficient to an alarming degree, you can't expect to break a game open with big gambles, especially in the first half of a tight game. Regrouping and reloading is the better strategy. It's only when your team has unquestioned rhythm and momentum that you should go for the brass ring, and Louisville--at the end of the first half--lacked that mammoth mojo.
Sure enough, then, Petrino kicked the field goal, and in the second half, the Cards clearly played a cleaner brand of football. While Louisville committed one big fumble, the Mountaineers coughed up the pill twice. Throw in some penalties and a horrible punt, and West Virginia wound up making the mistakes that decisively turned this contest in Louisville's favor. Petrino's offense was virtually flawless in building a 44-27 lead, and that second-half surge was largely made possible by the sensible (though far from easy) decision to kick a field goal at the end of the first half.
The quality of execution in Thursday night's Big East game of the year--especially in the first 20 minutes--was spotty at best, a testament to the nerves that got the better of many hormone-addled youngsters in men's bodies. But once the second half arrived and this game settled into a rhythm, Louisville and Bobby Petrino cleaned up their act. Rich Rodriguez had a perfectly good plan, but untimely mistakes by key players hurt his team's cause. Petrino, in the meantime, showed a rare combination of aggressive play calling and patient decision making that paved the way for his team's breakthrough victory. Two coaches performed well in a game where players' concentration levels fluctuated wildly. Rodriguez has the better system and a stubbornness with the ground game that works. Bobby Petrino, however, had the discipline needed to take a lead and resolve urgent issues in the second half of a huge ballgame. West Virginia's head coach scored major philosophical and systemic points; Louisville's boss man scored the biggest victory of his career.
Outside of the West-Virginia Louisville game, there were a few other notable strategic maneuvers that gained the attention of every serious college football fan. One such decision came from Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops.
Stoops did what Berkeley economist and freelance football researcher David Romer has advocated in the realm of football strategy. We reported back in August that Romer--as stated in a Joe Nocera column from the June 24 edition of the New York Times--concluded from a series of personally conducted studies that football coaches are too conservative when it comes to fourth-down decision making. More boldness and fewer punts were Romer's twin recommendations. Well, if you saw Saturday night's game between Oklahoma and Texas A&M, you might have gained a fresh appreciation for why this suggested sea change in coaching strategy has some merit. If you didn't watch this game or read about it in your Sunday paper, here's the recap: with roughly 90 seconds left in the game and Oklahoma clinging to a 17-16 lead over the Aggies, the Sooner offense faced a 4th and inches just short of its own 30. Dennis Franchione had just used his team's final timeout--and properly so--before the 4th down, to ensure that his offense would have 30-35 more seconds to work with... if it got the ball back. Stoops decided, however, to go for the first down, and sure enough, the Sooners pounded out a two-yard gain to wrap up their victory.
This is a classically difficult coaching decision, and while some disagreements are sure to make their way to the inbox on this issue (especially from people soured on Stoops after all the offseason incidents at Oklahoma), the verdict here is that Stoops made the right call. The reason is not the predictable one--namely, that the play worked. No, the choice was an appropriate one because of all the outside factors that formed the context in which the move was made.
Why did Bob Stoops make the right choice in this particular situation? There are a few reasons one needs to account for in arriving at a proper assessment of his decision. One of the reasons why this was a good move is that Texas A&M doesn't have the defense that R.C. Slocum made famous. If Dat Nguyen or other similar terrors were still part of the Aggie linebacking corps, one would definitely have to think twice about gaining a few inches. You want to be bold, but you don't want to be pigheaded in this kind of a situation, and OU's decision did not seem to fit in that category. A second reason why this strategy worked is something we talked about earlier in the year: if you can seal a game outright on one play, the rewards of that play are greater than the risks involved, which makes a bold approach surprisingly more percentage-based than one might initially think. Given that A&M necessarily had to use its last timeout before the fourth down, OU had the ability to end the game right then and there, instead of having to sweat out a defensive stand and hope that A&M couldn't get in field goal range. That's a worthwhile gamble. The third reason why the OU coach made a Stoop-endous decision was that his team had just inches to go. Given the weight and magnitude of this play, it's worth ascertaining when a smart and bold approach becomes a low-percentage gamble. Reasonable people can have different opinions on this issue, but this writer's opinion is that if the distance was anything over one full yard, a punt would have been more appropriate. But since this was a matter of inches--and the way the chains just happened to line up--Stoops was correct to not allow the placement of the sticks to dictate his thinking. Coaches have an annoying tendency to do that, and Stoops has a big-enough brain to look beyond the links in the chains.
All these reasons--as sound as they are--pale in comparison, however, to the number one justification for Stoops' decision in College Station: he knew what was best for his team. This is the biggest single reason why Pete Carroll at USC, Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, and Steve Spurrier--especially when at Florida--have, like Stoops, won so many ballgames with ballsy fourth-down decision making. The great coaches know what they can and can't afford to do, and more specifically, they know where games have to be won or lost. Carroll's 2005 USC team had to sink or swim with its powerful offense, not its shaky defense. Ergo, Carroll took a lot of fourth-down chances; they seemed to be low-percentage in an immediate statistical sense, but when you consider how good SC's offense was, those "gambles" were actually smart decisions when placed in a larger context. Weis--with a similar balance of good offense and bad defense, did the same thing with his Irish last season. Spurrier--especially when Danny Wuerffel reigned under center in the mid-90s--had the consummately unflappable trigger man with whom he could take unconventional risks. The 4th and 11 Spurrier and Wuerffel converted in the first quarter of a rain-soaked game at Tennessee in 1996 is one of the two plays that propelled the Gators to their only national championship. What about the second play? Well, that was an unusual fourth-down gamble as well: the 4th and inches play on which the Texas Longhorns and John Mackovic, backed up to their own 28 and up three (30-27) over Nebraska late in the fourth quarter, chose to go for the first down. James Brown faked run action and flipped a pass to Derek Lewis, whose huge gainer set up a game-sealing touchdown for Texas. The Longhorn win knocked Nebraska out of the Sugar Bowl, enabling Florida to play--and beat--Florida State for the whole ball of wax.
From these examples, one should get the idea that great fourth down play calls--which influence the trajectories of whole seasons in this sport--are made by coaches who know how to play to their team's strengths or, in some sense, appeal to the best instincts and desires of their kids. For Stoops, the reason why this call was best for his team is as follows: Oklahoma was not playing for a division or conference title. The truly lofty seasonal goals the Sooners normally have were unattainable going into this game. Add in the absence of Adrian Peterson, and everything about this game's importance for OU was connected to 2007 more than 2006. The task in front of Stoops is not to win 10 games this season, because 10 wins won't get OU to a BCS bowl or a conference crown. With a quarterback, a running back, and an offensive line that are all growing in confidence--but need to make game-defining plays in tough situations if they want to lift the Sooner program back to the top of the sport--Stoops wisely concluded that he needed to put his offense through the crucible of a late-game fourth down on the road. It wasn't so much about beating A&M as it was a matter of feeding a heaping helping of confidence to the same players who will be back in 2007. As the ESPN broadcast crew noted during Saturday night's game in College Station, Oklahoma has one of the smallest totals of seniors among any Division I-A team. Given this reality, it was important for Stoops to give his young offense a proving-ground moment. The 2007 season just got a lot better for the Sooners as a result of their coach's fourth-down move... and the offense's ability to reward it.
The other big coaching move from the past weekend that absolutely demands commentary is Houston Nutt's decision to pull the trigger at quarterback and put Casey Dick in for Mitch Mustain in the early stages of Arkansas' game at South Carolina.
The decision was one of the gutsiest, most courageous moves ever seen from a Division I-A head coach in quite some time. It was, moreover, a correct and astonishing move at the same time. The fourth-down discussion above offers proof of the conservative, cookie-cutter, copycat nature of coaches' thought patterns and methodologies. The fact that Carroll, Weis, Spurrier and Stoops stick out like sore thumbs in this business is a damning indictment of the longstanding conventional wisdom adhered to by coaches, though certainly not the men themselves. It is important to make this distinction--in criticizing a longstanding and somewhat nebulous philosophy, but not individual flesh-and-blood coaches--because coaches will make conservative choices on so many occasions because it gives them political cover.
Let's be mature enough to not deny this: if coaches make gambles that blow up in their faces, they get skewered by everyone in this larger industry (this is why the Monday Morning Quarterback will always seek to vigorously defend coaches who make appropriate decisions that still don't get the desired on-field results). And since college coaching--unlike the NFL--is a more political creature, at least in terms of the relationships a coach has with fans, boosters and administrators (in the pro game, a coach has a very political role as well, but that role emerges in relationships with his players, who have egos that need to be massaged and stroked), a coach--in order to maintain good standing with his university community--will make safe and sensible choices nine times out of ten on gamedays. The very decisions that might be perceived as gutless in an analytical football forum such as this one will often (though not always) wind up being very astute decisions in political realms and contexts. Conversely, bold examples of creative, thinking-man's football strategy--moves that have ample logic and wisdom behind them--could create political firestorms if they don't wind up working on the field. This is all a very elongated and elaborate way of saying that if coaching were a not-so-cutthroat business, coaches would display much more creativity in every aspect of gameday coaching and decision making.
With all this as prelude, then, stop and consider the raw guts and coaching cojones of Houston Nutt. Nobody--well, actually, nobody other than his Saturday night opponent, Steve Spurrier--pulls the trigger with an in-game quarterback shuffle like that. What do you mean "like that"? Like this: Arkansas' freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain, after just one series, got pulled in favor of Casey Dick with South Carolina leading by a paltry 3-0 score midway through the first quarter. Nutt was begging for a beating from all the armchair critics: Mustain had won consistently. He was the local kid who did well for the in-state university. He was somewhat surprisingly elevated to the starter's spot after the first game of the season, so he had already benefited from a quarterback switch himself. (Robert Johnson had been the starter in the Hogs' season opener against Southern California.) Switching yet again to Dick--whom this columnist felt was the Hogs' best QB entering the season--opened Nutt up to a tidal wave of criticism and second-guessing. Add in the fact that Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn (who has been doing a sensational job, by the way; his mix of calls and his play design have camouflaged or otherwise minimized any QB deficiencies the Hogs have had this season) was Mustain's high school coach, and you have a situation in which benching Mustain was the most politically risky move Nutt possibly could have made. Twenty-four hours after the game--as this column is being written--the mind still reels in contemplating the sheer guts the Boss Hog had to possess in order to make that kind of a move.
