Sports Nut

Are NFL Coaches Dumber Than We Are?

Head coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on against the Green Bay Packers

As Marshawn Lynch demonstrated to all of us, Stefan, one man’s embarrassing failure (or five, six, or seven men’s embarrassing failures) is another man’s glory. Lynch’s staggering, battering run to daylight left everyone from the defending Super Bowl champions to the Buffalo Bills, from serious football analysts to glib general-purpose bloggers, looking foolish.

Clearly, the Seattle Seahawks were unworthy of the title of the Worst Playoff Team Ever. Or even Worst Playoff Team of the 2010-11 season. New Orleans was worse.

With condolences and apologies to Josh—and hey, both teams I root for took the pipe, too—there’s no use in anyone blaming the Saints’ loss on the seeding system that gave a 7-9 team a home game. Maybe the NFC West champions’ (previously ambivalent) fans at Forgettable Corporate Name Field were really, really loud, but it’s hard to see how home-field advantage had the power to turn a bad team into a winner, when Seattle was the only team to protect its turf successfully all weekend.

The wild-card round is a nice reminder that there are not many absolutes in the NFL. Football is a complicated game, and it’s nearly impossible to be good at all parts of it at once. The 2009-10 Saints were great and worthy champions; they were also embarrassingly soft against the run. This year, they put up better run-defense numbers, but all anyone will remember is Lynch.

The reason all these teams were on TV this week, rather than resting up and game-planning for the divisional round, is that other teams were better than them. So commentators and fans had plenty of flaws to pick at—both real and imagined.

As the weekend’s goats go, David Akers is far down the list. Yeah, he blew two makeable field goals—but the second one, in particular, he had no business even trying. The Eagles were down 11, with 13 minutes remaining, and sure, according to whatever combinatorial flow chart Andy Reid may have been consulting, a field goal plus a touchdown plus a two-point conversion would have tied the game.

But it was fourth-and-1, down on Green Bay’s 16-yard line, and the Eagles had been playing from behind all day. Even speaking in abstract tactical terms, there was a strong case for leaving Akers on the sideline. Touchdown opportunities are harder to come by (and more time-consuming to get) than field goal opportunities. Who knew when the Eagles might get another look at the end zone?

Under the emotional logic of that particular football game, though, the decision was even worse. The Eagles had done nothing all day to knock the Packers back on their heels. Here was a chance to put the screws to Green Bay for the first time—in booth-speak, to “force them to make plays.” And, as we know but so often forget, settling for a field-goal try is not the same thing as settling for three points. Even so, Reid sent out the kicking team.

Andy Reid! Did I mention that it’s hard to be good at all parts of football at once? I still cuss at the TV, but after more than a decade of this stuff, I’ve made my peace with Reid. He is an excellent football coach who happens to be bad at calling football games. He is stupendously good at preparation, arranging his personnel, motivating players, and all sorts of scheming and invisible stuff beyond normal people’s ken. There’s a reason his Eagles are undefeated in games after bye weeks—give Andy Reid an extra week to think about a game, and he’ll come up with a winning plan. Hell, he was all tied up with Bill Belichick’s Patriots at halftime of the Super Bowl.

Then, oh, the second half. Given a shorter time frame for thinking—a normal week between games, halftime of a football game, or, God help us, a two-minute drill—Reid’s slow, powerful coaching brain is like an aircraft carrier in a speedboat race. Other coaches out-adjust Reid on the fly all the time. Ninety percent of casual fans believe, not without reason, that they have a better sense of when to call timeout or throw a challenge flag than Reid does.

But would those other coaches (let alone the fans) have been able to go 10-6 and win the division with this year’s Eagles? Or take nine trips to the playoffs in the past 11 years? Why was a team with no pass defense even able to be out there to make a wrong field-goal decision against a better team? You take the bad with the good.

Clock management and fourth-down calls are the easiest sorts of things to second-guess, because they seem like something anyone could do. How mad could I be at David Akers? Stefan at least has worked out the basic skill set. If I tried a 33-yard field goal, I’d wrench my knee and probably kick the ball into the left tackle’s backside, on one bounce. As for the “catchable” balls that the announcers kept blaming receivers for not catching—you know, if the ball’s just off Jason Avant’s fingertips, there are probably about five good reasons it didn’t get caught.

The coaches, though—what are they doing that you can’t do? Lots, actually. Drew Magary had an inspired rant about this on Deadspin this season:

What prayer do you have of doing any better? Because you played Madden? You can PAUSE Madden. Everything seems easy until you have to do it, and that includes figuring out whether or not to burn a timeout with millions of people watching you and players and coaches looking to YOU for guidance.

This is why I like being a fan. I like maintaining the illusion that I’m way fucking smarter than some asshole coach. But, deep in my heart, I know damn well that if you forced me to walk that sideline, I would make the EXACT same horrible mistakes that the Les Mileses of the universe make. In fact, I’d find even BIGGER ways to fuck up. I’d be unable to work the headset. I’d spill water all over my shirt. I’d trip over all the wires cluttering up the sideline.

So the coaches all screw up. Josh was right about Mike McCarthy’s bizarre clock handling late in the first half—which McCarthy then compounded by giving up on clock management entirely. The Packers had been moving the ball at will, and they hadn’t used up their timeouts, yet the coach for some reason decided it wasn’t worth trying to push downfield and get some more points. Did he have some second thoughts of his own when the 14-3 lead he’d settled for shrank to a 14-10 lead in the third quarter?

Still, switching back to arrogant-spectator mode, McCarthy’s bungling was no more than the third most-boneheaded coaching move of the weekend. The top two came at the end of the Colts-Jets game. First came a pair of magnificent, well-executed drives—the Jets pounding the ball down the field for the go-ahead touchdown, the Colts answering with Adam Vinatieri’s eerily flawless 50-yard field goal to retake the lead. (Though, yes, my mind was also a little boggled by the notion that that one kick, right there, was supposed to be what did or didn’t send Vinatieri to Canton.)

But after that, things got stupid. After a good kickoff return by the Jets and a couple of passes, New York had the ball at the Colts’$2 34 with 36 seconds to go. And the coaches—Rex Ryan? Much-maligned offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer?—chose to send LaDainian Tomlinson plunging into the line.

It was a terrible call. It meant the Jets had to burn their last timeout, right there. Even if Mark Sanchez didn’t screw anything up, trying to manage the final half-minute with no timeouts, the Jets would be sending Nick Folk out for something like a 50-yard try.

Except—it was Colts coach Jim Caldwell who had called time. This was literally incomprehensible to me. I heard the announcers say it, but mentally I had taken away the Jets’ last timeout as soon as Tomlinson was tackled. When Sanchez came out of the break and hit Braylon Edwards on the sideline at the 14-yard line, and then the Jets just sort of drifted downfield and stood around, all I could think was that they didn’t understand that Edwards had landed in bounds and the clock was still winding. I flashed back to Reid and Donovan McNabb running the Eagles offense in quicksand as the fourth quarter of that Super Bowl faded away.

And then the Jets called timeout, because Caldwell had left them holding one, and Folk booted what was now a 32-yarder—not giving the upright a lot of clearance—and Sanchez and Folk were the cool, poised authors of a clutch playoff victory.

The better team won. Just as the better team won in Kansas City—amazingly, yet believably, the Chiefs have not won a playoff game since the Joe Montana era—and in Philadelphia, and, sad to say, even in Seattle. Now, next week, the even better teams are waiting.

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.