Week Seventeen: John Harbaugh (Bengals at Ravens)
Earlier in the week, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh was upset about the kickoff time being pushed back. He was concerned fewer people would show up to the game. Well, it spared a lot of Ravens fans the disappointment of paying to see their team not only lose to a division rival, but a playoff spot in a gut-wrenching manner. Several of our Situational Calls of the Week have come on the last play, or close to it, and this week’s underlines the importance of making judicious decisions until the clock reaches double zero.
The Bills won their game and the Titans punched their way into the postseason. All that was left was for Baltimore to determine the destinies for all three teams. The game started off promising for the Bills, whose fans were watching anxiously for their 17-year playoff drought to end. The Bengals forced the Ravens to punt on all of their first quarter drives. The Ravens offense really wasn’t able to mount any kind of drive in the first half. Their two scores came off a fumble converted for a FG and a big kickoff return to the Cincinnati 6-yard line which they converted into a touchdown.
Things looked great on Baltimore’s first drive of the second half after the Bengals returned an interception to make it 24-10. However, another special teams error gave the Ravens a relatively shorter field, which they scored a touchdown with. Then the momentum shifted towards the Ravens. They scored on their next two possessions to take the lead 27-24.
The score remained 27-24 until Cincinnati got the ball back at their own 10 with 2:43 to play, and one timeout. Keep in mind, since the pick six at the beginning of the second half, the Ravens defense kept the Bengals off the scoreboard for the entire half until now. They had been playing man coverage for most of this drive and the half, which proved to be successful. The Bengals weren’t driving down the field in any way, they were bailed out by a couple of penalties by the Baltimore defense, one of which negated an interception.
On 4th and 12 at the Baltimore 49, with no timeouts left, and less than a minute to go, the Ravens decided to go with a 2 deep zone defense. Bengals QB Andy Dalton found WR Tyler Boyd, who was lined up in the slot, for a 49-yard touchdown to put the Bengals in front 31-27 with 44 seconds left. In one play, the Ravens went from playoff bound to ending their season, sending Buffalo to its first playoff appearance in 17 seasons.
In situations like these, coaches and coordinators weigh the risks of going man or zone defense. Usually, man is too risky to go with as it relies on the secondary’s ability to keep up with receivers and risks giving up an automatic first down on a penalty, which occurred earlier in the drive twice. However, in this situation it might have been a safer call to go with man. It was working for the most part on this drive and in the half. If a penalty is called, that just means Cincinnati has four more tries at finding the endzone with less time remaining. By going zone, it left playmakers like Tyler Boyd and Andy Dalton to find space and ultimately the endzone.
Week Sixteen: Doug Marrone (Jaguars at 49ers)
This week’s Situational Call isn’t one specific play call that altered the outcome of the game. Instead, it is the series of play calls Doug Marrone and his staff were able to put together in order to mount a late-stage comeback for the Jacksonville Jaguars against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara. It’s easy to lose grasp of a game late in the season when a playoff berth and division title is wrapped up, but credit to Marrone and the Jaguars for not folding on a cross-country road trip despite being down late in the 4th quarter.
The game didn’t start optimistically for the Jaguars either. They were kept off the scoreboard and could have gone down 17-0 if it weren’t for a blocked extra point that was returned for a touchdown three minutes into the 2nd quarter. That sparked the Jacksonville offense as they scored two touchdowns on their next two drives to send the game tied into halftime.
They jumped ahead 19-16 on the first drive of the 2nd half, but an interception on their next drive would swing the momentum the other direction. A punt and another turnover and now San Francisco led 37-19 with about six minutes left in the game. Marrone may have been tempted to remove starters and get rested for the playoffs. He chose not to; he was going to test just how much a team can do under those circumstances.
Turns out, a team can do a lot, especially when the 49ers got sloppy at trying to close out the game.
The Jaguars drove 85 yards for a quick touchdown, and with a 2 point conversion, they trailed 37-27, with 2:17 left and all three timeouts.
An onside kick recovery led to another quick touchdown, and now they trailed by only 37-33 (the Jaguars missed the extra point kick).
1:55 still remained in the game, and remarkably, the Jaguars still had all three timeouts. The Jaguars just proved that down 18 with under seven minutes is not a distance too far, and why head coaches often bristle at the postgame press conference questions that start with “why didn’t you pull your quarterback as it appeared the game was over?”
Marrone now was actually in some control of the game. He could choose to try to pin the 49ers with a deep kickoff and use all of his timeouts, or he could try another onside kick, and still use all of his timeouts, although if he did stop the 49ers offense, his offense would be facing a longer field.
He chose the onside kick, which failed this time. The 49ers scored a clinching touchdown, and that was it. But 18 down with less than seven minutes? Doug Marrone proved that it’s still very much a game, and this week’s Situational Call of the Week.
Week Fifteen: Dan Quinn (Falcons at Buccaneers)
It’s that time of the NFL season when one decision can determine whether a team makes the playoffs or just misses the cut. The Buccaneers (4-9) tried their best to inject some respectability into their season, while the Falcons (8-5) needed to win to stay in position for a playoff spot. Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn was once again right in the middle of a key situational call that put the Falcons playoffs hopes on the line.