But it only serves to prove the larger point we're trying to establish here: good football moves are often bad political ones from a coach's standpoint, and bad football moves are often the best political maneuvers a college football coach can make. Houston Nutt chose football over politics, and dadgummit, he was rewarded. If his team can play its best game this Saturday against a gallant and well-coached but limited Tennessee team (given its quarterback issues, which, unlike 2005, have nothing to do with negative or substandard performances from anyone), it will almost surely win the SEC West in the face of formidable opposition from Auburn and LSU.
It's great to see coaches being rewarded for showing a lot of guts and grace under fire. Houston Nutt, whose team was on the verge of coming apart after that Southern California game two months ago, patched up his team's fractious QB situation then, and he juggled his signal callers once more in this past weekend's Cockfight in Columbia. Rarely has a coach had the courage to think outside the box and value football over politics; but Houston Nutt is clearly not most coaches. It's why his program--not Alabama, not Ole Miss, not Mississippi State--is in position to break the Auburn-LSU stronghold on the SEC West title, which has existed since 2000 but was briefly interrupted only once... when Nutt's Arkansas team won the division in 2002.
Frank Broyles should be a proud athletic director. Had he possessed the same quick trigger Houston Nutt has with his quarterbacks, Nutt wouldn't have been around to engineer this tremendous 2006 turnaround in the life of Arkansas football. One of the feel-good stories of the football season is a tribute to a coach with the guts to cut against the grain... and politics. It's funny, then, that one of the most apolitical moves of the whole season came just three days before Election Day. Houston Nutt wasn't trying to win a gubernatorial campaign; all he was trying to do was win a football game. Well, then? Mission accomplished.* * *
Week Eleven: November 13, 2006
It's November, which means that full playbooks are open and coaches have ample ways in which to influence games... for better or worse. This is the time of year when coaches earn their keep, get exposed, or fall somewhere inconveniently in between.
Let's cut to the chase as we whip through lots of games instead of doing one or two extended case studies.
Kirk Ferentz of Iowa has had a horrible season, and against Wisconsin, he had a lousy game on the sideline. Ferentz--as reported by ESPN's Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman--was displeased at his team for not giving full energy or effort in a miserable loss against Northwestern a week earlier. The head Hawkeye wanted to turn his team's season around, and spoke of the need for a spark against the Badgers. Well, Ferentz got his chance for a big turnaround, and he chucked it out the window on Saturday in Kinnick Stadium.
With just over six minutes left in the third quarter and his team trailing 17-14, Ferentz's Iowa offense faced a 4th and 1 at the Wisconsin 44. Let's get this straight: regardless of what you might say to ESPN broadcasters in a production meeting, you should go for it in this kind of situation if you're a 6-4 team that, win or lose, will go to a lower-tier bowl. Pray tell, what did Iowa and Ferentz have to lose by going for it in the first place? Getting a touchdown and a lead would have put the Badgers and their backup quarterback under added pressure. It was essential for the Hawkeyes to snag an advantage as soon as possible. All the in-game ebbs and flows demanded that Iowa go for the first down. But since Kirk Ferentz was so intent on wanting to turn around his team's season, there should have been even more reason to make the bold call, show trust in a struggling offense, light a fire under some fannies, and go for the brass ring.
Ferentz punted, Wisconsin answered with a touchdown for a 24-14 lead, and the rest is history.
Unlike Ferentz, Florida coach Urban Meyer has a firm handle on a game and, more specifically, the occasions when a coach knows he has to force the issue, risks be damned. Much like Bob Stoops at Oklahoma against Texas A&M the week before, Meyer--on a 4th and inches from his own 29--went for a first down and converted. The difference between the two plays was that Florida trailed when it gambled, while Oklahoma led. Yet, the area of the field made both decisions equally bold, given that most coaches--if placed in similar situations--probably would have punted. The art of gameday coaching lies in having a feel for the moment and its requirements. Meyer--as he said in his postgame presser--felt his team was on the run, and that he couldn't afford to give the ball back to a South Carolina offense that was clicking. This was an accurate read of the situation, and these instincts--not to mention the boldness that accompanied them--were handsomely rewarded.
Meyer, for all his excellence as an executive decision maker, does have one issue to address in the Florida camp: getting offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to simplify when necessary. It was abundantly clear from the beginning that Florida had superior speed and manpower in mano-a-mano matchups against South Carolina's defense. The Gators had superior speed on the edges and appreciable power with the inside running game and DeShawn Wynn. On billy-basic plays, the Gamecocks couldn't match up. It was confusing and, moreover, counterproductive for Mullen to order up several gadget plays at times when the simple stuff was working. And in a game as physically demanding as football, you continue to run the basic plays if the opposition can't stop them. (The man who coached against Florida on Saturday, a fellow by the name of Spurrier, has applied this truth as consistently as any coach in college football history.)
More fourth down decisions (this really is the crucible of gameday decision making, isn't it?) littered the landscape on Saturday.
In Tucson, Cal's Jeff Tedford should be re-examining why he kicked a field goal just inside the Arizona 3 when trailing 24-17 with less than 10 minutes left in regulation. The times when you kick a chip-shot field goal should be scrutinized as closely as the times when you take a safety or exercise other very specific football maneuvers. The short field goal is a tricky subject because the decision to kick one is a concession to the other team, an acknowledgment of defeat. When you kick the short field goal instead of going for the touchdown, you are usually (though not always) sending the message that the other team's defense is too good, or that your offense is not up to the challenge (or both). Given this emotional and momentum-based dynamic, coaches need to have a very good reason for kicking when inside an opponent's 5.
The times when you should kick a short field goal are obvious: when down by three at almost any point in a game (there can be one or two select exceptions, such as being a monster underdog and having the ball inside the 2 in the final seconds); when tied in the final minute(s), especially in a defensive battle; when leading by five to eight points (maybe four; that's debatable) in the final five minutes; and when down by nine to eleven points in the final few minutes. Notice that being down by seven points with about 10 minutes left is NOT one of those obvious scenarios. The above situations are listed and categorized as "obvious" because they point to overwhelming strategic needs: tying a game, leading a game, increasing a one-score lead to two; reducing a two-score deficit to one. Along these lines, one of the great strategic blunders came in an Army-Navy game from the mid-1990s. Navy led 13-7 and faced a 4th and goal at the Army 1 late in the fourth quarter. Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie went for the touchdown, even though the chip shot would have given his team a two-score lead against a weak Army offense. The fourth-down try failed, and Army--given momentum--drove 99 yards for the winning touchdown in a 14-13 stunner. That was a classic case in which a short field goal should have been kicked. Jeff Tedford did not face such a situation. In fact, he faced the kind of scoreboard situation in which the reward of a possible touchdown far exceeded the risks associated with a failure.
For one thing, Tedford's offense had been shut out for the first 20 minutes of the second half, which meant that any foray so close to the end zone was plainly precious, given its rarity. In a defensive battle, the magnitude of an individual drive is magnified. Secondly, a seven-point deficit on the scoreboard severed to further amplify the need to get seven, and not three, on a given possession. Third, the ten-minute mark of regulation suggested that Cal wouldn't get many more possessions. If you made a mental checklist of considerations, they would solidly (though maybe not unanimously) support going for the touchdown. The biggest thing one needs to realize about this scenario is that in a seven-point game, the kicking of a field goal does nothing to alter the fundamental calculus of the game: a team still needs a touchdown and can't settle for a field goal if the game is decided in the final minutes (and this Cal-Arizona game did come down to the wire). If this were the third quarter, I could totally understand the need to collect points and save them for the endgame phase. If the time was the same but the Arizona lead was six points instead of seven, a field goal would make a lot more sense, given that another field goal could tie the game (and since Cal drove into field goal range on its final possession, it's fair to say that the Bears would have forced overtime if down by only three). As it was, though, Tedford didn't do anything to profoundly increase his team's chances.
Consider this angle: even if the Bears had failed on their fourth down, they still would have needed a touchdown (the difference being, of course, that a field goal would have enabled Cal to win the game with a TD, whereas a fourth-down failure would have only allowed the Bears to tie the game with seven points). Given this reality, why not pin the opposition deep and at least have substantial field position as part of the deal? Think about it? If you need a touchdown, why not be down by seven and have the opponent pinned to the 2 instead of being down four and having the opponent on its own 30 after an average kickoff return after the field goal? I'd much rather be down seven with my opponent near its own goal line. If getting a touchdown is my priority--and remember, that's the case whether you're down seven or four--then I want my opponent to have to punt from the back of its end zone, which will give me a likely drive start in the area of my opponent's 40. To think of this in a slightly different way, I'd much rather have a great chance of tying the game with a touchdown, then having a much smaller chance of winning a game with a touchdown. Better to have 40 yards for a tying TD than to have 85 yards for a winning TD. Jeff Tedford needs to brush up on his strategy with Southern California calling this week.
Finally, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti--Jeff Tedford's mentor--also had a bad game in the Pac-10.
Bellotti, mind you, started the game admirably by going for a first down on 4th and 1 at the USC 13. A Dennis Dixon quarterback keeper--which had been a very effective play on that first drive--got stopped by a USC defense that simply rose to the occasion. Nevertheless, Bellotti--wisely, in my mind--coached the first drive in an appropriate manner: he felt he needed to score touchdowns, not field goals, to have a good chance of winning in the L.A. Coliseum. On his team's second possession, however, Bellotti punted on 4th and 6 from the USC 37, at the point on the field where you're too far away to kick a field goal, but too far down the field to punt. Later, when the Ducks fell behind 14-0 in the second quarter, they needed touchdowns more than ever. But on a 4th and 5 from the USC 6 just before halftime, and then on a 4th and goal from the 5 in the third quarter, Bellotti chose to kick a field goal. The scoreboard leverage gained by the Trojans--and lost by the Ducks--enabled Troy, armed with ample momentum after two ultimately unsuccessful possessions from Oregon's offense, to coast home to victory.
Here's the specific problem with Bellotti's performance from the UO sideline on Saturday night: he didn't stick with his larger coaching philosophy or approach. Any coach--especially the coach of an underdog--demands and deserves praise when he sticks to a given plan... even if that plan doesn't work out. If a coach starts off with a conservative ball-control game plan, and then makes decisions throughout the following 60 minutes that reinforce his intended plan, that's good coaching. Just because someone might disagree with the game plan doesn't mean it's bad coaching if the game plan doesn't work. What counts is that the plan has a logical basis, is sold to the players (who will buy in and trust the plan enough to execute it), and is maintained as long as the game is winnable. Given the fact that coaches always have to make certain tradeoffs and concessions when they game plan, the ability to stick to a plan and make the most of it is an admirable virtue in coaching circles. Yes, it's also a virtue to abandon a plan when you know it won't work, but that dynamic usually applies to games that are beginning to spiral out of control.
