Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Week 12 NFL Wrap-up: Coaches, Replays, Possessions

Week 12 NFL Wrap-up: Coaches, Replays, Possessions

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Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ‘98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.

Sam is off today.

Coaching Matters, But How Much?

We know that position coaches matter; players always need to sharpen their technical skills. We know that coordinators matter, since offenses and defenses are complicated and expansive enough to demand their own strategists. Teaching footwork to a defensive end, designing an original set of third-and-long plays—these are measurable endeavors. If a defensive coordinator gets fired, it’s because his schemes and player utilization were substandard. There’s a tangible reason, one that any person can see on any sports website: his secondary gave up more yards than any other in the league. His firing is warranted; it makes sense. On the other hand, when a head coach gets fired—and head coaches get fired frequently in the NFL—it’s for one reason: his team lost more games than his owner thought he should have. But how much control does a coach have over his team winning or losing?

I’ve thought about this stuff a lot, as I imagine most NFL fans have. Things like, How good of a coach is Bill Belichick? Pundits and commentators tend to label him as a “genius,” as if his accomplishments were on par with Mozart’s or Einstein’s. If Belichick’s so brilliant, why did he fail as a head coach until Tom Brady was his quarterback? Obviously he deserves credit for drafting Brady, but that seems like luck; if he thought so highly of him, why didn’t he draft him earlier? If Belichick had never gotten lucky with Brady, would he be just another Norv Turner? Or would he have bided his time until he could have drafted a superstar quarterback? Or would he have been the guy who traded away his draft picks instead of taking Manning, Rivers, or Roethlisberger?

Similar questions—but from a different angle—exist with Marty Schottenheimer. He’s known for coaching great regular season teams (.613 winning percentage in 327 games) to terrible playoff records (5-13 record with one conference championship and no Super Bowl appearances). Is there a way to quantify why this happened over the course of his 26 seasons? Because just as we could say that he wasn’t good at preparing his teams for the rigors of playoffs, we could argue that he helped mediocre teams overachieve in the regular season, and that an average coach in his place may have had a couple of 7-9 or 6-10 seasons before getting fired. Then again, 14 winning seasons and no Super Bowl appearances? He won a lot . . . just not enough, and not in the correct ways.

In terms of football matters, NFL coaches are responsible for four things: scouting, drafting, managing players, and managing games. Failing in the last two categories has short-term consequences. This is why, last season, Ron Rivera’s Panthers went 6-10 and are currently 3-8. Not only has his supremely talented young quarterback seemingly faltered, but Rivera is a terrible in-game decision-maker. However, with the right personnel changes on the coaching staff and roster, Cam Newton could overcome his sophomore slump and lead the Panthers to a wild card game next season. If this happened while Rivera was still around, would that make him a good coach? Or is it impossible for this to happen because Rivera is the coach?

The 49ers recent coaching transition helps chip away at an answer. In 2010, Mike Singletary’s 49ers were sloppy and undisciplined. They lost their first five games, and Singletary was fired the penultimate week of the season, when they lost by eight points at the Rams, the highlight being Singletary’s sideline shouting match with quarterback Troy Smith. After the game, Patrick Willis took personal responsibility for the loss and the season, saying that “coaches can only do so much.” If that’s true, then how come Jim Harbaugh took over the next year, and, with the same Alex Smith as his quarterback, oversaw a team that went to overtime in the NFC Championship and is once again competing for the Super Bowl?

As a Steelers fan, for the last five years I’ve watched Mike Tomlin coach my team to a Super Bowl win, a Super Bowl loss, and only one missed postseason. Based on his excellent record, and since he lives just a few blocks from where I grew up, I’m of course obligated to only write flattering things about him. But now I have to wonder: what effect does he have on the team?