Atlanta was ahead 27-24 and faced a 3rd & 9 from their own 40-yard line with 2:00 minutes left in the game. The Buccaneers had used all their timeouts, while the Falcons had all three – a first down here would effectively end the game. The Falcons had attempted two run plays on first and second down for a total gain of one yard. Falcon playoff hopes rode on the conversion of this 3rd down. At this juncture, Quinn had two choices:
1) Run the ball. It is unlikely to get a first down, considering the last two run plays didn’t get much, but it will keep the clock running and eliminate the chance of an interception. If they get the first down, great. If they don’t, they punt and play defense; the Buccaneers would have about 60 seconds to drive for game-tying FG.
2) Try to complete a short pass, even though a first down is not guaranteed. Although it risks stopping the clock or a potential interception, this choice gives QB Matt Ryan more options. If Ryan finds a receiver open for nine or more yards…game over. If Ryan cannot find anyone, he doesn’t have to throw it. Both options keep the clock moving.
Quinn chose option 2. Ryan didn’t see anything he liked, and he took a sack. The clock continued to run, and the Buccaneers were given the ball at their own 29-yard line with a minute left. And even though Bucs QB Jameis Winston led a good drive toward a game-tying FG, the Bucs could have used a few more seconds to run one more play to move the field goal attempt just a bit closer (it also didn’t help that an official spotting the ball slipped, and a few seconds were burned when he had to regain his balance). But without a precious few additional seconds that perhaps an earlier Falcons incompletion might have provided, the Bucs were forced to attempt a FG on the outer bounds of K Patrick Murray’s range. The attempt missed, keeping the Falcons in the playoff hunt.
This 3rd & 9 call wasn’t an easy one to make for a head coach. You know if you can convert, you ice the game – but you probably have to pass to do it. In electing to pass, the one thing that absolutely could not happen was for Ryan to throw an incomplete pass, and since he didn’t, we speculate either he was told to take a sack, or he was trusted to take the sack. Either way, it’s just another close judgment call every head coach has to make under pressure, and the better answer isn’t always immediately clear.
And that is this week’s Situational Call of the Week.
Week Fourteen: Sean Payton (Saints at Falcons)
The showdown in the NFC South between the New Orleans Saints (9-3) and Atlanta Falcons (7-5) was a perfect demonstration of how what may be going in the mind of a coach can affect the game on the field. Not only was it an entertaining game, but it was packed full of chin-stroking moments for both coaches, especially in the final two minutes.
The game had it all: lead changes, injuries to key players, interceptions, and great plays. However, fast forward to the fourth quarter and there were three big calls, two by Payton and one by Quinn, with Payton’s second being this week’s Situational Call.
The Saints had an opportunity for a game-winning drive with 4:22 left in the fourth, leading 17-10, and facing a 1st & 10 on their own 24, the Saints had an opportunity to seal the game. Payton called a jet sweep to WR Ted Ginn for a three-yard loss that wouldn’t be overcome. Payton’s playcall may have been influenced by the nature of the game.
The second call came from Dan Quinn. Trailing 20-17, with 1:55 left and all three timeouts for both teams, the Saints committed a holding penalty on a 3rd and inches from the Atlanta 24. Quinn had a choice to accept the penalty and have the Saints attempt a 3rd and 11 from the 34 or 4th and inches from the 24. Quinn decided to decline the penalty banking on Sean Payton electing to kick the FG. Quinn guessed wrong, and the Saints snuck for a first down.
If Quinn was gambling on Payton playing it safe and opting for a FG, that probably was not a prudent calculation. All year long, Payton has stayed aggressive with his decision-making in game-turning spots (at Green Bay, at home last week vs Carolina, etc.).
If he pushed the Saints back to the Atlanta 34 and a 3rd & 11, it’d be a low percentage down for the Saints. On top of that, the Saints had been stopped on their three drives prior to this one by the Falcons defense, Kamara was out, Ingram was playing hurt, and WR Ted Ginn had earlier taken a hard shot to the ribs. Thus, given how the Falcons had been playing defensively and the Saints’ physical condition, 3rd and 11 was a very favorable down for the Falcons
If Quinn would have accepted the penalty, and even if the Saints make a tying FG, the Falcons probably would have had about 90 seconds and 2-3 time outs left to try and win the game. But by declining the penalty, we feel Quinn put the Falcons in a more vulnerable position by giving Sean Payton more options.
Dan Quinn’s decision to decline the penalty would have been this week’s Situational Call if Drew Brees hadn’t thrown the game-ending interception. The Saints trailed 20-17, and faced a 2nd & 10 at the Atlanta 12, with 1:30 left in the 4th, and one timeout remaining and two for Atlanta. In this scenario, the Saints had a game tying FG attempt from 29 yards secured, and two or more downs potentially to win the game outright. The play call was a play-pass to TE Josh Hill in the endzone, with a check down available to RB Mark Ingram. The pass was intercepted, and the play effectively ended the game.