On Saturday night, then, Bellotti--on his second drive, and then at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half--made three decisions that went against the purpose of his first-down gamble. Had Bellotti kicked a field goal on his first drive, he would have set a tone in which he was intent on collecting points and storing them up for the second half. This would have made his subsequent decisions a lot more acceptable. More to the point, Oregon could have found itself down 14-6 instead of 14-3 in the third quarter (if UO had made the first field goal), a considerable difference in terms of a working margin. Had kicker Paul Martinez not biffed a field goal at the end of the first half, the score could have been 14-9. But as it was, when Oregon trailed 14-0 late in the second quarter, Bellotti should have faced the need to ring up seven and not three. True, a 4th and 5 is not a high-percentage play, but once you trail by 14 on the road, you're not in a high-percentage situation. You need to take risks, and Bellotti--having started the game by going for a first down--changed course with disastrous results. It all comes back to consistency: if you want to roll up the points and view your offense as the key to a given game, you need to be relentless in advancing that strategy for 60 minutes. If you want to collect points and trust your defense while seeking to keep the opposing offense off the field, you need to promote that tactical approach for the duration as well. Mike Bellotti had good thoughts Saturday night; the problem was that he didn't stick with them.* * *
Note: The Nov. 20 edition of the MMQ featured a guest commentary by loyal CFN reader Jeff Fowler.
Week Twelve: November 20, 2006
We have a Mr. Fowler providing commentary this week in the Monday Morning Quarterback... and no, it's not Chris.
This past weekend, regular Monday Morning Quarterback reader Jeff Fowler offered a particularly impressive dissertation on a burning issue in the college football world. The Houston resident satisfied this column's desires for length, nuance and philosophical depth, so much so that his private e-mail--sent to my desktop--is worthy of elevating into a column segment, and moreover, the lead story in this week's MMQ. As Rex Barney, the former Baltimore Oriole PA announcer, would say when an Oriole fan caught a foul ball in the stands, "give that man a contract." Here's Jeff Fowler on the rise and fall of coaches in college football. It's a terrific primer on the frailties, fluctuations and fickle forces that create such volatility in the profession, not to mention the attitudes of fans toward the sideline sultans of this sport.
Take it away, Jeff:
After watching two of the short list of current "great" coaches work Saturday, Jim Tressell and Pete Carroll, I am struck by the brevity of such accolades. The rarity of truly great coaches was a reality elevated and amplified by the loss of the truly great Bo Schembechler last Friday.
Bum Phillips, my favorite wordsmith, once said, "There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s been fired and them that’s gonna be." Right now, I see two coaches in all of college football who’ll never fit either category, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, although some fans from both schools would like to see their own legend fired. But where are the coaches that wore the genius tag a few years earlier, and where are the legends of tomorrow?
Consider gazing at Rutgers. In the late 1990’s, the Scarlet Knights rattled off 14 losses in a row. As recently as 2002, they went 1-11, losing to Temple. Going into the 2006 season, Rutgers was 10-39 under coach Greg Schiano.
Thursday night before last, we saw Rutgers overcome a 25-7 deficit to beat Louisville, 28-25. I’d swear that I heard the theme from Rocky coming from my speakers as Rutgers kept taking Louisville haymakers and striking back. A smaller, slower, weaker team that simply refused to quit kept giving its best shot until the bigger, stronger, faster team was overwhelmed. Apollo Creed was sent to the canvas in Piscataway, and the crowd on the field at the end told the story. It was Rocky, Rudy, and Hoosiers all rolled into one, and Rutgers was 9-0.
Greg Schiano may be the hottest coaching property in the country today, but I wonder how many Rutgers fans were calling for his head a couple of years ago. The morning after the Louisville game, one Rutgers board contained a post calling for the replacement of Rutgers’ offensive coordinator. Its author blamed Rutgers’ early struggles in that game on his failure to call more running plays. No joke. Well, the poster wasn’t joking, anyhow. I wonder what that fan thinks after Saturday’s 30-11 loss to Cincinnati?
Many Texas fans were calling for Mack Brown’s scalp as recently as October of 2004. Brown, it was said, would never beat Oklahoma and never win a championship. After all, he never had. Of course, a national championship and consecutive wins over the coach he would never beat (though he had, in 1999) have improved Brown’s standing with these passionate observers to the point that even a crushing 45-42 loss to Kansas State failed to create a lynch mob. However, the potential loss of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik to a head coaching position elsewhere is no longer a hot topic for worrywarts in Austin.
Brown has now become the longest tenured coach in the Big 12, because Iowa State’s Dan McCarney has been fired. McCarney was once a hot property, and has taken ISU to five bowls since 2000, but had a lousy 4-8 year. McCarney is the victim of high expectations at Iowa State, and his team sent him off with a 21-16 win over Missouri. Why were there high expectations at Iowa State of all places, you ask? Because McCarney had done such a good job. Ah, the cruel ironies of the coaching business and the perceptions that sustain them.
Colorado was 7-6 last year, but fired another ex-hot property in Gary Barnett, who lost last year’s conference championship game and his bowl. Colorado then hired last year’s hot property, Dan Hawkins, who has discovered that it’s a little more difficult to win in the Big 12 than it is in the WAC. Hawkins is 2-9.
North Carolina fans swore they wouldn’t miss Mack Brown at all. After all, Brown failed to win the "big" games against FSU, back when nobody beat FSU. Sure enough, back in 2001, their second try, John Bunting, rewarded them with an 8-5 season and a win in the Peach Bowl. Unfortunately, the Tar Heels are 17-40 since then; worse, they lacked a win over a Division I-A program until Saturday. Perhaps the third time will be the charm. Bunting has been fired and will be replaced, according to rumor, by ex-Miami wizard Butch Davis... if Alabama doesn’t hire him first. Bunting’s team responded to this news by beating N.C. State, 23-9, on Saturday.
Alabama fans must have felt as though they dodged a bullet when ex-hot property Dennis Franchione bolted to Texas A&M after the Tide got the bad news from the NCAA. Only a year ago, Mike Shula had the Tide sitting at 9-0, while Fran’s A&M team was getting blown out at home 42-14 by McCarney’s Iowa State squad. Today, of course, Shula’s Tide team is 6-6 after a 22-15 loss in their annual bloodbath with Auburn.
Speaking of Auburn, we might note that the school came within a press leak of replacing its coach three years ago. That’s before Tommy Tuberville went 13-0 and became a hot property. Tuberville came into this season 60-27 at Auburn and had the War Eagles in the hunt for this year’s MNC before getting blown out 37-15 by Georgia on Nov. 11.
One might wonder if Mark Richt is still a hot property after his Dawgs have dropped four games this year, including losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky as well as their annual defeat by Florida.
Philip Fulmer in Knoxville is presumably safe again after Tennessee’s 5-6 season last year. Fulmer appears to have been saved by Mississippi’s curious decision to fire David Cutcliffe last year. Back in his role as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, Cutcliffe turned Eric Ainge into a competent quarterback before the snake-bitten signal caller got injured. Tennessee was 7-1 at the time, with only a one-point loss to Florida separating the Vols from unbeaten status. Even 8-3 must feel a lot better after last year.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss has profited from replacing Cutcliffe to the tune of a 2-9 season, with wins over Memphis and NW State to show for demanding a better coach. I’ll bet The Grove was really rocking after that big win over NW State Saturday before last, though Saturday’s effort against LSU in an overtime loss was likely more palatable.
Michigan’s Lloyd Carr was rumored to be on the hot seat going into this season. Michigan was 11-0 going into The Shoe to do battle for the top seed in the purported Mythical National Championship Game (still seeking a sponsor). I guess Lloyd is safe. Amazing what a season without mass injuries can do to make a coach smarter, isn’t it?
Fifteen months ago, before the start of the 2005 season, Kirk Ferentz was my pick for best coach in the country. Today, he’s 6-6 coming off 7-5.
In 2001, Larry Coker was the hottest thing going. Miami won a MNC his first year. Today, Coker is a dead man walking, as the powers that be in Coral Gables debate his replacement. What happened? How did the best offensive coordinator in college football come to preside over a totally inept offense? And how did the Miami program again sink into this previously unfathomable level of abject gangsterism under his watch? Who knows, but we all know that school President Donna "Sha-la-la-la-la" Shalala will not let the facts hinder her decisions. Meanwhile, Miami is 5-6. Miami.
Michigan State’s John L. Smith is toast after three straight losing seasons. This is a firing we can all understand. I doubt things are going to get any less disappointing in Lansing, even if Smith did beat Notre Dame half the time.
Oregon’s Mike Bellotti was the hottest property in the country five years ago, after consecutive 10-2 and 11-1 seasons. The bloom fell off that rose during subsequent 7-6, 8-5, and 5-6 seasons, which included a bowl blowout at the hands of Wake Forest. Bellotti was rehabilitated in last year’s 10-2 season, but is back to lukewarm following the Ducks’ 37-10 blowout loss at Arizona. Oregon is now 7-4, and Bellotti bashers can point out that they’d be 6-5 without the replay officials in the OU "win."
Stoops the Lesser (Mike, not Bob) hardly won over the Arizona crowd with his 6-16 start, but he’s now 6-5 this season, following his third consecutive victory over a once-ranked team. Perhaps he may survive. Following John Mackovic, it’s easy for a coach to look good.
Earlier this year, former Kansas State coach and current beloved legend Bill Snyder found it necessary to issue a public call for patience on behalf of Ron Prince, who’d taken over a team picked to finish last in the woebegone Big 12 North. KSU was 4-4 at the time, and the natives were getting restless. Now KSU is 7-5 and bowl bound, with a huge win over Texas in its pocket. Presumably, Prince is no longer seated on the metal chair situated directly over the turkey fryer. Perhaps he’s now a genius, though such status was somewhat tainted by a 39-20 loss to Kansas Saturday. What a difference a few weeks can make!
Les Miles is less than a hero to LSU fans, who believe that two losses are unacceptable for this year’s team. Needing overtime to beat Ole Miss 23-20 on Saturday didn’t help, I’m sure. The pile of cordwood around his feet will get deeper if the Tigers do not win in Pig Ville this upcoming Friday.
