Wednesday, September 29, 2010

All Tactics and No Strategy

In a nutshell, I think this is what plagues most NFL coaches. Many coaches are former players or “football men.” Most can teach you correct blocking technique, footwork, mechanical issues, etc. Most can break down tape and see what individual players are doing wrong on the field. And most coaches can make adjustments on the fly, at least to some extent. All of these skills are extremely useful, but I think most coaching staffs lack someone with broader strategic thinking.

I think that Bill Belichik is the exception that proves the rule. When I watch a Patriots game and there comes a time for a “controversial” decision, I feel like Belichik’s decision is always the one that the other team did not want him to make. If they think they’ve stopped the Patriots at midfield on a 4th and 1, Belichik frequently goes for it, gets it, and just deflates the defense. He is as responsible as anyone for the pass-happy NFL. He runs for a purpose, not just to “establish the run” or some such nonsense. And you rarely hear about clock management issues in New England. These are all big-picture strategy issues. 4th down philosophy has nothing to do with instituting discipline or teaching zone blocking.

Take a look at Mike McCarthy’s recent comments:

~ The offensive line, we knew we were going to put stress on the tackles. We tried to help them out some. Penalties directly affected our point production. That's what cost us. The tackles didn't just draw the penalties, the interior linemen did as well. The tackles graded just OK, but we knew they were going to be stressed out in a loud environment and against a prime player facing Julius Peppers.

~ How do you evaluate the run game. The run game? Depends. What's the definition of a run game? We went in to the game with a specific run plan. I felt the running backs were productive. Brandon and John played well with the opportunities they were given. They played us a certain way... The number of attempts is not always the most important factor. I thought the run production was a positive. Would not be smart to run Brandon Jackson or John Kuhn 25 times a game anyway.

~ We did not win the special teams battle. One of the key objectives was...the team that made the big play in special teams would be a big factor in the game. They made three with two big punt returns and a blocked field goal. We did not do a good job with the fundamentals. We were challenged last week on our depth chart with changing special teams personnel.

These strike me as tactical issues, and I think McCarthy’s answers on these questions are fine. The first gives you son insight into how the play of the interior line can affect the ends. His run game comments show a good understanding of the Bears’ strengths and how to properly attack them. Now let’s look at some “strategic” comments:

On the Jones fumble challenge: "I was standing right there. I had a pretty good indication of what happened. I did see the defensive back's foot swing out of bounds. I was just hopeful that the officials, maybe, you know, saw that his foot may have hit. With 2:18 and two challenges left, you know, that's obviously a huge play in the game, maybe it could swing our way."

This shows a real lack of understanding of your situation in the game. If you do see evidence that Jennings (the Bear, not the Packer) stepped out or was out when recovering the fumble, then this is a fine challenge, but given your situation you have to be absolutely sure because the timeout you will lose if you are wrong is absolutely precious. The Bears were nearly in field goal range already and it was exceedingly likely that they would at least have the opportunity to kick a field goal if nothing else. You have to be thinking about getting the ball back at that point.

On whether he considered letting Bears score at the end: "No, I did not. I did not consider letting them score at the end. I felt they missed a field goal in the game...There was talk about it, but it was not the decision we made."

We have talked about this one already, but isn’t it amazing? “I did not consider letting them score at the end.” Such a meat-head thing to say. No one thinking about what it would take to actually win the game would ever say that.

More teams could use a General. Someone with a vision of what it takes to win (or at least stay in the game) in every situation. Someone who understands that when you are killing the clock, adding another set of downs is often more important than running off 40 seconds on a hopeless running play. Someone who understands when to go for it and when to punt. Someone who understands that when you are down by two scores late in a game you not only need to score, you need to score fast.

This inefficiency could be exploited very easily and very cheaply by any NFL team that cared to do it. It’s almost unfathomable that in the multi-billion dollar business that is the NFL, a head coach would not know that sometimes you need to get the ball back to win, and the only way to get it back sometimes is to let the other team score. All tactics, no strategy.

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