Payton could have elected to run the ball with an injured Ingram and force Atlanta to burn its timeout, or entrust the game to future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees. Payton gave the ball to the face of the franchise but Brees didn’t execute for once. Was it prudent to put the game in Brees’ hands with such a call? Yes, a player of Brees’ stature has executed in that situation many times before. While we perhaps could say a running play might have been slightly more favorable simply to cause Atlanta to burn its last time out, a 2nd down play like this one gave the Saints a chance to end the game right there.
This is an example of something that we try to make clear here at HCR. A coach can make the correct play call, but a lack of execution can make it seem like the wrong one, or vice versa. In this case, Sean Payton made the reasonable call to try and seal the game, and make it a two-horse race for the NFC South title. It just didn’t play out as planned.
Week Thirteen: John Fox (49ers at Bears)
This week’s Situational Call is arguably the most unusual this NFL season. It came at the end of the game between the San Francisco 49ers (1-10) and the Chicago Bears (3-8). The game was won 15-14 on former Bears kicker, Robbie Gould’s, last-second FG to give the 49ers their second win of the season, and second win in three games.
The Bears struggled to get any run game going against the third-worst run defense in the league. QB Mitchell Trubisky was 12 for 15 but only amassed for 102 yards. Despite their struggles on offense, the Bears scored the only offensive touchdown in the game. This was set up by an interception that put them in better field position. The other touchdown came on a 61-yard Tarik Cohen punt return for a touchdown.
The Bears defense was able to stall the 49ers to five FGs, despite four long drives at least five minutes in length. The last of these long drives was 8:25 minutes long and would end up winning the game.
The Bears were up 14-12 with under two minutes left in the game. The 49ers were in the redzone at the Bears’ 10-yard line. RB Kyle Juszczyk rushed for three yards but was down at the Chicago 7 with 1:40 left. Timeout Chicago, their second. RB Carlos Hyde took the next carry for another four yards to the Chicago 3 with 1:34 left. Timeout Chicago, their last. On 2nd and Goal at their own 3-yard line, with no timeouts left, Bears Head Coach John Fox had to make an interesting decision.
Fox couldn’t stop the clock anymore and the 49ers had two more plays to score. Predictably, the 49ers ran two more plays (for losses) and the clock down to six seconds before K Gould nailed the 24-yard chip shot.
Fox was put in a tough spot as soon as he bypassed the opportunity to call his timeouts before the 2-minute warning and while the 49ers were outside FG range. This was at a 3rd and 9 at the San Francisco 49-yard line with 2:17 left.
Instead, the 49ers were able to march down the field and run the clock at the same time. Once they were in the redzone and Fox was out of timeouts, they had the game won.
The only thing Fox could’ve done to give his team a chance was let the 49ers score a touchdown. It seems strange to let the opposing team score, but it was Fox’s only option to stop the clock and get the ball back. Had he let Juszczyk score he would’ve had about 1:40 left, and if he let Hyde score about 1:35 left. Additionally, if he didn’t use his two remaining timeouts, he would’ve been down 19-14 with about 1:30 left and two timeouts.
It seems counter-intuitive to let your opponent score a TD, but this was one of the exceptions. By not letting the 49ers score, Fox gave the fate of the game to the opposing team, something worse than letting your opponent score. Fox’s clock management put him in an unfavorable position, but his decision to let the 49ers run the clock down didn’t help his team. That is Week 13’s Situational Call.
Week Twelve: Doug Marrone (Jaguars at Cardinals)
For the second week in a row, the Situational Call of the Week cost a team the game. The Jacksonville Jaguars took hold of the AFC South after the Tennessee Titans lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers the week before. The Titans won a key game against the Colts on Sunday, all Jacksonville had to do was not lose. Instead, Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone “got too greedy” as he put it in his play calling near the end of regulation.
On paper it wasn’t a challenging win for Jacksonville, but Arizona came to play. They found success on offense with quick inside passes, and on defense by pressuring QB Blake Bortles, shutting down the rushing attack, and matching WR Marqise Lee with CB Patrick Peterson. This game plan put the Cardinals up 13-3 at half.
Marrone’s aggressiveness started with 7:30 left in the 3rd quarter at the Cardinals 1-yard line. On a 4th and Goal and trailing by 13, the Jaguars decided to go for it and they converted for a touchdown. This made it a six-point game. Jacksonville would score another touchdown on a 10-yard fumble return to take its first lead in the game. The Cardinals came right back and scored a TD and successfully converted a 2-point attempt. Jacksonville scored the game-tying TD after a 68-yard kickoff return gave them a short field to work with.
After securing a first down in Cardinals territory on a 16-yard pass, all the Jaguars had to do was run the clock out and hopefully gain more yards to try a FG. Even if the Jaguars couldn’t get into FG range on the ground, they’d at least pin the Cardinals deep with barely any time left and likely send the game into overtime. But Marrone “got greedy.”
T.J. Yeldon rushed for two yards on first down, but the Jaguars passed on both 2nd and 3rd down. The 3rd down pass came on a 3rd and 6 with 2:47 left in the game on the Arizona 38. Blake Bortles rolled out to find WR Marquise Lee but was intercepted and gave the Cardinals the ball at their own 40-yard line with more than two minutes. Ultimately, the Cardinals were able to get into K Phil Dawson’s range and won the game off his boot.