Meanwhile, the aptly named Coach (Houston) Nutt is presumably off the scaffold and his hemp necktie has been removed, since the Hogs are now 10-1. Coach Nutt was widely regarded as quite the Mensa candidate following his victory over Texas in Austin in 2003. Fourteen subsequent conference losses and a pair of losing seasons dimmed the glow of his now-returning genius.
George Welsh at Virginia was the man, until 7-5 and 6-6 seasons took the polish off his luster. Then Al Groh became the resident mastermind, going 9-5, 8-5 and 8-4 after a rocky first year. (Host columnist's note: Mr. Zemek doesn't view those seasons in the same light, but that's a different discussion for another day). Groh was nearing the hot property list before his stock cooled on a 7-5 season last year. Now, Virginia is 5-6 with Virginia Tech on the burner. In any other year, beating Miami last Saturday would be worth a free pass. This year, everybody beats Miami. Is Groh wearing a parachute?
Ralph Friedgen looked like the hottest thing around 2 years ago, winning 10, 11, and 10 games in his first 3 seasons at Maryland. A pair of 5-6 years sunk that. Now, he’s 8-3 and was headed for a nice recovery before Boston College slammed the Terps’ ACC title hopes, 38-16.
Chuck Amato at NC State certainly looked good a few years ago. State went 11-3 in 2002. Now I see a man who’s squandered more talent than Rock Hudson at a Hollywood cast party, and NC State is 3-8.
Who is still wearing the Great Coach label? You’ve got to name Tressell and Carroll. Right now, you’ve got to add Brown as well.
And you’ve got to give Bob Stoops his due, too. Sure, some of his problems are his own doing, but he’s handling them well. He’s winning with what he has, even if he never beats Mack Brown again. In fact, he might sell some tickets at JerryWorld, the new Cowboys stadium complex, if Tuna leaves after this season.
Urban Meyer was an offensive genius at Utah, but he’s winning with D at Florida. Good thing Zook left the cupboard full. Give Meyer his due, though. He’s got the Gators in the hunt even though they are playing a schedule that’d scare Mark Mangino away from a buffet.
Jeff Tedford at Cal has to make the list, even after an 8-4 season last year. I let Stoops skate with the same record. And this is Cal, not Oklahoma.
Newcomers? Besides Schiano?
Well, there’s Todd Graham at Rice. Rice is only 6-5, but they’ve played paycheck games against UCLA, Texas, and FSU, all on the road, and lost to Houston by a point. Not a bad first year. This is Rice.
There’s Jim Grobe at Wake Forest. Don’t look now, but the Demon Deacons were 9-1 after thumping FSU 30-0 just over a week ago. Even after a lopsided 27-6 loss to Virginia Tech Saturday, Wake is still in the hunt for the ACC crown. Wake has been playing football for 118 years. The last time Wake won nine games in a season? Never.
The question is a big one: who are the great coaches going to be when you start calling names 5 years from now? Athletic directors around the country want to know. So do I.
An even bigger question, given recent events, is this: decades from now, which current coaches will leave the entire college football world with a sense of loss at their depature, the feeling we all had when we learned that Bo Schembechler had passed? I’ll let you answer that one.
Thanks, Jeff. Your mention of Jim Tressel and Pete Carroll as elite coaches offers a perfect segue to part two of this week's column, the bread-and-butter of evaluating coaches in big games. There were two marquee matchups on Saturday, and the winning teams, not surprisingly, had the superior coaches who made the right tactical decisions.
Jim Tressel is first up in the queue. The Ohio State coach, you might recall, made the first big splash of his career in Columbus at a basketball arena, when he told Buckeye Nation in January of 2001 that it would be proud of his young men when they went to Ann Arbor to play Michigan later that year. It is only fitting, then, that Tressel made another basketball reference in his presser after Saturday's game against the Wolverines. The Ohio State coach, in reference to the unique flow of the contest, called it "a fast-break game all the way." The fact that Tressel could first identify the flow of the game, and then be correct in his assessment, shows how great a coach he is.
The great coaches--and we've talked about this before in this and past college football seasons--have the wisdom to realize that each game is its own unique entity. This Ohio State-Michigan game was not a Woody-Bo bruiser from the early 1970s; it had track stars on the edges, solid offensive fronts, and capable quarterbacks, with Troy Smith being especially outstanding in (or should we say on?) his field. The way a fast-break game is managed will be entirely different from the way in which a 10-10 slugfest is handled. At various points along the way, then, Jim Tressel made the kinds of game-management decisions and play-calling selections that vastly increased his team's chances of winning.
The first move by Tressel that would prove decisive was his stubborn use of spread formations early in the contest. Whereas so many coaches remain locked into the antiquated view (it was appropriate for Woody and Bo in the 70s; it's not nearly as relevant now) that you must run to set up the pass, Tressel had the vision to realize that he needed to pass in order to set up the run. Tressel led with his best dance step from Smith, his offensive leader, while also spreading out the English Majors and preventing Michigan's defense from attacking No. 10 in the pocket. Only after establishing effectiveness with this look did Tressel then mix in the power running game, and the two touchdown runs from Chris Wells and Antonio Pittman were the perfect products of a masterful sequencing of both play calls and formations.
The other major masterstroke from the best Buckeye brain in the land came with roughly six minutes left in the second quarter. A few minutes after Lloyd Carr and Michigan punted on a 4th and 1 from their own 49 in a game OSU led by seven (14-7), Tressel faced a 2nd and 1 from the Wolverine 38. If this was not a fast-break game and more of a Woody-Bo brawl, a power run for a chain-moving two-yard gain would have been in order. But since this was a track meet, Tressel used the down-and-distance situation to press his advantage and convert a kill shot. He had Smith throw a bomb to Ted Ginn for a quick-strike touchdown and a 21-7 advantage. This was the kind of executive decision making that enabled Ohio State to outpace Michigan all day long. While the final spread was just three points, the Buckeyes were never seriously in danger of losing. Michigan fought hard, but only to keep the game within a one-score margin. The difference on the field was Troy Smith, but the No. 1 team in the United States also had a difference-making coach. Without Jim Tressel's impressive combination of insight, feel and boldness, the Buckeyes would not have been able to light up Ron English's defense they way they did.
Roughly one hour after Tressel's Columbus coaching clinic concluded, Pete Carroll began his episode of excellence against Jeff Tedford of Cal. Much like Tressel, Carroll's feel for the flow of a football game is superb, a fact that was constantly in evidence on Saturday night in the City of Angels.
Carroll faced three fourth downs at distinctly different points in the proceedings of the Pac-10 game of the year. In each case, Carroll made the right decision, substantially enhancing his team's chances of prevailing in a high-stakes, big-money mega-match. On the first fourth down--a 4th and goal at the Bear 2 in the opening quarter--Carroll wisely realized that in the initial stages of a game, when many more battles have yet to be fought, it's generally wise to collect points... unless you have a fast-break game such as OSU-Michigan. Carroll--with a swarming, fumble-causing, hard-hitting defense in his corner--shrewdly calculated that this game would be a defense-first game. Playing at home and armed with the knowledge of his program's second-half successes over the past five years, Carroll made an ATM deposit and banked on a withdrawal later on. This strategy--given the kind of game USC was facing--overflowed with logic, and sure enough, its wisdom would be affirmed later on.
The second big fourth-down decision for Carroll came in the third quarter, with his team trailing 9-6 and facing 4th and 15 at the Cal 32. Given that regular placekicker Mario Danelo has a weak leg, the prospect of a 49-yard kick didn't inspire confidence in Carroll, who is notorious for eschewing field goals the way Steve Spurrier used to do when armed with a potent offense at Florida. However, the value of a fourth-down gamble was minimized by two overriding factors: the sluggish performance of the SC offense to that point in the game, and the three-point spread facing the Trojans. A long field goal might not have been a percentage play, but the alternative wasn't very good, either. This meant that, in a weird but unmistakable way, the aggressive play was to go for three points; not trying for a field goal when the distance is under 50 yards represents an extreme display of timidity. If you can't contest three points late in the third quarter of a three-point game, the decision to go for it on 4th and 15 is an act of cowardice more than a display of strength... at least in a defense-dominated game. (A calculator game would have made a 4th and 15 first-down try a little different.)
As it turned out, Carroll and his staff obviously had some kind of contingency plan in place... a plan named David Buehler, who wore an old-school piece of padding around his neck. And when Buehler nailed his field goal, a game--on the scoreboard and in the pscyhes of all who contested it--turned 180 degrees on a dime. The connection must be made between the first 4th down and the second one: had Carroll not collected those three points in the first quarter, his team would have trailed 9-3 late in the third quarter, in which case he probably would have gone for the first down instead (and probably would have had little choice). Assuming Cal would have turned aside that 4th and 15 play, the outcome of Saturday's game would have been different without Carroll's two championship choices on fateful fourth downs.
Ah, but once USC had attained an advantage, would Carroll continue to find the wisdom needed to put a game--and the Golden Bears--away? After merely keeping his team afloat on two fourth downs, Carroll hit a home run on the third.
The score was 16-9 in favor of the Trojans, with 8:26 left in regulation and USC facing a 4th and 2 at the Cal 37. True enough, this was a defensive game, in which case a punt might have been the percentage choice. However, the Trojans had just two yards to go from a point on the field that can be labeled as the "tweener" area of the gridiron: too close to punt, too far away for a field goal. With fresh momentum, especially on an offense that was just beginning to find some rhythm after slumbering for three quarters, Carroll felt that he should go for a kill shot... the same way Jim Tressel went for the jugular on that 2nd and 1 from the Michigan 38. Even more importantly, however, there was too much time left for Carroll to think that Cal would have just one more possession in the game. That's a point worth explaining.
It is smart to punt from the opponent's 37 in a seven-point game when one not only has a good defense, but can win the game with one stop--that's a high-percentage move. Had there been four minutes left in the game when SC faced that 4th and 2 at the Cal 37, such a move--especially with a well-executed punt--would have put the squeeze on the Golden Bears, who were straining in the face of a swaggering and swarming Trojan defense. Pinning the opposition deep has added value when one knows that the length of a drive--if it even threatens to score--will likely be the last possession for that offense in regulation time. Had there been just four minutes left, not 8:26, USC would have had the comfort of knowing that Cal would get only one chance with the ball in order to merely tie the game. Moreover, that one chance would come in the form of what would have to be a drive in the area of 90 yards. With four minutes left, a punt would have been the wise choice for the USC braintrust. But with 8:26 still to go, the time clock--and an awareness of it--led Carroll to go for the first down, which--in that situation--was the better move.
