King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Risk-averse NFL coaches have to learn that playing it too safe is the most dangerous move of all.


Salon Staff
January 15, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)

Joe Gibbs, Dan Marino, Roger Clemens: All these guys coming back have convinced me to end my own retirement after two days, which I mostly spent moaning and padding down the hall to the bathroom.

Before I hung up my thesaurus temporarily, I was going to write about the lost, or perhaps never-discovered, art of risk-benefit analysis among NFL coaches, which was on display in the playoff games over the weekend. Packers coach Mike Sherman and, especially, Rams coach Mike Martz displayed a lack of nerve at crucial junctures that probably cost their teams a chance to win.

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Their decisions were overly cautious, showing a complete disregard for the likely outcomes of the various options they held. They chose the path that was least likely to result in an unlikely disaster, rather than the one most likely to result in a far more likely success. I think everyone I know who doesn't coach a football team knows that that's no way to make a decision. By supposedly "playing not to lose," they actually made losing more likely.

To review, the Rams, with momentum and a home crowd behind them, had driven to a first down at the Panthers 15, down by three, with half a minute and a timeout in hand. Rather than take at least two shots at the end zone and a win, Martz, with a field full of playmakers, ran the clock down and went for the tying field goal to force overtime, where the Rams lost.

The Packers, up by three and with a chance to take the clock down to about 1:15 with one more first down and kill it with two, chose to punt on fourth and 1 from the Eagles 41 even though the Eagles had yet to show that they could stop the Packers on short yardage. The punt went into the end zone and Donovan McNabb drove the Eagles from the 20 to the game-tying field goal. (Confidential to "Rush" in Florida: Did you watch that fourth quarter?) The Eagles then won in overtime.

While I was out of action Wayne Norman, a professor of ethics at the University of Montreal who admits to being a regular reader but will not cop to any previous letters to me, wrote to say that those criticizing Martz were right for the wrong reasons.

"Football people love to talk about personalities," he wrote, "what you stand for, what you believe in, who you believe in, what you're revealing about your confidence in your team by the decision, etc. They don't mention in this case a pretty obvious strategic calculation -- the sort a good baseball manager would make."

Norman then laid out the equation: "The question is, what is the more likely event if you take a couple of shots at the end zone: that you A) score a touchdown or B) either get intercepted or sacked out of field goal range?" I would interject here that getting sacked out of field goal range means losing close to 20 yards at that point. "As long as your chance (with Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, et al.) of a touchdown is higher than your chance of B), then you should go for it. That way you have a better than 50-50 chance of winning the game" -- 50-50 being the odds of winning in overtime, assuming the Rams make that game-tying kick, which they did, but hadn't at the time of the decision.

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"Surely the probability of A) is higher than B) -- and not just in the crazy universe in which McNabb completes the 4th-and-26 pass." Rush? See that? "Among other things, you have control over the probabilities. If Marc Bulger doesn't like what he sees, he throws it out of the end zone. And of course any yards short of a touchdown that are gained (say, from a short, sure pass to Faulk, who never fumbles) will simply increase your odds of making the field goal."

Because he's an ethics professor, Norman concluded, "Anyway, my point here is not the strategy of the particular situation, but why (OK, it's a rhetorical question not a point) don't we ever hear this kind of reasoning from the football 'experts'?"

The answer to that, professor, is that the football "experts" are all on the take. They're all getting bribes from football coaches to never criticize them for legitimate reasons. Instead they count their money and stick to mushy subjects like what a coach's decisions say about his belief in his team or its players.

I'm not bound by such an agreement because I haven't made it clear to the coaching community that I'm for sale, which I'd like to do now. I can be reached in care of Salon's San Francisco offices. Thank you.

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One more thing about that Rams-Panthers game: The sight of both teams playing it ultra-safe in the fourth quarter and overtime, repeatedly going for field goals rather than pushing on for touchdowns, was disgraceful. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had a great game, but watching him crabwalk one yard backward to "center" the ball for a field-goal attempt -- which was missed -- hardly brought back memories of the Bart Starr Ice Bowl sneak, did it?

More proof that football would be a better game if there were no such thing as kicking. Did you catch that Colts-Chiefs game Sunday? Three field-goal attempts and no punts. Not perfect, but that was a decent game, wasn't it?

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