I believe that most people overrate the importance of game strategy decisions when rating head coaches and managers, but even I still have my jaw resting on the ground after watching New York Giants coach Jim Fassel lose Monday night’s game to the Dallas Cowboys with a couple of horrible decisions.
Great coaches aren’t great because they’re strategic geniuses and lousy ones aren’t lousy because they’re strategic dunces. The great ones are leaders of people, molders of teams. The bad ones are lousy bosses. The actual X’s and O’s, the calling of this play over that one, don’t amount to a whole lot over time. It’s the players who either execute or don’t.
On Monday night, Fassel mismanaged the clock at the end of regulation, and he called a play that backfires almost as often as the prevent defense, a squib kick, which backfired. Shocked as I was watching Fassel, who I think is a good coach, suffer this serial mental breakdown, I’m even more amazed that as far as I’ve seen he’s not getting any of the blame for it.
Here’s what happened: The favored Giants trailed 29-14 in the fourth quarter before rallying for two touchdowns and tying the game on a two-point conversion (thanks in part to one of several ticky-tack pass interference calls, but that’s another story) with 6:20 to play. After the teams exchanged punts for the next few minutes, the Giants drove from their own 48 to a second and 5 at the Dallas 12, where they called the first of their three timeouts with 14 seconds left.
Incredibly, with two downs and two timeouts to play with, Fassel sent in his field goal unit. ABC’s Al Michaels and John Madden praised this move, saying that it would give the Giants time to call timeout and try again if they muffed the snap. Remember the last play of last year’s playoff loss in San Francisco, Michaels said, when the Giants had done just that on a potential game-winning field goal.
What neither announcer mentioned, and what nobody else seems to want to talk about even in the aftermath of what happened next, is that leaving all that time on the clock also meant the Giants would have to kick off to the Cowboys. It seems painfully obvious, I mean, you don’t even have to think about it obvious, that the odds of something bad happening for the Giants when the Cowboys have the ball are toweringly greater than the odds of the Giants muffing the snap and not losing possession and getting a timeout called. Yeah, there was that playoff disaster last year, but how often does a muffed snap happen, and when it does, how often does the ball end up still in your team’s hands? You’re going to give the other team the ball back because you don’t trust your field goal team to get a 29-yard kick away on one snap?
You don’t have to answer those questions. This is a rhetorical conversation.
So you probably know what came next. Matt Bryant hit the field goal that gave New York a 32-29 lead. If the Giants had simply run one more play before kicking, if they had just had quarterback Kerry Collins take a knee, then called timeout with one second to go, that field goal would have been the last play of the game. Giants win. Instead, there were 11 seconds left. Bryant’s squib kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Cowboys the ball on the 40. Quincy Carter hit Antonio Bryant for 26 yards to the New York 34, and Billy Cundiff came in and hit a 52-yard field goal to send the game to overtime, where the Cowboys won.
And so Matt Bryant is the goat. I did my best to scour the New York newspapers, which are rarely kind to local coaches, and found not a single writer who blamed Fassel for his colossal mistake of leaving time on the clock before that field goal. It’s all about how Bryant shouldn’t have kicked that ball out of bounds.
Sure, he shouldn’t have, but I’d lay that one at Fassel’s door too. There’s a dispute over Bryant’s instructions. Fassel says he told his kicker to squib it down the middle while Bryant insists Fassel told him to shade it left a little. Don’t be surprised if that little argument costs Bryant his already shaky hold on his job this week, but I say it doesn’t matter what really happened. Fassel ordered the squib and, in case Fassel’s never noticed this, a football has an oblong shape with two pointy ends that can make it bounce around unpredictably. Even when you squib it down the middle, you can’t be sure it won’t end up going out of bounds. For that reason, but not only for that reason, squib kickoffs are stupid.