But with all this having been said, there was still one more reason why this particular choice fit the given moment.
Carroll used this situation to trust his offense, which is not just a game-to-game foundation for his decision making, but a larger philosophical underpinning of his larger gridiron mentality. The same boldness that led Carroll to go for it just past midfield in the final minutes of the Rose Bowl against Texas was re-introduced to the nation in this crucible against Cal. While it's true that coaches (Jim Tressel against Michigan is a prime example) have to be bold enough to emerge from a shell when they possess the horses needed to employ a style that's different from the norm, it is just as true that coaches also have to trust their longstanding football philosophy if a volatile or uncertain game hangs in the balance, and there's no clear-cut strategic path to victory. Pete Carroll's USC philosophy has always been to be bold in big situations, as shown in the 2006 Rose Bowl and the 2005 game in South Bend against Notre Dame. Considering the success rate Carroll has enjoyed while presiding over many Troy trouncings of run-down rivals, there's no need for the head Trojan to adjust his overall modus operandi. The trust Carroll inspired in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart with fourth-down gambles has now been passed on to John David Booty, whom Carroll trusted with a pass play to Steve Smith on that 4th and 2 from the Cal 37 with 8:26 left in Saturday's game.
The result of Carroll's decision on his third fateful fourth down--a touchdown that broke the backs of the Bears and sealed USC's fourth-straight conference title (Wazzu won it in 2002, technicalities be damned; only the Rose Bowl participant or otherwise official BCS bowl representative should have the honor of being referred to as a conference champion)--shows how Carroll's trust in his players is constantly rewarded, over and over, with each passing year... and we do mean "passing" (as opposed to punting).
As my friend Jeff Fowler noted above, the great coach list in contemporary college football has Jim Tressel and Pete Carroll as its two firmly secure club members. There's a reason why the Ohio State and USC bosses are the best in their profession. Saturday offered ample proof of how those two coaches--with unparalleled feel for the ebb-and-flow of a game--manage to make better decisions than their colleagues at other schools. Michigan might get a rematch with the Buckeyes, but if USC sneaks into Glendale, you'll have the two best coaches in the country facing off for the national crown, and that would make a Trojan-Buckeye battle a treat for any coaching connoisseur.* * *
Week Thirteen: November 27, 2006
As this season nears its conclusion, it's an appropriate time to step back and take a larger look at both the coaching craft and the way sideline sultans are scrutinized. After last week's guest segment from Jeff Fowler, the MMQ will evaluate coaching--and coaching criticism--on a deeper level.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn offers a perfect case study of how difficult coaching--and coaching criticism--can be. In the immediate aftermath of the Hogs' 31-26 loss to LSU on Friday, a lot of people--in Little Rock and around the United States--had to be wondering why Malzahn made one of the dumbest individual play calls in football history, a 4th and 3 pass involving struggling quarterback Casey Dick on a day when Darren McFadden and the "Wildcat" formation were terrorizing the Tigers' defense with runs to the edges. The heat of battle and the agony of defeat will lead a lot of fans to vent their frustrations at the people who produce such putrid play calls.
However, any fans inclined to rip Gus Malzahn must also realize that one bad play call should not take away from what the Arkansas offense achieved against a talented LSU defense: without any quarterbacking whatsoever (when your starting signal caller completes just three passes in a game, that can be said to represent an absence of quarterbacking), the Hogs were still able to ring up 26 points and remain competitive in the face of formidable opposition. This points to something very important in the world of coaching criticism: the men calling the shots can make good decisions, formulate excellent game plans, and do their homework, and yet still come up short. It happens in a lot of games: only one team can win, which means only one staff can win as well. Sometimes, one staff or coordinator badly outmaneuvers the other, but on many occasions, both staffs will strut their stuff. This leads to a predictable but sad situation in which the losing staff will come in for unfair criticism just because it lost. It's very important to remind oneself of the fact that good coaches and good plans will still fail to win games throughout each and every football season.
When one considers the way in which Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English got outflanked by Ohio State and Jim Tressel, it's easy to view the Wolverine assistant in a harsh light, much as predecessor Jim Herrmann got ripped after committing the sin of failing to stop Vince Young in the 2005 Rose Bowl. But of course, slamming English for one bad game against a great offense (and an agile mind calling the plays for said offense) isn't fair... not for the man who is neck-and-neck with Gus Malzahn for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in the country. English's motivational magic in Ann Arbor, and Malzahn's masterful masking of his inadequate quarterbacking in Fayetteville, legitimately rate as the two best jobs by coordinators in 2006. Yet, late-season losses might lead fans to have a negative impression of both men heading into the bowl season. That would be most unfortunate... and plainly wrong.
Want to know what coaches have really impressed me (or not) this season, and why? This will blend the realms of the obvious and not-so-obvious. Aside of Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel and Bob Stoops--who tower above their contemporaries in the coaching profession--let's look at everyone else who made an impression on the sidelines this year.
First, the obvious: Dick Tomey, Todd Graham, Phil Bennett, Skip Holtz, Terry Hoeppner, Doug Martin, Rick Stockskill, Frank Solich, Urban Meyer, Jim Grobe, Ron Prince, Rich Brooks and Houston Nutt deserve to be lauded. All these coaches share the distinction of being able to uproot and overturn a culture of losing that had begun to seep into their programs. Any coach who can change a negative culture at his school has done something very significant.
Another set of coaches that deserves to be commended is as follows: Bill Callahan, Greg Schiano, Bronco Mendenhall, and Jim Leavitt. These four coaches deserve praise because they pulled off the particularly difficult feat of taking an already-solid program and making a leap to the next plateau. Going from seven wins to ten, or from middle-tier status in a conference to an upper-crust place in a league's pecking order, is a huge progression for any coach at any time at any school. You have to have some quality if you can do what the coaches of Nebraska, Rutgers, BYU and South Florida have done this year.
Bret Bielema and Chris Petersen demand special recognition in 2006 for a very simple reason: they inherited strong programs and did more than merely avoid a disaster. The first-year coaches at Wisconsin and Boise State actually did better than most folks had a right to expect.
The next collection of coaches coming in for commendation reads like this: Ralph Friedgen, Mike Riley, Joe Tiller, Lloyd Carr, Philip Fulmer, Dennis Franchione, June Jones, and Mark Dantonio. These sideline bosses produced praiseworthy seasons because they all bounced back from sorely disappointing sojourns in 2005. Any coach who can absorb a bad year and then bounce back is a man with the mental toughness the coaching profession demands.
All these lists might give the impression that no coaches did a poor job in 2006. Relax--that's hardly the case. Several coaches simply stunk it up this season. It doesn't mean they're bad coaches in general, but it does mean that they couldn't find the right formula in this particular pigskin parade through Autumn. Kirk Ferentz, Gregg Brandon, Tommy Bowden, Dirk Koetter, John L. Smith, Larry Coker, Bobby Bowden, John Bunting, Chuck Amato, Walt Harris, George O'Leary, Mike Price and Dan McCarney simply didn't get the job done this season. Of these coaches, however, only Koetter, Smith, Bunting and Amato deserve to be fired. The dismissal of Coker was wrong because of what the Miami coach accomplished in his first five seasons, and because a lot of off-field traumas affected the Hurricanes this past year. The termination of McCarney was wrong because Iowa State is not a football power, and should not think it is supposed to be one. (I see comparisons to Ole Miss' woefully wrongheaded firing of David Cutcliffe a few years ago, a decision that has proved to be quite dumb.)
Aside of the good and bad coaches in America for 2006, one must also have the courage--and the specificity--to prevent coaches from being overrated or underrated. A good win total--or an outward improvement from past seasons--doesn't automatically mean a coach did a great job, while a bad record--or a drop in wins from the previous year--doesn't automatically mean a coach did a poor job. Some examples?
Tom O'Brien of Boston College didn't do a bad job in 2006--no coach who wins nine games can be ripped. It would be just as erroneous, however, to think that O'Brien excelled as a head coach this season. The good news in Chestnut Hill is that the Eagles always put together a workmanlike season, just miss a conference title, and come up with a bowl win at the end. The bad news? The 2006 season demanded that BC take advantage of a shockingly weak ACC. Yet, the Eagles couldn't even win their division. O'Brien's poor executive decision making and play calling in the final minute of a stunning loss at N.C. State would cost BC dearly. The fact that the Wolfpack finished 3-9 only makes that loss that much more galling. It was a decent season in New England, but hardly a fulfilling or supremely satisfying one. Tom O'Brien missed a great opportunity for a conference title.
Despite winning eight games in Clemson, Tommy Bowden has to take some heat for a very poor body of work. Why? It became quite clear at points in the 2006 season that the Tigers had more horsepower than any other ACC team. With James Davis and C.J. Spiller in the backfield, Clemson had the clear ability to thunder past opponents with lightning-bolt home-run plays. The Tigers did in fact win at Florida State while crushing ACC Coastal champion Georgia Tech and defeating ACC Atlantic titleist Wake Forest. Clemson proved on multiple occasions how talented it was. Yet, the Tigers lost games they had no business losing (Maryland) while playing somnambulent football on some occasions (Virginia Tech). As is the case with Tom O'Brien at Boston College, Tommy Bowden had the horses to win a division title this season, but didn't. In the bigger scheme of things, that represents a failure which should minimize the value of an eight- or nine-win year.
If Georgia Tech doesn't defeat Wake Forest this Saturday for the ACC title, the nine wins posted by Chan Gailey will also ring somewhat hollow. Tech, remember, is in the same division as Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, whereas the ACC Atlantic offered a superior stack of teams that managed to exclude both Clemson and BC from the winner's circle. Reggie Ball's fourth stinker against Georgia--in yet another loss to the Bulldogs--was a ringing reminder of the limitations and lapses that have defined the Gailey era in Atlanta. A conference championship would rightfully and deservedly wipe away most, if not all, of these criticisms. But if Wake holds a funeral for Georgia Tech, it will be hard to deny that Chan Gailey will have failed to make the most of the Calvin Johnson era.
To prove just how different two 8-4 seasons can be, pit Joe Paterno's season for Penn State up against Tommy Bowden's year in Clemson. While a number of ACC coaches have deceptively poor 8-4 or 9-3 records after twelve games, the Nittany Lions--it's fair to say--maxed out by winning eight games. PSU's four opponents were all clearly superior, but JoePa's teams won every game they should have won... even with decidedly mediocre quarterbacking. Eight wins with a beat up 1975 Pinto is a far bigger coaching feat than gaining the same eight wins with a 2003 Lexus. JoePa might have suffered an injury, but the level of his coaching ability is intact, healthy and whole, thank you very much.
