King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Run, Dick Vermeil, run! Shocking news: An NFL coach actually takes a risk.


Salon Staff
November 7, 2005 10:00PM (UTC)

I loved Dick Vermeil's decision to go for the win rather than the tie Sunday. Down by three, the Kansas City Chiefs coach went for the touchdown from the 1-yard line on the game's last play against the Oakland Raiders rather than kicking a sure-thing field goal and going to overtime.

It worked. Larry Johnson plunged into the end zone and the Chiefs won 27-23. Vermeil is being hailed as a riverboat gambler, and the 69-year-old coach laughed it off after the game, saying, "I just figured I'm too old to wait."

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Why Johnson landed in the end zone with three seconds left and the clock kept running down to 0:00 is a different question, one I don't know the answer to.

The flip side of all the Monday-morning back-patting Vermeil's getting is that he would have been fricasseed had the Raiders managed to tackle Johnson short of the goal line. Fool! Throwing away a game by taking a needless chance when all he had to do was have his kicker -- perfect on the year -- boot a chip shot two yards shorter than an extra point.

Want proof? In a second, I'm going to fricassee Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban for taking a stupid chance near the goal line at the end of Miami's loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Saban's players have his back, praising the aggressive play call that resulted in the Falcons' game-clinching interception.

They're wrong.

Because here's the thing: NFL coaches are way too conservative. They almost always take the safe road. They often play it so safe they actually harm their chances of winning. That's because with rare exceptions, they're not coaching to win. They're not even really coaching to avoid losing. They're coaching to avoid blame if they do lose.

I'm not the first to point that out. I'm just saying.

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So Saban deserves some respect for calling for quarterback Gus Frerotte to throw a pass on third-and-2 from the Atlanta 8, down 17-10 with just under three minutes remaining, rather than handing off to Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams. It was aggressive. It was a "blame me if this doesn't work" kind of call.

But the key words in that last paragraph are "quarterback Gus Frerotte." The Dolphins had two elite running backs both having a good day, each averaging more than five yards a carry, and the Falcons have one of the worst rushing defenses in the league.

This very column, in its Friday preview, read, "the assignment for the young, injury-damaged Falcons defense is simple: Make quarterback Gus Frerotte be the guy who beats you." This column shouldn't be taken as gospel, or even taken seriously, but I was hardly the only one saying that either.

So Saban did the Falcons defense's job for it. He made Frerotte the guy who had to beat the Falcons. The play was to give the ball to one of the horses. The pass was a dumb call, not because it didn't happen to work, but because there was another play far more likely to work. Aggressiveness for its own sake is just recklessness.

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Vermeil, on the other hand, wasn't reckless. It just seems like it because the call he made, the right call, is so rare.

You can see how the coaching mentality works on this call. Consensus coaching wisdom says the "obvious" thing for Vermeil to do in that situation is to kick the field goal. That's why his decision to go for the touchdown is such news. You're not supposed to pass up a sure chance at overtime for a not-so-sure chance at winning in regulation.

Makes sense, as long as you don't think too hard about it.

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Let's look at the odds. Although the Chiefs had a first down, it was essentially fourth-and-1 because there was only time for one play. I wish I could tell you how the Chiefs had done on fourth-and-1 during the day, but they hadn't faced one. They never even faced a third-and-1. But they did convert both third-and-2 situations they faced, and they were 4-for-5 when facing third-and-5 or less.

On the season, the Chiefs are 8-for-10 on fourth-down conversions. If that's too small a sample size to mean much, the whole league is 106-for-217, 48.8 percent. That's fourth down and any distance. It includes all those tough-decision fourth-and-4s, when more than a plunge into the line is needed, and all those desperation fourth-and-longs at the ends of games.

According to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, which analyzes play-by-play data from every NFL game, the leaguewide success rate on fourth-and-1 is 65 percent this year.