In our view and Marrone’s hindsight, it wasn’t the best call to attempt another pass play, although it wasn’t wise of Bortles to try and fit the pass into a tight window. Looking at the game as a whole though, Lee was shut down by the Cardinals secondary (1 reception, 13 yards). So targeting him on a crucial pass play with the game on the line wasn’t the best choice. We don’t know if Jacksonville would’ve won the game either by kicking a FG or taking it to overtime. What we do know is that they didn’t win because of unnecessary aggressive play calling. Marrone’s decision to pass cost the Jaguars a chance to sit atop the AFC South alone, and that is why it is this week’s Situational Call.
Week Eleven: Jay Gruden (Redskins at Saints)
The Washington Redskins came into this contest with a chance to even their record at 5-5. It wasn’t going to be easy in the electrifying New Orleans atmosphere, but Jay Gruden’s squad rose to the occasion.
They remained aggressive in all aspects of the game, not letting the Saints and the crowd gain momentum or comfort.
Ahead 31-23 with 2:34 in the fourth quarter, the Redskins faced a 3rd and 1 at their own 34-yard line. A successful first down run by RB Samaje Perine, who had been running well all game, would have sealed an important road victory. However, the Saints stacked the box and the run was stuffed to their credit. This set up a Saints comeback, and this week’s Situational Call.
After the Saints tied the game at 31, the Redskins moved efficiently into FG range at the Saints 34. With 31 seconds left, facing a 1st and 10, and no timeouts, Jay Gruden could have simply run the ball for a couple extra yards, spiked it, and then attempted the game-winning FG.
Instead, the Redskins called a quick pass play that fell incomplete due to miscommunication between QB Kirk Cousins and his receivers. And because the pass was so wildly incomplete, it was called for intentional grounding. This resulted in the ball being moved out of FG range and a 10 second runoff, effectively sending the game into overtime.
This sequence perfectly demonstrates how hard it is for even the best coaches to maintain their poise and make critical decisions during a game. For the vast majority of the game, Jay Gruden’s team had played a stellar game on the road, desperately trying to keep their playoff hopes alive. But in this sequence, he had to quickly make a judgment that involved a number of variables that all interrelated to each other (timeouts, kicker’s range, or whether his offense can lineup properly without incurring a penalty). All of this happening full speed, with adrenaline rushing, and in a loud environment.
We can understand why Jay Gruden elected to pass the ball in this spot–he is an excellent head coach, and has done well with an injury-plagued team. It wasn’t a poor decision, he relied on his veteran QB for help in properly communicating with his receivers. It didn’t help that the intentional grounding was later found to be incorrectly called.
However, it comes down to this: you’re already in game-winning FG range and your season is on the line in a tough road game, perhaps the safest thing to do is to preserve that. Yes, getting an extra few yards is always good, but that also comes with a risk. And in this case that risk played out, and resulted in a Redskins loss.
Week Ten: Hue Jackson (Browns at Lions)
When teams go through losing streaks, they’ll sometimes make certain calls that they normally wouldn’t make just to snap the streak. Well no team is more desperate for a win than the Cleveland Browns, who haven’t won since December 24th, 2016.
It takes something special to break a losing streak as long as the Browns’, but it also takes just one bad call to keep it going. Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson managed to make three questionable decisions, one of them critical, that let the Browns best chance at a victory slip away.
It was an optimistic start for the Browns as they jumped out to an early 10-0 lead. With 3:49 remaining in the first quarter, and the Browns up 10-3 at their own 44-yard line facing a 4th & 1, Jackson unwisely chose to put his one TD lead at risk by going for the first down. Failure would have given the Lions a short field and an excellent opportunity to tie the game – a momentum changer that shouldn’t be delivered to any home team. The Browns converted, but that doesn’t make a poor decision a good decision. Jackson’s second questionable call came in two instances of bad clock management. With 2:45 remaining in the first quarter on a 2nd and 10, Jackson called a timeout. He burned another one with 4:11 remaining in the second quarter. Both of these could’ve been used on the final drive of the half.
Jackson’s most costly decision and this week’s Situational Call, came on that final drive of the first half. Down 17-10, with 15 seconds left, no timeouts, and at the Detroit 2-yard line, Cleveland attempted a QB sneak. The attempt failed and the Browns weren’t able to run another play to get some points on the board before the half ended. They had just wasted a 10 play 73-yard drive, and an opportunity to receive the second half kickoff with some momentum.
In this situation, Hue Jackson had several options. He could’ve run a pass play that would’ve ended in a touchdown or a stopped clock. He could’ve also been more conservative and spike the ball to simply kick a field goal and make it 17-13. Instead, Jackson probably chose the worst option in running it straight up the middle, giving virtually no chance at a second play. His two wasted timeouts earlier in the half also affected this situation because if he had those two timeouts, his entire playbook would’ve been open — including the QB sneak.
QB DeShone Kizer did call an audible, but the head coach is still responsible for the consequences. Additionally, it’s also the head coach that gives the latitude to allow his QB to call an audible, which was questionable in this case because Kizer’s inexperience.