This leaves one final category in this far-ranging survey of Division I-A college football coaches: those who either had losing seasons or experienced familiar struggles, but still did better than outward appearances would suggest. Gary Pinkel once again endured an ugly, multi-game losing skid at Missouri this season, but he did a much better job than in the past. This columnist has ripped Pinkel in previous years for squandering the immense talents of Brad Smith. This year, however, Pinkel must gain praise for creating a solid team concept and getting his players to mesh around quarterback Chase Daniel. It became very clear in the first half of the season that Pinkel had his team properly prepared for each game. In the second half of the season, Missouri's players--armed with a winning formula--somehow (and literally) dropped the ball. Pinkel game his boys the tools to succeed, but for some reason, those tools weren't used on a continuous basis. Pinkel did some quality work in 2006, but didn't have the results to show for it.
Another coach who exists in much the same category as Pinkel is Mike Shula of Alabama. Shula has been damned if he does and damned if he doesn't throughout his career in Tuscaloosa, which--from a standpoint of justice, integrity and human decency--will hopefully be allowed to continue. Forget inheriting the post-Mike Price mess; Shula has existed in a league where defense is loved, but where expectations are high. It's hard to imagine Bear Bryant using play calling that's terribly different from what Shula has employed in his tenure at Alabama, but with an inconsistent freshman quarterback this past season, it was much harder for Shula and his offense to get big-time results. Yes, a lot of this season recalled the memory of a similarly difficult 2004, but with better seasoning and sharpening, Bama put the pieces together in a stellar 2005. Shula certainly deserves the chance to get it right in 2007, after which coaching critics will suddenly be silenced.
Finally, Glen Mason of Minnesota, Greg Robinson of Syracuse, and Ty Willingham at Washington all deserve admiration for their performances in 2006, even though national publicity--and winning records--eluded each of them. Mason quietly got his team to continue playing throughout a difficult year with fewer resources available in the offensive backfield. The result of such persistence was a season-ending three-game winning streak that lifted the Golden Gophers to an unexpected .500 record and a shot at a bowl game. Minnesota actually finished ahead of Iowa--yes, Iowa--and won Floyd of Rosedale. That's a pretty good accomplishment, even if a 6-6 record might not excite anyone in the Twin Cities.
Robinson and Willingham might not be admired by their fan bases (here in Seattle, lots of vocal Husky fans want Willingham's head on a platter; as I've learned in my twelve years in the Emerald City, Seattle is a much dumber and less sophisticated city than the national magazine articles or widely-circulated reputations would ever have you believe), but it should be plainly noted that they each engineered three-game improvements at their respective schools. While Illinois came within just one touchdown of Ohio State, it needs to be pointed out that Syracuse beat that same Fighting Illini outfit by ten in September (so, using a logic chain, Syracuse is a field goal better than Ohio State...). Four wins is a big jump from the 1-10 journey of 2005. Willingham, for his part, would be in a bowl game today had quarterback Isaiah Stanback not gotten shelved for the season in a mid-October game against Oregon State. With a healthy Stanback, UW's Stanford and Arizona State games would have turned from agonizing losses into solid wins.
Coaches can succeed even when the numbers say they fail. Some can fail--albeit in a limited and not total sense--when the numbers suggest they've succeeded. All of the above examples, in one way or another, point to the nuances involved in coaching--and in the process of critiquing those who spend Saturdays on the sidelines. If you care enough about coaching criticism--and about the men who are subjected to your analysis--take the time to make distinctions that are ruthlessly honest and eminently respectful at the same time. Hopefully, this week's MMQ served as a primer on how to treat the men who earn so much of our scrutiny--and sometimes, our frustrations--every Autumn.* * *
Week Fourteen: December 4, 2006
Days like this past Saturday are the days that make college football fans so furious. While coaches and coordinators deserve a lot more leniency than they usually receive, it must also be said that these highly-paid men sometimes make the kinds of decisions a rookie Pop Warner coach would never make. This is the story of a rousing conclusion to yet another regular season that's in the history books.
The world of college football is a world in which coaches have only so much control over their 20-year-old man-children. They can give players perfect instructions, and yet huge mistakes can--and will--still ensue. Just see the SEC Championship Game, in which Reggie Fish of Arkansas and Chris Leak of Florida made blunders that came from nowhere. Fish was not taught by Houston Nutt to try to catch a punt over his shoulder on his own three-yard line. Leak put together a superb first half and a solid fourth quarter, but in the third stanza, he forgot how to play the position. The SEC title game was but one example--from the weekend, the season, and the whole 138-year history of this sport, for that matter--of young men turning to mush in the heat of battle. My mind is anxious and fragile along with every other human organism; the only difference is that I don't put my body or reputation on the line in front of a crowd of over 70,000 and a national network television audience. If you don't experience anxiety or stress, well, you're not a human being. Coaches deserve a lot of slack in this industry because they exist in a sport where mistakes will always come out of the blue and sabotage the best laid plans of highly-paid men.
Speaking of highly-paid men, though, the money factor is central to understanding why fans, the media and coaches constantly coexist (barely) in a white-hot emotional cauldron that never seems to cool down. While football coaches do lack a lot of control in the college game (in the NFL, life is appropriately less forgiving and much more of a zero-sum game), they still make a ton of money, and this means that when college coaches don't take care of the few things they can control, they come in for a firestorm of criticism they legitimately do deserve.
Fans go overboard when they demand firings of play callers on generally successful teams; that's something I've been hinting at--if not saying outright--for a number of years here at CFN. However, a point that I've under-emphasized--and will talk about today--is that on numerous occasions, coaches will make decisions that are so woefully and evidently impoverished that even writers like me or fans like you could have done better... a lot better. Coaches have the hard job of trying to pull together a whole program, a job which has hundreds of layered responsibilities great and small. However, on game days, there are times when coaches look like first graders who seem utterly incapable of performing the most basic game-management and play-calling tasks. When an adult is paid seven figures (or very high sixes) to take care of these fundamentals of football coaching and strategy and can't get the job done, it's totally understandable as to why fans demand firings... even for coaches and coordinators on nine- or ten-win teams. After all, the money issue cuts deep in the human psyche--especially in these pre-Christmas weeks: if Joe Six-Pack managed the deli section at the local market the way Chan Gailey managed Saturday's ACC title game against Wake Forest, he WOULD be fired. If Suzy Q. Pineapple cleaned floors as an overnight janitor the way Lane Kiffin called plays for USC against UCLA, she'd be handed her walking papers. This is the most legitimate reason and explanation for the anger fans carry--and then vent--on message boards and other forums. It is the most righteous and valid source of the movements to fire coaches and coordinators... even those on teams playing in or winning championship games.
Some fans are candid enough to acknowledge these complexities and emotional difficulties on message boards, in the hours after big-game losses. A visit to Scout.com's Georgia Tech site on Saturday evening revealed at least a few responses in which Yellow Jacket fans simultaneously acknowledged that: A) Chan Gailey shouldn't be fired for winning nine games and making the ACC title tilt after winning his division; B) his coaching was nevertheless the main reason Tech lost to Wake Forest; and C) as a result of A and B, Tech fans would always have to live with the discomfort of knowing that while Gailey will probably not allow the Tech program to slide downward, he is also just as likely to prevent the program from attaining the proverbial "next level."
The frustration Tech fans feel today lies not just in the sense that they won't become a powerhouse under Gailey, but in the strongly-felt view that the team will always play the same style of ball, have the same combination of strengths and weaknesses, and display the same personality on an annual basis. Fans (and in my private moments, I am one; I just can't display that in my writing or any public persona) know these moods, and in many respects, are right to feel these kinds of thoughts. As has been written many times by this columnist over the years, one of the unendingly fascinating elements of college football is how the same programs manifest the same behaviors over long stretches of time, as though they were psychiatric patients with well-defined mental health issues. For Georgia Tech, the "let's show no imagination in an all-or-nothing offensive approach, and sprinkle in some bad situational decision making" loss is and has been a recurring feature of the Chan Gailey era, especially against Georgia and in Saturday's war with Wake. Yellow Jacket fans are experiencing a feeling that's worse than frustration in the face of defeat; they're undergoing that sickening yet numbing sensation brought about by the realization that they're probably going to remain trapped in this cycle, with no hope of escape... even if Tech continues to churn out eight-win seasons at a program with a bigger (recent) pedigree in hoops, not football. Chan Gailey won't be fired. Moreover, he won't deserve to be fired. And yet, Tech fans--who, in many cases, understand and even accept these realities--will still be bitterly disappointed. This is why fan base-coach relationships are so understandably strained, with media members getting heat from both sides because--well--they usually take one side or the other whenever a coaching controversy crops up.
The same dynamic works at USC, where offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin--despite putting together two generally high-quality seasons under Pete Carroll's watch--must still be forced to confront a massive failure in a huge game that demands substantial adjustments in his future as a play caller. USC has achieved its preseason goal of making the Rose Bowl, which means that Kiffin--on a larger, collective level--has succeeded along with his fellow coaches and the players he teaches. Yet, when one considers the stakes involved in Saturday's UCLA game--combined with the fact that Kiffin makes a salary much greater than a lower-middle class worker at a carniceria (Spanish for "butchery") in Los Angeles--one can understand why Cardinal and Gold Angelinos would be up in arms about Kiffin's performance against the Bruins.
While it's undeniably true that USC's offensive line played horribly against UCLA, and while it's equally true that a play caller has only so many options when faced with an intimidated (yes, intimidated; no O-line commits that many false starts if it's not intimidated) set of blockers, it still stands that Kiffin--so good against Notre Dame (when his O-line blocked well)--had an absolutely brutal game from the press box.
It should have been obvious very early on in the Rose Bowl that UCLA was playing very physical defense, and was likely to sustain its effort for a long time. The Bruins were playing with supercharged, rivalry-fed emotion, a fact that should not have remotely surprised anyone on the USC staff. Accordingly, the smart move--made even more obvious by SC's poor line play--was to use misdirection plays while running the ball very sparingly and using wrinkles to get touches to skill people in open space. It didn't take a Rhodes Scholar to figure that out. Yet--and there were times throughout the 2006 season when I got this feeling--it seemed as though Kiffin, without Matt Leinart, tried to baby John David Booty and give his new quarterback a very simplified package. Only in the Oregon and Notre Dame games did it seem as though SC's offense really shot the works and made a concerted effort to ruthlessly attack a defense. Even then, the offensive framework was very simple on a conceptual level. What made everything okay, though, was the fact that against those opponents, such an approach was good enough to win. You couldn't knock Kiffin's results, even if you could find a lot to nitpick in his performances.
