Lost In Translation: Why Do NFL Teams Manage Game Strategy So Badly?
I’m reading Ted Barris’ book The Dam Busters, about the epic 1943 raid by RAF and RCAF flyers on the Möhne and Eder dams. The raid was famous for its risk— 53 men were killed, 18 of them Canadian— and for the new technologies used by the bombers to land “bouncing” bombs..
One of the new gadgets they employed was a Dann rangefinder used by the bomb aimer to place his bombs in the perfect spot to breach the dam. The device worked perfectly, placing the bombs where they could release 5 billion cubic feet of water into a surrounding area that stretched nearly 100 miles.
The RAF planners understood the importance of proper navigation and strategy. Which put me in mind on Super Bowl Sunday of why so many NFL teams that advertise their attention to detail still do not take game strategy seriously. Having someone on the sidelines to navigate the crucial moments in a game where analytical detail, not gut reaction, determines winners and losers.
You don’t have to look far for examples. While everyone (rightly) bemoaned the botched pass-interference non-call in the NFC Championship game between the Saints and Rams, it had been preceded by a dereliction of coaching duty by New Orleans head coach Sean Payton.
Recall: Saints had the ball deep in Rams territory with just 1:58 left in a 20-20 tie. The Rams had just two timeouts left. If Payton ran on three consecutive plays, he could have kicked the go-ahead field goal with about 40 seconds left on the clock.
What did Payton do? He passed unsuccessfully on first down, allowing the Rams to keep a TO. After a run on second down he then passed again! When the Saints were cheated on the PI call on third down (again stopping the clock), they kicked the field goal to go ahead, now leaving the Rams 1:41 to respond.
Which they did, forcing overtime in which L.A. won a trip to the Super Bowl.
If coaching had a capital offence, Payton committed it by ignoring the obvious probabilities. In any reasonable game strategy he failed miserably. This gaffe has been obscured by the PI mess and forgiven by a platoon of NFL mastodons who think coaches should “go with your gut” in these situations.
But, I’m sorry, if you have a tool to help you win games— especially championship games— it’s gross negligence to “wing it”.
Let’s not pick on Payton alone, because the NFL and its college equivalent are over-populated by legendary coaches who refuse to adopt the algorithms and data that tell them what is the logical play in the het of the the moment. Fans of NFL teams can recall a nightmarish Andy Reid, Ron Rivera or Mike McCarthy moment when instinct or panic cost their team a win.
In SB LIII, Rams coach Sean McVay added to the canon of confusion, getting so lost in his own play calling late in the game that the referees had to convince him his initial acceptance of a Patriots penalty in the fourth quarter was… a bad idea. While Patriots coach Bill Belichik fumed, McVay took their advice.
Fourth-down percentage, goal-line strategy, time-out odds— there are statistics that show the way as clearly as the Dann rangefinder guided its bomb aimers. Because these probabiities are not generated by some pal with whom they played high school football, the top coaches in the NFL (and let’s face it, all sports) refuse to bow to reason. Like Payton, they believe there’s mystery in the play calls that they can summon when time gets tight.
Remarkably, almost all owners who profess to doing everything they can to win put up with this nonsense. They buy in to the bromides of the old-boys lodge about trusting coaches. But why not have a game strategist at the right hand of the coach to guide him stressful moments?
Between the offensive and defensive strategies, the personnel decisions and the noise, it’s easy for a coach to short-change probability factors. Having someone to instantly tell a Payton or Reid to make the easy choice, not the testosterone-choked mistake, can perhaps win a game or two a year— more than enough in the NFL to guarantee a playoff spot or home-field advantage.
So you can get with the future— or let coaches bomb out.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of his website Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.