I’ve never understood why the strategy on kickoffs is to kick it as deep as you can — until the fourth quarter with the game on the line, when it suddenly becomes a good idea to bounce the kickoff downfield. These kicks usually end up being fielded around the 25 and run back to about the 35 or 40. The justification is that you’re trying to prevent a long return, but isn’t the idea to prevent a long return all game long? A kickoff coverage team is designed to keep the kickoff from being run back for a touchdown, or even for a lot of yards. But coaches suddenly and routinely lose faith in their coverage units at the most crucial moment of the game. If they’re good enough to tackle the return man in the second quarter, they’re good enough to get him in the fourth.
At the moment of Bryant’s fateful kickoff, there had been 270 kickoff returns in the NFL this season. Exactly one had been run back for a touchdown. Last season, there were 1,989 kickoff returns, 15 of which had been returned all the way. That’s about one TD every 132 returns, and that’s not counting kicks that go for touchbacks. To be fair it also doesn’t count kick returns long enough to set up a field goal, but those are more rare than touchbacks. To prevent an event that the odds say happens to your team about once every two seasons, you give up 15 or 20 yards of field position by squibbing it, even if it doesn’t roll out of bounds.
That’s a terrible trade, as the Cowboys proved Monday by going 26 yards on the only play they had time for, setting themselves up for the game-tying kick. Cowboys return man Zuriel Smith had returned four kickoffs Monday prior to that squib. Even including a 39-yarder on his first try, he had averaged 25.5 yards, giving Dallas an average starting point of their own 29-yard line. Had Bryant made his average kick — to the 4 — and the Giants held Smith to his average return, then that 26-yard pass play would have given the Cowboys a first down on the New York 45, too far away to try anything but a desperate Hail Mary pass. And any play that gained enough yards to set up a field goal would have run out the clock.
The next time the Giants kicked off, to start the overtime, Smith fielded the ball on his 8-yard line. Guess how far he ran it back. To the 29.
Cost-benefit analysis. We learn how to do it as kids, writing down the pros and cons of some decision on a sheet of paper. Football coaches don’t seem to have gotten that lesson. If Jim Fassel had, the Giants would be 2-0 today.
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Week 2: Please, no wagering [PERMALINK]
“Hello,” began an e-mail from a reader. “After dropping a C-note on the Titans I won’t be taking your predictions very seriously in the future.”
People, put everything down immediately and listen to me very, very carefully: Do not use my predictions as a basis for wagering. You may flip a coin as a basis for wagering. You may consult tea leaves or chicken gizzards, bet on the uniform you like, or play astrological hunches, but do not waste your money by betting on my picks, much less “take them very seriously.” If you have money you don’t value and want me to be part of its departure from your life, send it to me. Just don’t bet it on my picks. It’s hard enough to look in the mirror each morning. I’m two-dimensional and see-through, you know.
I, like almost everyone else who does this sort of thing in public, picked the Titans to beat the Colts Sunday, which they did not do with a vengeance, to the tune of 33-7. I also, like everyone else in the known universe, picked the Buccaneers to beat the Panthers, which didn’t happen because the Panthers blocked what would have been the game-winning extra point to force overtime, where they won. That was pretty exciting, if anything that happens in a 12-9 game can be called exciting, and it won’t help my campaign to remove all kicking from the game of football.
“I’m sure you’ve heard this 5,000 times today,” wrote reader J.F. Ford in an e-mail on Monday, “but nice work on the Bucs. Ouch.” I haven’t heard from Ford since as I’m sure he’s still working on sending that note to all 3,629 sportswriters who picked the Bucs. Of course, not all of those people wrote, “Do believe the hype about the Buccaneers” in their headlines.
Anyway, I went 10-6 with my picks in Week 2, two games better than my 8-8 outing in Week 1. Of course, I’d have gone a very solid 11-5 if Fassel hadn’t kicked away that Giants win, but I’m not bitter, not at all. That brings me to 18-14 on the year. I like to compare myself with the octet of ESPN experts, and that mark puts me, shall we say, toward the back of a tightly packed field. I’m ahead of Eric Allen, who is 17-15. Last week I mistakenly wrote that I was better than Allen in Week 1. I thought he’d gone 7-9 but he was actually 8-8. This time he went 9-7, so I’ve got a game on him. But he did pick the Colts over the Titans. The rat.
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