Against UCLA, though, a naked failure to make ballsy adjustments--or install creative plays--exposed the full extent of Kiffin's limitations, and since coaching is about preparation, Trojan fans--while insane to demand Kiffin's ouster--are very appropriate in their demands for better play calling by Monte Kiffin's son.
The one play call that typified Kiffin's horrible afternoon was the fourth and two at the UCLA 36 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The whole USC braintrust had the between-quarter break to figure out what to do in a very crucial situation. Now, it needs to be said that the business of assessing play calling is prone to a lot of second guessing. Being fair as a critic demands that play callers and coaches be given a lot of credit for making good decisions that don't work out. The lack of a play's success is not the sole basis for evaluating the quality of the call or decision. If there's a solid thought process at work, the decision maker deserves credit even if things don't work out. Safe to say, there was no solid thought process at work in this case.
People who have watched both college and pro football for at least 20 years might very well remember an NFL game in which the Cincinnati Bengals--coached by Sam Wyche--led the San Francisco 49ers by four to six points with very few seconds remaining in regulation. The Bengals had a 4th and short around their own 30, and rather than chance a blocked punt, they decided to go for it. That was a shaky enough decision, but if they had a good play on for the fourth down, no big deal. Well, instead of taking a safety or using a power run or employing a bootleg with a run-pass option, Wyche and the Bengals ran the one play that definitely made zero sense: a slow-developing toss play to the short side of the field that the Niners quickly stuffed for a loss. On the next play, Joe Montana found Jerry Rice, who outjumped a Bengal corner (I think the name was Eric Thomas; I could be wrong) in the end zone for a stunning game-winning touchdown in Riverfront Stadium. Wyche lost because he ordered up (or approved of) the one play that made no sense on a 4th and short.
Lane Kiffin, as you can see, was obviously thinking along the lines of Sam Wyche on that 4th and 2. Given USC's nonexistent line play, the tremendous physicality and pursuit of the UCLA defense, and the down-and-distance--two solid yards, not one or one and change--the one call that made zero sense was a slow toss play to the short side. The old "anything but that!" refrain legitimately applied in this instance. The reverse mini-option--called a "trendy flip play" by other football commentators such as Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN.com-- that was used against Notre Dame got junked against UCLA. The simplicity--and stupidity--of the play revealed the plainness of the Trojans' playbook in a game that demanded creativity. Yes, USC--with an expectation of solid line play and physical running--does not want to be in positions where it must trick the opposition or become unnecessarily complex with its offense. Over 95 percent of the time, the Trojans rightly want to do the basic things well and win with a simple formula. Fair enough--the results affirm their strategy over the past five years. But there will be one or two games a year when a creative package must be brought to the dance, and UCLA was that kind of game. The fact that Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian couldn't come up with even remotely interesting answers to DeWayne Walker's questions is an indictment of their play calling... not all season long, but in this game. USC fans should be grateful for the efforts of Lane Kiffin over the course of two exceptional seasons, but it's entirely fair for this same fan base to demand a lot more from their play caller in big games.
It's worth pointing out that while losing coaches and play callers sometimes merit vigorous criticism when their performances are abnormally subpar, it's also true that some coaches can win and--for that simple reason--avoid a firestorm even if they made shockingly bad mistakes. Such was the case in the SEC Championship Game.
Yes, Urban Meyer's a stud coach, case closed. Yes, he's probably going to compile a resume that will rival Steven Orr Spurrier before it's all over. Yes, Meyer is quickly amassing the credentials that will mark him as a legendary coach if he maintains his current pace in Gainesville. Yes, he's already proven his worth as the Florida coach in just two seasons. But with all that having been said, it still stands that Meyer used all three of his timeouts before the end of the third quarter in a positively Gailey-esque display of game management. Moreover, Meyer's offensive coordinator, Dan Mullen, had a Kiffin-esque ability to call the wrong plays for much of the contest, until finally breaking free of an obsession with the Chris Leak option attack. Florida's staff coached hard, motivated well, and used a number of appropriate and clever wrinkles to turn back Arkansas. But had Reggie Fish not made his huge blunder, game management and play calling issues could have created a different storyline. The point of this is not to somehow "pile on" Meyer or Mullen. The point is that while coaches do deserve credit in victory and blame in defeat, there's a very easy tendency for victory to wipe out discussion of deficiencies in coaching, and for a defeat to eliminate mention of any of the good things a coach, coordinator or staff might have done on game day.
Fan bases have been known to be excessive in their criticisms and the emotions that fuel them. Fans at Alabama, Ole Miss, Notre Dame never seemed to give Mike Shula, David Cutcliffe, or Ty Willingham enough credit for the big seasons each of those coaches produced. But after thinking about matters of money, endlessly depressing cycles, and the insanity of really lousy coaching, I can understand why fans are so outraged on some occasions. In the end, I can appreciate the depth of anger and the intensity of frustration, given that poor decision making isn't compensated by a seven-figure salary for most of us. However, the reality of money does not change fundamental laws or principles of human behavior: all people demand equal treatment as autonomous beings who each possess the same level of human dignity.
A solution to all this? Here's a groundbreaking proposal, submitted to both coaches and fans alike (and I would encourage fans to take this idea to their coaches and ADs): given that college sports are a billion-dollar business, and given that money differentials form the basis for so much of the frustrations fans feel (legitimate in their intensity, but excessive in their personal nature), there needs to be a way for fans to get some sense of justice when a coach--one that does not deserve to be fired, but who still prevented a program from reaching a higher plateau--performs poorly. Guys like Chan Gailey--people who are appropriately safe and secure as the head coach for a fairly successful but not hugely successful program--should donate money to socially significant charitable or philanthropic outlets when they make abnormally large and overwhelmingly visible mistakes. If a blue-collar worker who is just barely scraping by must suffer through bad coaching in his alma mater's big game, how appropriate would it be, then, if the coach donated a large chunk of change to a local hospital that could use the funds to provide extra health care services in the future... services that might wind up benefiting that very same blue-collar worker.
From a coaching standpoint, this idea would work because it would be a very emotionally healthy and socially profitable way for coaches to acknowledge their mistakes in public. The pressure smothering coaches these days--obviously tied into money--prevents coaches from being too candid about their gameday failures. Initiating this kind of a program would prove to be enormously cathartic for everyone who cares about college football, and it would even provide a somewhat humorous component to the college football coaching profession, which--like the NFL (only to a smaller degree)--is dominated by stress to an unprecedented extent these days.
Fans and coaches will always have a guarded, fragile, two-way coexistence. However, this doesn't mean the dynamics of the fan-coach relationship can't be substantially improved when the offseason starts and the run-up to the 2007 season begins.* * *
Season Finale: December 11, 2006
In the final regular-season edition of this column, we review the year in play calling and strategy through a few particularly representative examples, both positive and negative.
The best play caller in all of college football in 2006 was Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, and it wasn't even close. What's amazing--or perhaps not very amazing at all--is that Malzahn took the college football world by storm in his first season. It's worth asking, college football coaches of America: did Gus Malzahn succeed because he wasn't tainted or hardened by several years of college ball? Did the sage of Springdale High maximize Darren McFadden's considerable talents because he was unafraid to think outside the (tackle) box and try something bold? With the confidence and aggressiveness of a younger Steve Spurrier at Florida, Malzahn imposed his system on SEC defenses that were clearly behind the curve... so much so that the Hogs won ten games and a division flag with precious little quality quarterbacking. Malzahn was able to absorb the deficiencies of Mitch Mustain and Casey Dick and still put a productive offense on the field. That's a more than remarkable achievement worthy of the highest forms of praise. There was more play-calling creativity in this season's SEC Championship Game than in ten years' worth of SEC games in the pre-Spurrier era (a reality brought about not just by Malzahn, but by the equally creative and ballsy Urban Meyer, who does some tremendous things on special teams). Football--like any other sport (or industry, or profession... call it what you want)--is an ever-evolving organism, and it's people like Gus Malzahn who accelerate the sport's development with fresh thinking and strategic courage that are all too rare in the coaching business. One hopes that Malzahn's methods and motives will catch on in other programs.
Another major development in the coaching world this season came from the aforementioned Urban Meyer, who used two quarterbacks in a way that generally worked. Florida's offense wasn't powerfully prolific or awesomely overwhelming, but the Gators won twelve games against a daunting schedule to capture the SEC and a spot opposite Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game. Not bad for the coach who has mastered the art of the second-year surge at a program.
While it's undeniably true that Dan Mullen, Meyer's offensive coordinator, made humongous strides from a wobbly first year in Gainesville, it's also true that Mullen still has a ways to go in terms of sticking with basic plays when they stand to succeed. In the Gators' 17-16 squeaker over South Carolina on Nov. 11, Mullen had a receiving corps that had established clear superiority in man-to-man matchups. Yet, those same receivers didn't dominate the game because Mullen didn't get them the ball often enough. Too many times, Mullen had Chris Leak run the option when a simple dropback pass would have sufficed. On many occasions, Mullen out-thought himself... even in a season when he improved considerably and worked a lot better with Leak, his star quarterback.
With that said, though, Mullen and Meyer both deserve credit for thinking boldly in ways only Gus Malzahn could (perhaps) appreciate. Even though Florida never fully "put it all together" on offense in 2006 (with the Gators' awesome defense, merely being good enough on offense was in fact good enough for Florida to win ballgames), one must commend Meyer and Mullen for what they're trying to do with an offense. It's a vision that is supremely aggressive, but which hasn't been able to get off the ground just yet. (Just think of how dominant the Gators will be if they can click on offense in future seasons.)
The whole point of the Chris Leak-Tim Tebow rotation system was to create certain tendencies, only to then break them, while also having the added benefit of being able to coach the other quarterback when on the sideline. By giving Leak and Tebow specific packages and assignments, Meyer and Mullen gave defenses two sets of expectations early in games whenever Leak or Tebow would step onto the field. Later in games, Meyer and Mullen could break tendencies with these quarterbacks. When Leak would unexpectedly run or Tebow would unexpectedly pass (Tebow's jump-pass against LSU was a trend-busting, horizon-expanding goal-line play call from the 2006 season), defenses would suddenly become uncertain... at least, that was the goal for the Florida braintrust. On a few occasions, this approach did enough to produce crucial touchdowns in Gator victories. Yes, it never consistently gelled for sixty whole minutes on any single Saturday, but it managed to score enough points to get the job done. Coming one year after a disastrous season for Florida's offense--in which Leak looked downright lost at times--this was a considerable achievement for Meyer and Mullen.