When a team hasn’t won in almost a calendar year and an opportunity to end that presents itself, a coach has to take advantage but can’t be too aggressive. In Hue Jackson’s case, he had three chances to finally guide his team to a long-awaited victory. Unfortunately, he blew those chances and the last one got him for good.
Week Nine: Jay Gruden (Washington @ Seattle)
Jay Gruden’s Washington Redskins had a nearly impossible task placed before them heading into Week 9. They had to fly cross-country into a wet, hostile environment, CenturyLink Field, and attempt to beat a Seattle team on a four-game winning streak.
But in the 4th quarter, Jay Gruden was on the precipice of achieving the near impossible as Kirk Cousins completed the drive of his NFL life to give the Redskins the lead at 17-14. But Gruden had one final decision to make. The Seahawks had driven into FG range with 15 seconds left and no timeouts. Then the Seahawks unexpectedly decided to run another play, rather than spiking the ball and perhaps getting two plays to get closer into FG-range or the endzone.The pocket collapsed, and Wilson tried to get rid of the ball but was ruled down by contact, knocking them out of FG-range. The call on the field was reviewed, resulting in a 10 second run off.
Irrespective of whether Park Avenue got it wrong (Wilson was sacked with four seconds left so the run off should have ended the game), the decision was made to give the Seahawks one last play with 4 seconds to go, and the clock would start running as soon as the officials spotted the ball. Gruden’s logic behind his final play call may have looked like this:
- Let the clock start at the referee’s whistle and have Seattle’s offense scramble for a Hail Mary attempt, and your defense simply defend.
- Call a timeout, risk the offense setting up a Hail Mary the way they want so that your defense can set up the way you want.
Gruden went with option 2, even though the replay decision caused an effective timeout for both teams – the Seahawks could choose a play to run, and the Redskins could choose a coverage. Notwithstanding this, there would be some element of chaos, chaos which we felt would have favored the Redskins.
In our view, it was imprudent to call a timeout in this situation, because it allowed Seattle even more time to discuss its options. Of course, this allowed the Redskins more time to regroup as well, but Seattle had just been sacked on the previous play, so allowing Seattle’s offense additional time to regroup and focus on its protections.
A head coach can make the right calls for 59 minutes a game, but can still lose if he makes the wrong one in the last minute. This was the case for the Jay Gruden and that is why his decision to take a timeout was the Situational Call of the Week.
Week Eight: Bill O’Brien (Texans @ Seahawks)
Bill O’Brien has done a very good job since becoming the Texans head coach. Some contend that he’s been lucky to play in the less than strong AFC South division, but such a contention is irrelevant. What is clear is that O’Brien has infused the franchise with confidence and competence, and he also has done an excellent job creating a system that allows rookie QB DeShaun Watson to exhibit all of his skills. O’Brien is a solid NFL head coach and should continue to be one for a long time.
This game was an offensive shootout, and one that was going to reward the team that would have the ball last, and O’Brien was presented a situation that gave him the opportunity to have the ball last.
Ahead 38-34 with 1:53 left in the game, the Texans faced a 3rd and 4, with the Seahawks having used all of their timeouts. A first down by the Texans would effectively end the game. Up to this point, Watson had played a spectacular game, a memorable game – one of the best offensive performances in the 2017 season. However, he also had thrown three interceptions.
The situation O’Brien faced: Run or Pass?
If he runs from four yards out for a first down, he probably doesn’t get it, but he does run off another 40 seconds, and leaves the Seahawks barely over a minute and almost 80 yards to go for a TD. However, he’d also have to depend on a defense that had already lost three of its best players to season-ending injuries or suspension (Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus, and JJ Watt).
If he passes, and the pass falls incomplete, the Seahawks have nearly two minutes to attempt a game-winning drive. And a pass risks an interception as well, and Watson already had thrown three.
Finally, O’Brien also had the knowledge that in a previous situation this year against New England, he chose to run, and that decision proved incorrect.
In this case, O’Brien chose the same option as in the New England game. The running play with RB Lamar Miller was stuffed, the Texans punted, and the Seahawks drove for a winning TD.
It was a close call for O’Brien, and not an easy one. It’s situations like these that we like to dissect here and evaluate the relative soundness of judgment of all 32 NFL head coaches. And that’s why this situation is Week 8’s Situational Call of the Week.
Week Seven: Dan Quinn (Atlanta @ New England)
The Falcons came into this game on a two-game losing streak, and while they’re largely composed of the same players (and coaches, except for the OC) that set offensive records in 2016 and made it to the Super Bowl, they are in a desperate search for some confidence. And if there is one thing every head coach must do, it is to determine a path to finding confidence for his team.
This game didn’t start out exactly as the Falcons had planned, but late into the 2nd quarter, the deficit was only 10-0, and they had the ball. They had a chance to cut the score to 10-7, 10-3, or at least go into halftime no worse than 10-0. The Falcons also would get the ball first in the 3rd quarter. So going in no worse than 10-0 would be the scenario any prudent head coach had to keep in mind.
The Falcons drive stalled at the Patriots 46-yard line, and they faced a 4th & 6. Two minutes remained in the half, and the Patriots possessed all three of their timeouts.