Since he’s been the coach, the offensive line, a hallmark of Steelers football during the Cowher years, has been patchwork at best. The defense fields the same players from the 2008 Super Bowl team, which would be wonderful if they weren’t all old and/or injured. Ben Roethlisberger is as dangerous as anyone, but he misses almost two games a year, and Tomlin has never invested in a viable backup, which is most likely going to keep a team that’s shown it’s capable of playing brilliantly out of the playoffs. At the same time, isn’t it the coach’s job to get the team capable of playing brilliantly playing that way all the time? This year’s Steelers are the type of team whose five losses can be shrugged off as either super close games (time-expiring field goal road losses to the Titans and Raiders), hard games against a good team (Broncos; Ravens, without Roethlisberger), or flukes (eight turnovers at the Browns), but whose six wins can be minimized as unimpressive: two one-score victories over the lowly Eagles and Chiefs, two tough wins over the Bengals and Giants, and two decisive victories against the lowly Jets and the Redskins on a day when their receivers dropped every pass. The players are the ones who play badly, but when questionable wins and pathetic losses outweigh signature victories, a point, however subtle or near-sighted, is made about the head coach.

With his intelligence, joviality, and mastery of the benevolent cliché press conference, Tomlin relates to his players and exudes professional confidence. He never seems worried or flustered, he never gets irrationally excited or depressed. He has a common sense approach to the game that makes you feel like he is always in control. Such characteristics reflect the fact that Tomlin is a great player and game manager, and that greatness has contributed to the aforementioned excellent .670 winning percentage and 5-3 playoff record. But as he now structures a roster on the players he and not Cowher drafted, I have to wonder if he possesses the kind of sharp scouting and drafting instincts that buttress teams for the long term.

Just a quick look here.

  • In 2007, Tomlin drafted Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the first and second rounds. To borrow Mike Lombardi’s term, those two are blue chippers, players who will start—and play at a high level—now and for the forseeable future. That draft also produced Daniel Sepulveda, a punter who’s out of the league after being sabotaged by injuries; serviceable tight end Matt Spaeth, now with the Bears; at-times-horrendous-but-overall-average cornerback William Gay; and three busts (for lack of a better word).
  • In 2008, in the first round, he drafted Rashard Mendenhall, who’s been an above average running back when healthy (which isn’t often). In the sixth round, he drafted Ryan Mundy, a serviceable backup safety still with the team. The five other players were busts.
  • In 2009, he drafted Ziggy Hood, who’s developed into a serviceable defensive end, in the first round; the deep-threat receiver Mike Wallace in the third round; and five other backups or busts.
  • In 2010, he had 10 draft picks. With the first, he took Maurkice Pouncey, a star center when healthy. In the third round, he grabbed Emmanuel Sanders, a quick possession receiver. In the sixth round, he took Jonathan Dwyer, a promising big back, and Antonio Brown, an excellent receiver. His best draft by far.
  • In 2011, only two of the seven players have shown any promise whatsoever: first- and second-round picks Cameron Heyward (a D lineman) and Marcus Gilbert (an O tackle).

In five years, that’s five blue chip players. (Way too early to begin judging this year’s class.) Just to compare, here are the good players whom Cowher drafted in his last five years before retiring: Kendall Simmons, Antwaan Randle-El, Chris Hope, Larry Foote, Brent Kiesel (2002); Troy Polamalu (2003), Ben Roethlisberger, Max Starks (2004); Heath Miller, Bryant McFadden (2005); Santonio Holmes, Willie Colon (2006). Roethlisberger and Polamalu are Hall of Famers; the rest range between above average and excellent; and all 12 are Super Bowl- and longtime-starters.

Not all of the relative failure of the recent drafts can be pinned on Tomlin, as Kevin Colbert, Director of Football Operations, makes scouting and drafting decisions as well. And professional football is too complex to isolate any cause for an effect that only seems to be happening right now (i.e. the Steelers’ declining star talent and lack of depth). Anyway, there are only so many blue chip NFL players available. The coach’s job is to get as many as possible, keep them healthy, maximize their value, and plug the rest of the roster with role players that fit the team’s scheme. Over the last five years, the Steelers have done this with Tomlin. Have they done this as well as they could have? It’s a stupid, selfish, petty question to ask, but one that fans of floundering teams ask nonetheless.