Going beyond this one season, though, here is the larger significance of Meyer's plan, implemented on game days by Mullen: while prevailing conventional wisdom has long held that a quarterback shuffle is a bad thing, it's this columnist's belief that the future of offensive play calling lies in these planned QB rotations. It was none other than that great trail blazer, Steve Spurrier, who first introduced this idea to the college football consciousness nine years ago.
With strong-armed but weak-minded sophomore quarterback Doug Johnson struggling at the end of a trying season, Spurrier rotated Johnson with senior signal caller Noah Brindise against a powerful Florida State team that entered the Swamp as a considerable favorite intent on reaching the Bowl Alliance championship game against Nebraska. By being able to coach Johnson on the sideline when Brindise was on the field, and by giving a steady senior some of the game reps while reducing the workload of the shaky sophomore, Spurrier found more continuity and productivity on offense than he ever could have hoped for. A brutal month of bad offense from mid-October to mid-November suddenly ceased to matter, as Florida's new-look offense came up with big plays throughout the course of a 32-point effort that knocked the Seminoles out of the title tilt. That game, back in 1997, offered solid and convincing proof that college football--being played by very young and emotionally fragile men--can be played by rules that are different from the NFL, where teams need one great leader to shepherd them through the fire. In NCAA ball, the limited attention spans and frail psyches of quarterbacks (not to mention any other players on a team) are conducive to fewer reps and more detailed coaching. Planned in-game quarterback rotations lead to better coaching and an accordingly enhanced ability of quarterbacks to execute specific plays in specific situations.
Teams that could have profited from play-to-play (or perhaps, series-to-series) quarterback rotations in 2006 are as follows: Oregon, Clemson, Miami, Florida State, Arkansas (without Darren McFadden in the Wildcat formation), Texas (in the A&M game alone, not for the full season), Penn State, Iowa, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Army, Connecticut, N.C. State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Arizona, Arizona State (whoops--no Sam Keller to rotate in for Rudy Carpenter!), Washington (after Isaiah Stanback went down with an injury), Colorado, and Alabama. And these are just the teams from BCS conferences. Those who have more extensively chronicled non-BCS schools would be in a better position to assess the quarterback situations of those Division I-A offenses. The frequent rotation of quarterbacks is an idea whose time has come, nine years after one of the sport's sharpest minds genuinely introduced the concept to the nation.
The next part of this season-ending MMQ concerns a strategy you hear about all the time from play-calling connnoisseurs... but is rarely if ever implemented by a generally timid, play-not-to-lose fraternity of football coaches: the hurry-up offense. My goodness, folks: aren't athletes bigger, stronger and faster than they used to be? Aren't strength, fitness and conditioning programs more scientifically advanced and systematically developed than in decades past? Hasn't sports nutrition grown by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years? Then dadgummit, big-time football players should be fit enough to perform a hurry-up offense with regularity. Rotate a few bodies if you have to, and go to a no-huddle offense (not hurrying, but simply never huddling) if your defense is your team's strong suit, but you should get the idea: a hurry-up offense prevents defensive coordinators from getting good matchups or being able to dictate with situational alignments. The quarterback gets to think on his feet and develop a rhythm, attacking the defense instead of reacting to chess moves by a middle linebacker or safety. A defense will fall back on its heels if it can't force incompletions early in a drive, as the simplicity of "snap, run, throw, catch, hurry"--cyclically repeated by a competent passing offense--will likely turn a tough defense into a soft outfit.
And if coaches or coordinators worry about sustaining a furious pace throughout an entire game, hey: there's no law or rule requiring the hurry-up to be used throughout a game. If the purpose of possessing the football is to score points, the hurry-up provides a great opportunity for an offense that might be undersized, banged up, or insufficiently physical. Just imagine this game scenario: an underdog springs the hurry-up on an unsuspecting opponent on the first drive to get an all-important touchdown lead. The hurry-up might not be used on every series, but it is implemented occasionally and with great effect, scoring touchdowns each time it's used. An offense that gets stuffed at a normal tempo and flow is able to thrive on this particular game day because of its effectiveness within the hurry-up concept. A team with deficient talent and depth could use the hurry-up offense to win games it would have no business winning otherwise.
Here's a very important thing for coaches to consider: the overlooked benefit of the hurry-up offense is that it takes the mental game out of the equation for an underdog team. While the hurry-up is clearly valuable because of its ability to constrain defensive coordinators and their substitution patterns, the hidden benefit of a hurry-up is that its intense, rhythmic flow prevents a quarterback and an entire offensive unit from having to think too much. In this way, the hurry-up is a built-in psychological defense mechanism. The psyches of college players are extremely delicate--see Dennis Dixon of Oregon, Will Proctor of Clemson, and kicker Chris Hetland of Florida as prime examples from this 2006 season (see Reggie Ball of Georgia Tech for an entire career of mentally frail football). When the weight of a situation is allowed to linger on the shoulders of a mentally wounded player, that player--being a flesh and blood human being--will feel the weight and have a long period of struggle before being able to slay that psychological demon... if at all. For this reason, anything a coach can do to make football more purely reactive or instinctive--and freed from deep contemplation--will go a long way toward breaking the spell, especially for a quarterback. The hurry-up offense is this tool; it creates a totally different frame of reference in which the quarterback operates. It reminds the quarterback of playground football, a fun and mentally reassuring experience for any football player. More importantly, it takes the complexity out of the game by simplifying the packages, routes and responsibilities for everyone involved in the offense while also reducing the defense's ability to mix things up. Many of the things that can paralyze a struggling quarterback are taken out of the equation by a hurry-up offense.
Coaches know that the mental side of the game is central to good performance and results. The key for coaches is clearly not about finding talent; it's about maximizing that talent--see what Jim Tressel did with Troy Smith over the course of a career in Columbus. With this in mind, then, the lasting value of the hurry-up offense--beyond the limitations it places on defensive coordinators--is that it puts quarterbacks in a position where they can employ simple concepts and slide into that hypnotic trance where mechanics and muscle memory can override mental blocks and other demons faced when a game is played at its normal tempo... and defensive coordinators' schemes can get inside the head of a quarterback who's worried about what will happen next.
The final part of this season-ending MMQ for 2006 comes from two strategic moves--both failures--that should be noted by coaches across the country. If America's coaches didn't have a firm grasp of two strategic principles before this season started, they should now.
The first move was Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer's decision to stubbornly continue chasing a touchdown when trailing by 11 points in the final minutes against Georgia Tech. As Seattle Seahawk coach Mike Holmgren had to painfully learn in Super Bowl XL, you can't score 11 points with one touchdown. Endgame football is not a phase of this sport in which you have the advantages or the leverage to do what you would like. You have to respect endgame football, and you do that by extending the game as long as possible, always increasing--or maintaining--an available set of options. With this in mind, then, you must score quickly if you trail by two scores late in a game, with one of those scores being a field goal (this is the 9-11 point range). If you score that touchdown and get a two-point conversion to reduce the margin to three points, it still won't matter if you have just 20 seconds left on the clock. Coaches in this position have to have the discipline needed to kick the field goal with at least 35-40 seconds left if they can't get a quick-strike touchdown. To be fair to coaches who value getting the touchdown first in an 11-point game--given that they want to take care of the two-point conversion first and see if they need to get a touchdown on their second possession--one could say this: if you're going to chase that first touchdown, make sure, then, that your quarterback throws for the end zone once you're in comfortable field goal range. If you penetrate the 20-yard line with, say, 50 seconds left in a game you trail by 11 points, the quarterback would need to throw the next three passes into the end zone, especially if his team still had at least one timeout left. That one timeout--given the small amount of time left in the game--would have to be preserved for the second possession, so any throw short of the end zone and not out of bounds would prove to be nothing less than catastrophic for that team's chances of mounting a comeback... even with a successful onside kick. One hopes that coaches will take note of this situation when they encounter it in the bowl games or, even more importantly, in the 2007 season.
The second move was California head coach Jeff Tedford's decision to kick a 20-yard field goal on 4th and goal from the Arizona 3, with the Bears trailing Arizona by seven points with roughly ten minutes to go in regulation. Coaches should be made aware of (if they haven't been already) what shall be called the "seven-point rule." This principle of football strategy is simple: seven points is the one point spread in which coaches need to go for touchdowns more than field goals if a one-score game is not in its final, dying moments. For the sake of clarity, let's define "the final, dying moments" of a game as its last five minutes.
When a team trails by six points, the value of a field goal is substantial, for obvious reasons. This is even more the case if the spread is five or four points. Kicking a field goal outside of the last five minutes therefore has substantial strategic value. On the other side of the seven-point divide, an eight-point spread--and remember, we're talking about one-score games here, not two-score games (in which a field goal becomes a no-brainer if down by 9 to 11 points)--can also cry out for a field goal. Kicking the field goal when down by eight might not be emotionally satisfying, but it achieves a huge strategic goal of rendering a two-point conversion irrelevant. Eliminating the need for a low-percentage play under pressure--and in a situation where one can only tie the game, not win it--is a major step forward in an attempt to gain a come-from-behind win. Any game management strategies that can take a two-point try out of the equation should be pursued vigorously. This makes the field goal, when down by eight, a good move.
But while six- or eight-point spreads lend themselves to a chip-shot field goal--for different but equally compelling reasons--there is no reason to kick the chip-shot field goal when down by seven. The field goal doesn't trim the lead down to three points the way it does in a six-point game, and it doesn't affect the two-point play the way it does in an eight-point game. All a coach is left with after a field goal in a seven-point game is the same reality he had before: touchdown or bust. Now, of course, if Tedford and Cal had received a quick turnover from Arizona, and were in position to kick another field goal when down by four points with roughly eight minutes left, they would have taken the three points and then been in position to win the game with a final field goal. But, of course, that turnover didn't come, and Arizona made a fourth-down stand in the final minutes to preserve a four-point lead. By any reasonable standard, Tedford made the wrong choice. Coaches need to account for the seven-point rule and make it an iron-clad part of their fourth-quarter thought patterns.
There are other things one could choose to talk about after a full season of college football, but the above topics represent the major points of discussion from the past three months of games. In the end, one hopes that college football coaches will continuously try to break free of the mindset that affects their NFL brethren. If college coaches stop playing not to lose and start playing to win, you'll see the above changes made... along with many other innovations that will introduce more and more fresh thinking to a sport that can always use it.