In this situation, Dan Quinn was faced with the following choices, as it appeared to us:
1. Pooch punt and play defense.
2. Take a delay of game penalty, back it up 5 yards and pooch punt and play defense.
Under no circumstance did we feel going for the first down was a reasonable choice open to Quinn. Our reasons include:
1. The Falcons offensive unit had been struggling for nearly four quarters going back to the previous game.
2. The Falcons defensive unit had been playing reasonably well and had a good chance to hold the Patriots to no further points in the half.
3. Going into halftime down 10-0 in a road game was not an insurmountable deficit.
4. The Falcons would get the ball first in the 3rd quarter.
5. Most importantly, if the Falcons did go for a first down and failed, giving the ball to QB Tom Brady and the Patriots near midfield with two minutes left and 3 timeouts significantly reduced the Falcons ability to go into halftime with just a 10-0 deficit.
Notwithstanding this reasoning, Dan Quinn elected to go for the first down and the attempt failed. The Patriots got the ball near midfield, drove the length, scored a TD and went up three scores at 17-0. This was a back-breaker for the Falcons, and made it difficult for them to find any semblance of confidence the rest of the game.
This scenario underscores just how important the judgment and decision-making ability of a head coach is to the outcome of any game. Players can compete hard, but if the person leading the team does not put the team in a position to win, there is nothing the players can do. We understand that in every game, there are many decisions that are 50-50 calls; the decision can be justified either direction. This was not one of them in our view, and as a result, the Falcons are on a three-game losing streak.
This is our Situational Call of the Week for Week 7, and it will be interesting to see if it potentially is a call that influences the rest of their season.
Week Six: Chuck Pagano (Colts @ Titans)
The Colts entered this game at 2-3 with a starting QB (Jacoby Brissett) they traded for after the season started. A win here, and they’re 3-3 and tied for first – as good a Lazarus job as there would be in the league, as far as head coach survivability is concerned. Because after Week One’s poor and non-competitive loss to the Rams, there were whispers Chuck Pagano might not make it to Halloween.
The Colts played well this game for the most part, and there were moments where they were in control of the game (up 19-9 in the 3rd quarter). But the Titans’ personnel is just a bit better than the Colts’, and the Titans clawed back into this one, and ultimately took the lead at 29-22 in the 4th quarter.
The Colts, however, scrapped back and mounted a good drive in an effort to tie the game. They drove all the way to the Titans’ 12-yard line with 2:32 left. They still had three timeouts left.
But they now confronted a 4th & 1, Pagano was faced with he following decision tree. Although we know Pagano doesn’t call the offensive plays, here at Head Coach Ranking, we hold the head coach responsible for the decisions of his subordinates.
1. Kick the FG and go up 29-25. Then play defense with three timeouts and the two-minute warning, and then try to win, not tie, the game with a TD. But if one takes this route, then they’re banking on the following contingencies:
a. Make the FG (likely); then
b. Stop the Titans from making a first down (toss up); then
c. Go on a winning TD drive (unlikely because the offense had only put up 15 points up to that point).
2. Or do just try to make the 1st down and continue the drive? With this option, Pagano still has three timeouts left and the two-minute warning as he plays defense.
Pagano went with Option 2, which we feel was a justifiable decision. So what type of play should he call? This would be the difference between winning and losing.
Quick pass? Pagano didn’t choose this. Not an egregious decision. Brissett’s motion is super compact, and the Colts really don’t have that short area quickness type of WR that can create instant separation.
Some type of run between the tackles? Pagano didn’t choose this either. Again, understandable. Titans DT Jurrell Casey was making his presence felt as this game wore on, the Colts’ guards aren’t of the highest quality, and the back that might have run this play, Robert Turbin, had just been hurt on a previous play.
Some type of play-pass, move play? This is what Pagano chose. They chose to have Brissett run to the open side of the formation on a naked boot. We feel a justifiable call, but the only limitation to the play is that while Brissett is pretty good on the move, especially in the open field, he’s a slightly bigger body and he takes some time to get going. While it took him just a bit more time to gain a head of steam, Titans LB Wesley Woodyard came in to blow up the play and stop Brissett short of the first down.
While the final score showed a 14-point loss for the Colts, the game was much closer than that. The game came down to that one call. That one situation. It didn’t matter that the Colts had largely played well all game. All that mattered was that one call, in that one situation. This time they failed. And now they do what coaches have to do after every game: try to understand why.
And that is our Week 6 Situational Call of the Week.
Week Five: Jason Garrett (Packers @ Cowboys)
When you’re an NFL head coach, you get to enjoy great perks that come along with the job. People return your calls, you have a platoon of assistants to service all of your needs, and you’re in a pretty exclusive club of only 32 people. By comparison, there are 100 U.S. senators – so yes, it’s exclusive.
But in exchange for the perks, every aspect of how you do your job is scrutinized, and on game day, it’s often in front of a national television audience. And sometimes, that isn’t so fun.
Jason Garrett may have experienced the less fun part of his job against the Packers.
With the Packers ahead 28-24 and less than 10 minutes left in the game, the Cowboys embarked on a drive to win the game, and they did a good job of it.