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When teams run on fourth-and-1, they make it 71 percent of the time. And that's all teams, even the ones without a bruising back like Larry Johnson. When the Chiefs have run on fourth-and-1 this year, they've made it all six times.

Football Outsiders keeps track of what Schatz calls "power runs," meaning third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go, plus all runs from the opposing 2- or 1-yard line. Leaguewide, the success rate is 63 percent. The Chiefs are eighth in the league at 68 percent. The Raiders defense is 19th in the league in such situations, failing to stop the opposition 65 percent of the time.

What all of this means is that the chances of converting a fourth-and-1 in the NFL are way better than 50-50. Way better. Depending on how you want to look at it, the chance of success is between 63 and 68 percent. That's about 2-1.

And the odds at the end of Sunday's game were made better still by the fact that the Raiders defense was on the ropes. It was already below average overall, and now it had played four quarters and been put on its heels by an eight-play, 71-yard drive in the two-minute drill and a 36-yard run by Johnson on the previous play. The Kansas City Pop Warner champion might have scored from the 1 on the next play.

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If 50-50 sounds familiar, that's pretty much the Chiefs' odds of winning in overtime.

So by kicking the field goal in that situation, a coach passes up a 63 to 68 percent chance of winning in favor of a 50 percent chance. In my book, that's the bigger gamble, which is another way of saying the riskier move.

Only it's not, because if you lose in overtime, you shrug your shoulders and say, "Hey, overtime's a crapshoot," and nobody blames you. Somehow they forget that you made the decision in the first place that put your team's fate in the hands of a crapshoot.

But if you go for it in regulation and your man gets stuffed, the loss is your fault. Can't have that. Avoiding blame for a loss is a coach's No. 1 priority, even if it means passing up a 68 percent chance at winning in favor of a 50 percent chance.

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Which brings us to Terrell Owens and the Philadelphia Eagles.

What? No, really, it does.

Eagles coach Andy Reid suspended Owens indefinitely for his latest bad-attitude moves, which involved loudly criticizing quarterback Donovan McNabb and the organization itself, same as most of his other moves since getting to Philadelphia last year. This time he reportedly added the gambit of getting into a fistfight with former teammate Hugh Douglas in the locker room.

The Eagles were already in trouble before they lost to Washington Sunday night to drop to 4-4, in last place in the very tough NFC East. They're still within a game of a playoff spot with eight to play, but they're foundering, with a struggling defense and an injured star quarterback.

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And Terrell Owens is a hell of a receiver, for all the trouble he causes. He's McNabb's best weapon. The Eagles knew what they were getting when they got Owens, and he's delivered exactly what was expected of him: great play on the field, total disruption off of it.

I don't know which is a greater threat to the Eagles' already-slim chances of returning to the Super Bowl, suspending Owens and losing his production, or keeping him on the team and having him continue to foment chaos.

But I do know that Reid made the "blame me" choice. If he'd left Owens on the team and it had continued to struggle, the fans and media would have kept their anger focused on the problem-child receiver.

There would have been a few voices wondering why Reid didn't do something, but they'd have been drowned out, and anyway a good answer would have been that the Eagles have little chance with Owens, none without him.

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Now, if the Eagles keep struggling, which appears likely, Reid will be ripe for second-guessing. It's a coach's job to deal with the eccentricities that often come with brilliance, after all. Why didn't you find a way to keep your best offensive player on the field, Andy?

There's just no way to know what the "right" answer was here, meaning the answer most likely to lead to the Super Bowl. But Reid went against NFL coaching "wisdom" by making the call most likely to result in blame falling on him. That's a great thing.

As was Vermeil's supposed gamble. I'd love it if the Chiefs' success Sunday inspired other coaches to play the odds better and be more aggressive, but the tone of the coverage -- Shoo-wee! Vermeil really took a flyer there! -- tells me it won't.

You know why? Because 31 NFL coaches are sitting in their offices today thinking, "I'd hate to be Nick Saban right now."

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