The Inevitability of Technology

A couple of things don’t make sense about Justin Forsett’s now-infamous 81-yard TD in the third quarter of the Texans-Lions games. The first is that the refs didn’t blow the whistle when his elbow and knee hit the ground. The second is that Jim Schwartz challenged the play when he knew that if he did so, he’d receive a penalty, and the play wouldn’t be reviewed, and the obviously incorrect touchdown would stand. For many people, that’s the bottom line: the rules must be followed under all circumstances, because breaking them just once sets a dangerous precedent. In my view, the bottom line is that after one human being made a distinctly human error, the artificially intelligent system was in place to swiftly and painlessly correct the error, but that system couldn’t be accessed because of a second human being’s human error, which was a direct response to the first error. Kafka would have enjoyed this play.

All systems, human and artificial, are susceptible to loopholes. I’m always irritated by politicians who cite Cadillac-driving, fur coat-wearing degenerates with cash flows in the six figures who are somehow on welfare as proof that the federal government needs to drastically cut social services, just as I’m amused by the Occupy Wall Street protesters who blindly and idealistically assume working Americans would be happier if big banks ceased to exist. Schemers will exist forever. In pro football, instant replay was adopted so that the one official trying to account for five players moving at lightning speed wouldn’t miss what millions of TV viewers could easily observe in slow-motion (and thus ridicule if left uncorrected). Over the years, it has undergone various amendments, and now we’re at the point where all “major plays”—touchdowns and turnovers—are subject to automatic review. On Thanksgiving, when Forsett (unwittingly or not) employed the old “pretend you weren’t down and run into the endzone” trick, a reliable system was in place to correct the error. Only that couldn’t happen because of the rare loophole that Schwartz knowingly/accidentally exploited. His fault . . . but not. Why couldn’t the ref have just said, “Listen, if you really throw this flag, you’ll look like an idiot, which is going to draw more attention to our idiocy, so let’s just review it”?

So what happens next? Obviously the rule gets fixed, but then what? Since all turnovers and touchdowns are automatically reviewed, at what point does the NFL extend this treatment to sideline plays and third-down ball spots? Will certain penalties be reviewable? If we get that far, then we’re near the point of eliminating initial human judgment from the game. And once there, why not cover the ball in a sheath of sensors and implement sub-field lasers so that all ball spots and touchdowns are unquestionably correct, a la tennis? This will happen, one day, in one form or another, but it’s unclear if these changes—combined with the escalating fines and penalties for unavoidable hits and tackles—will turn fans away. My guess as to when? Not in our lifetime. But just as American national sport’s transitioned from baseball to football over the course of the twentieth century, football will one day be less popular and profitable than it is right now. Our cultural tastes will change, and if the league doesn’t adapt to them, it will suffer.

Fun Times with Meaningless Stats

Here are three statistics from two teams that played last week:

  • Total Plays: Team A 67, Team B 67
  • First Downs: Team A 25, Team B 25
  • Time of Possession: Team A 29:34, Team B 30:26

The final score? Team A 49, Team  B 19. Team A is the Patriots, Team B is the Jets. But you already knew that.

Jim Brown, commonly considered the best football player ever, said that to win a football game you had to dominate your opponent physically, and that the best way to do that was the power running game. Brown meant that, on a football field, bullies usually win. But it was easy to interpret this as an endorsement for statistics that reflect a strong running game. Since running plays net less yards than passing plays and keep the game clock running, it’s natural to think that having run a lot of plays, picked up a lot of first downs, and possessed the ball for a good chunk of time will increase a team’s dominance over its opponent. At the very least, if a team matched its opponent in those categories, it’d have an equal chance of winning.

