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. As 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 causes 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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A fix boxing needs: Arum to retire? [PERMALINK]
I don't know who should have been declared the winner of the Oscar De La Hoya-Shane Mosley rematch Saturday in Las Vegas. I didn't see the fight. Those who did are split, with more than one observer noting that those present at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas seemed to think Mosley had won, while those who watched it on TV favored De La Hoya, who lost by unanimous decision.
De La Hoya, who also lost the first fight between the two, says he'll put his considerable resources to work in launching an investigation into the judging. Boxing is badly in need of fixing, but not the kind of fix De La Hoya's lawyers will be looking for. In fact, if promoter Bob Arum follows through on his threat to quit boxing over Saturday's decision, De La Hoya will have done more for the sport by losing than he ever did as a winner.
Arum and Don King are the chief architects of boxing's current reputation in the sports world, which lies somewhere between that of pickpockets and pickpockets' assistants. To get a handle on the kind of slimy character Arum is, you only have to hear his most famous quote: "Yesterday I was lying. Today, I'm telling the truth." In the early '90s, when NBC dropped boxing despite decent ratings, a network executive remarked that when boxing guys came in for meetings, everybody at the network made sure to watch their wallets.
It's wishful thinking, of course, to imagine Arum and guys like him leaving boxing and some sort of John McCain-approved national commission stepping in to create order, sanity and fairness, for fighters and fans alike. But as sick and fading as boxing is, Arum's blowhard claim in the fight's aftermath that gamblers had gotten to the judges and fixed the outcome was just ridiculous.
The judges came from three different continents, and all are respected officials who were approved by both fighters' camps. If gamblers are going to fix a fight, it seems a lot more efficient to try to buy off or sabotage a fighter than to pay off judges, whose opinions could very well be rendered obsolete by a knockout. Arum pointed to the officials all scoring the fight the same way -- 115-113, meaning seven rounds to five, for Mosley -- as evidence that the fix was in, but he knows better. The judges arrived at those scores by disagreeing wildly about individual rounds in the first half of the fight.
The divergence of opinion among viewers of the fight shows that it was a close one. As Nevada Athletic Commission director Marc Ratner put it, "If it went the other way, Mosley's camp would have been the ones protesting."
Judging a close fight is difficult work. It's not just a matter of counting punches, which is tough enough, despite the statistics confidently presented as objectively accurate on boxing telecasts. There are judgments to be made about things like ring generalship and the effectiveness of the punches that do land. Boxing experts sitting right next to each other and watching the same fight can disagree wildly, and that certainly happened Saturday.
The Toronto Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt, for example, a world-class pug writer, wrote that he "thought that Mosley won going away," and he "found the scoring absurdly close." Bob Mee, another champion typist, wrote in London's Daily Telegraph, "At the end of 12 high-class rounds I had no doubt that De La Hoya's more accurate punching had staved off Mosley's powerful second-half assaults to win -- by three points on my card."
More than one writer has noted the difference in the way those who attended the fight and those who saw it on TV judged the fight, with people in the building tending to think Mosley won. Even the heavily pro-De La Hoya crowd at the MGM Grand didn't raise much of a fuss when Mosley's hand was raised. People who watched the tube, on the other hand, tended to agree with announcers Jim Lampley, George Foreman and Larry Merchant that De La Hoya was the clear winner.
It's long been clear to me that watching a fight in person and watching that same fight on TV are two very different experiences. I've never been able to figure out if one gives you a better, more true view than the other, allowing for better judging. In my days as a boxing writer, I would watch tapes of fights I'd been to and score them again, to see if my perception of a bout changed when the method of viewing did. My scoring tended to be pretty similar to what I'd seen from ringside, but of course that's an unscientific experiment. As a TV viewer I already knew how I had seen the fight, and I'm sure that colored my judgment even as I tried to ignore it.
HBO will replay the fight Saturday at 9:45 p.m. EDT/6:45 p.m. PDT, so those of us who skipped it the first time can judge for ourselves. I wonder if, knowing that TV watchers tended to favor De La Hoya, we'll see the fight that way too. If you watch it, let me know how you scored it.
Meanwhile, De La Hoya will launch his lawyers. It's always a temptation to cry fix when there's a boxing decision you don't like, but it seems to me if this fight were going to be fixed, it would go De La Hoya's way. Mosley won the first fight between the two, so a De La Hoya win would set the stage nicely for a lucrative third match. The crowd, which can influence judges consciously or subconsciously, favored De La Hoya. And it's De La Hoya who's big business in Las Vegas and on TV. He sells tickets and pay-per-view orders -- take that into account when weighing the announcers' championing of his cause -- and creates buzz like no other fighter going. If the money interests are putting the fix in, they're putting it in for him.
I think De La Hoya will realize all of this once he calms down, and he'll quietly let his "investigation" drop. But whatever its outcome, if his loss to Mosley really does convince the oily Arum to retire from boxing, he will have done the sport a great service. If only we could have a decision so bad that Don King quits in a huff.
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