With 1:24 left in the game, the Cowboys moved down to the Packers’ 11 yard line and faced a 2nd and 2 – a very favorable down and distance. Cowboys RB Zeke Elliott was running well, and the Cowboys talented OL was in a groove. The Cowboys also had 2 timeouts left, and the Packers had only 1 timeout left.
Conditions were favorable for the Cowboys to score a go-ahead TD, but just as importantly burn clock in doing so, or at a minimum, force the Packers to use their final timeout.
But first things first. What kind of play should Jason Garrett and his staff dial up on 2nd and 2?
Here are the choices that we saw for Garrett:
Option A: Run the ball. You might get the first down, but more importantly you force the Packers to burn their last timeout stopping the clock. If the Packers choose not to use the timeout, the Cowboys probably can take the clock all the down to :37, and either have a 1st and goal from the 9-yard line or closer, or perhaps a 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 2 from the 10/11-yard line (assuming the run play is stuffed for no gain or a one yard loss). If the run play is stuffed, then the Cowboys would have 37 seconds left with either two plays to get the first down and/or two plays to get the ball into the end zone…and still be able to stop the clock twice. In short still favorable circumstances if you choose to run the ball. Two shots for one or two yards with Zeke Elliott and a talented offensive line aren’t bad odds. If the Packers chose to use their final timeout, they probably stop the clock with about 1:19 left, but now it is either Cowboys 1st and goal, or Cowboys 3rd and short, and the game is in the hands of the Packers’ defense…and not ever in the hands of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Given that choice, we feel that if we’re the Cowboys, we’d rather take our chances overcoming the Packers’ defense than challenging QB Rodgers.
Option B: Try to throw the ball on 2nd and 2. The upside? Not that much different from running the ball. The downside? An incompletion risks stopping the clock AND helping the Packers preserve their timeout to use on a final drive if necessary. The timeout is important because it opens up the playbook – the Packers can choose to throw to the middle of the field and not necessarily have to stick to boundary plays.
Garrett chose Option B. The pass fell incomplete. The Packers saved their timeout. The Cowboys scored a TD on the next play to now lead 31-28 – obviously a good thing, but there still was 1:13 left and the Packers had one timeout.
Not surprisingly, the Packers moved down the field with relative ease and scored a winning TD with only a few seconds left in the game.
Did Garrett handle this closing sequence well? It’s debatable, but we come out on the “no” part of the debate. This final sequence was very interesting, and showed how important it is to have a head coach who can make sound judgments under pressure. Garrett has his strengths as a head coach, but on this day, and in this situation, we feel he still has room for improvement.
Week Four: Adam Gase, Saints vs Dolphins (London)
Even though we often hear that football is a “4 quarter” game, sometime what happens on the first drive of the 1st quarter can set the tone for the rest of the game. And that happened in this game.
Even though the Dolphins came into this game 1-1, they were coming off a very poor performance against the Jets in a 20-6 road loss. They simply had no offense, and in their first game on the road against the Chargers, the offense disappeared for long stretches as well.
Their offense lacked confidence, and to this point, had no identity. The change in their early season schedule because of Hurricane Irma certainly had affected the entire team, but given that Gase is an offensive coach and their coordinator, their poor performances were surprising.
All of which made the first drive of this game more important than usual.
The Dolphins received the ball, and started on their own 25. They moved crisply, looking as good on offense as they had all season thus far, and after 14 plays, found themselves with a 1st and goal on the Saints 4 yard line. During the drive, London native and Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi ran with energy and enthusiasm – 5 times for 21 yards. He was questionable to play, but one could see playing in front of family and friends in London was important to him.
So here are the Dolphins, 1st & goal on the 4, with the Saints defense reeling, and an energized Ajayi running hard. A TD here gives the Dolphins a 7-0 lead against a team that plays better as a front runner, and one that is struggling with its own confidence.
So Dolphins Head Coach Gase has a lot of choices on his his call sheet for 1st & goal from the 4. No matter what, your worst case scenario must be coming out with at least a FG and a 3-0 lead.
Gase didn’t choose Jay Ajayi. He also didn’t choose a play call to energetic and productive WR Jarvis Landry.
Instead, the play call was a back shoulder fade throw to TE Julius Thomas…who came into the game with 6 total catches for 42 yards. The pass was intercepted by the Saints, and after being energized by the turnover, went on to grab the first score lead…and never relinquish it.
Now the play call could have given Cutler the latitude to choose his target on the play, but from the way the play unfolded, Thomas looked like the first option.
The Dolphins squandered their best chance to score in this game. Had they taken an early lead, gotten some confidence, this game may have unfolded very differently. Instead, the Saints ended up pitching a shutout.
One play call, first drive, first quarter. How important can it be to the overall outcome of the game? In this game, we felt very important.
Week Three: John Fox (Steelers at Bears)
Oftentimes, NFL head coaches will make a decision one way, only to have a penalty or other event intervene and cause them to – unwillingly – make a decision contradictory to their initial instinct. And much of the time, it’s a good thing that some other event intervened, because their initial gut decision might have hung their team with a loss.
The Bears entered this game 0-2. After a near upset of the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1, the Bears were dominated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 and lost 29-7. An 0-3 start was looming, unless they could upset Pittsburgh.