When I was a kid in the ’90s, I was happy when my Steelers dominated time of possession, because it meant Barry Foster or Jerome Bettis was running well, and when running backs wear down defenses, that team usually wins. At least that’s what I was told. During halftime of such games, CBS announcers like Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms would always circle the time of possession statistic with their magic yellow TV pen and remind me to “keep an eye on this.” What I didn’t realize until I was older was that time of possession was the sort of stat a team racked up when it was already in position to win the game, since it ran the ball solely to keep the clock moving and the ball away from the other team’s offense. This period of me realizing this coincided with the advent of lethal passing offenses, like the Kurt Warner Rams, the Peyton Manning Colts, the Tom Brady Patriots, and the Drew Brees Saints. Suddenly, no team wanted to “establish the running game,” because all that did was take away the number of plays it could use to throw passes, which helps a team score far more quickly. It sounds weird, but the sooner you score, the sooner you give the ball up, and the sooner you get the ball back. It seems that for a team to maximize its scoring chances, it must minimize the amount of time it’s on defense (thereby increasing its time of possession). But scoring quickly is equally as effective. This is why special teams and defensive touchdowns are so meaningful: not because they give a team “momentum” but because they take less than fifteen seconds to execute.

The Patriots and Jets were tied 0-0 after the first quarter. Close game, right? Then the Patriots scored five touchdowns in 15 minutes. The first was a long drive that ended with a three-yard pass to Wes Welker. Then came an 83-yard pass, a 32-yard fumble return, a 22-yard fumble return, and a 56-yard pass. Two long passes, two defensive touchdowns. That’s how you dominate your opponent just as much as it dominates you . . . and beat it by 30 points.

By the way, here’s how time of possession fared in other games this weekend (rough estimates):

  • 49ers +0:00 over Saints. Won by 10.
  • Jets +0:30 over Patriots. Lost by 30.
  • Titans +1:00 over Jaguars. Lost by 5.
  • Bucs +1:00 over Falcons. Lost by 1.
  • Lions +1:30 over Texans. Lost by 3 (gifted TD by officials, OT).
  • Bengals +1:30 over Raiders. Won by 24.
  • Giants +2:30 over Packers. Won by 18.
  • Colts +3:00 over Bills. Won by 7.
  • Cardinals +3:30 over Rams. Lost by 14 (threw two pick 6s).
  • Chiefs +3:30 over Broncos. Lost by 8.
  • Redskins +3:30 over Cowboys. Won by 7 (up 28-3 at halftime)
  • Seahawks + 4:00 over Dolphins. Lost by 3.
  • Ravens +5:00 over Chargers. Won by 3 in (converted 4th and 26, OT).
  • Browns +7:00 over Steelers. Won by 6 (forced 8 turnovers).
  • Panthers +9:30 over Eagles. Won by 8.
  • Bears +15:00 over Vikings. Won by 18.

And here is my fake analysis:

  • Teams that “won” time of possession went 10-6.
  • In close games (+8 points or lower margin of victory), teams that won the stat were 4-6.
  • In decisive victories (+9-16 points), teams that won the stat were 1-1. The winner, the 49ers, possessed the ball as much as the Saints and won by a solid 10 points. The loser, the Cardinals, had a decent 3:30 advantage that went for nothing when they threw two pick-6s.
  • In blowouts (+17 or greater), teams that won the stat were 3-1. And two of those wins occurred when the team out-possessed its opponent by less than 2:30. In other words, it was not necessary to out-possess a team in order to blow it out.

Do I have a conclusion? Well, since this is a rudimentary and nonscientific one-time analysis, not really. But I do think it shows that the idea that a team should dominate the ball on offense, slowly matriculating it down the field with short passes and runs, in order to tire out the defense and possess the ball, is wrong. Teams should score as quickly as possible. It’s impossible to win without scoring points, and it’s exceedingly difficult to score points without the ball on offense. Here’s a team (albeit a high school one) that believes in this so much it won’t ever punt. Will such a mantra ever reach the NFL? Hmm.