Nearing the end of the first half, the Bears led 14-7 and were playing well in front of the home crowd. The Steelers simply couldn’t get much going, and the Bears defense was playing with energy.
With 43 seconds left in the first half, and trailing 14-7, the Steelers drove the ball from their own 25 to the Bears 18 yard line. Six seconds remained in the first half – getting points always is good of course, but more so when your opponent is going to get the ball first in the 2nd half.
The Steelers lined up for a 36 yard FG attempt. The Bears’ special teams, however, made a great play, blocked the kick and Bears’ special teamer Marcus Cooper scooped up the block and sprinted for the endzone. Just before crossing, however, Cooper slowed down, the ball was knocked free, and the Steelers batted the ball through the endzone. By this time, the first half clock expired.
After much confusion, the officials gave the Bears the opportunity to run one play from the Steelers’ one yard line. Bears Head Coach John Fox was then presented with the following decision:
A) Kick a 19 yard FG and go into the locker room ahead 17-7, knowing the Bears will also get the ball in the 2nd half and have an opportunity to go ahead 20-7 or 24-7 against an ineffective Steelers’ offense.
B) Go for a TD from the one yard line, against a good Steelers defense, but if you fail, your lead is only 14-7 and you switch the momentum by getting 0 points after a great special teams play.
Fox chose Option B, and in our view, the wrong decision. He risked getting zero points versus getting a sure 3 points and the ball in the second half with the opportunity go up 3 scores.
Bears QB Mike Glennon dutifully went up to the line of scrimmage to run the play from the one yard line in an effort to go up 21-7. Before the play commenced, however, the Bears committed an illegal procedure penalty – the ball got moved back to the 6 yard line, so Fox was forced to settle for the FG, and a 10 point halftime lead against one of the best teams in the league.
As it turns out, the Steelers ultimately forced OT at 17-17 (meaning the Bears didn’t score again in the 2nd half). The Bears won 23-17 on a Jordan Howard TD run.
Points win games. Too many times we see head coaches risk getting “more points” by risking “sure points”. Maybe the Bears would have gone ahead 21-7 at the half on Fox’ gamble…but maybe they don’t, and they lead only 14-7 at the half. Either way, for an 0-2 team to be up 10 at home against a better squad is a tradeoff we’d take every time.
Week Two: Mike Zimmer (Vikings at Steelers)
The Vikings performed like a Super Bowl quality team at home in their opener against the Saints, and that led to an entire week of excitement over the Vikings and early playoff talk. While they appear deeper than last year, the Vikings still appear enigmatic at times, and that may be a result of some in-game decision-making.
In this game, the Vikings were missing QB Sam Bradford, who performed excellently in Week 1. The Vikings, however, have backup QB Case Keenum, who obviously doesn’t possess Bradford’s physical gifts, but he does have starting experience and a long history with Vikings OC Pat Shurmur. And while playing in Pittsburgh is difficult for any team, the Vikings have an excellent defense that can keep games close, and if a game stays close, and you have a veteran QB, you at least put yourself in a position to win.
Early in the 3rd quarter, the Vikings trailed 14-3. Offensively, they weren’t doing very much, but down just 11 with nearly an entire half left to play, they clearly were in the game, and in position to possibly steal a road win. After all, nearly the entire 2nd half was left to play.
With the ball, and on their own 36, a Vikings drive stalled, and the Vikings faced a 4th & 4 – 14:30 remaining in the third quarter. At this juncture, Zimmer faced the following decision:
A) Punt the ball and play defense
B) Fake a punt and try to gain four yards; upside, continue the drive, or downside, give the Steelers the ball and risk going down 17-3 or 21-3 on a short field and having to play further catchup with your backup QB on the road.
Zimmer chose Option B. The fake punt failed, the Steelers converted for three to go ahead 17-3, and trying to play two-touchdown catchup with Case Keenum felt like a long reach. We felt that punting and playing defense with a quality group would have been more prudent, as the upside with that field position didn’t seem to warrant such a call. It’s a momentum changer and it’s giving up three cheap points. As it turned out, the Vikings marched down the field and scored a touchdown on their next drive to make it 17-9 (PAT failed). Perhaps 14-9 feels a lot different for your team at that point? We’ll never know. We don’t disagree that when you’re playing a quality opponent on the road with your backup QB, you have to have a few tricks available. We simply question that call at that point in the game and with that field position.
The Vikings never got inside that eight point deficit, and they lost 26-9.
Week One: Bill Belichick (Chiefs at Patriots)
Belichick and Andy Reid are two of the best head coaches in the NFL, and they had all training camp to contemplate their matchup. Fans are always going to get great effort and thoughtfulness from these two coaches, and that usually leads to good, tight games. And this one was not an exception.
The Patriots jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead, and on the Chiefs’ next possession, rookie RB Kareem Hunt fumbled deep in the Chiefs side of the field. Patriots players and fans were excited; momentum clearly was on the their side, and for the Chiefs, this was exactly the type of start that you want to avoid.
The Patriots drive stalled, however, and they were confronted with a 4th & 1. The scenario confronting Belichick at this point was:
A) Kick the short FG and take a two score lead at 10-0 early in the game, maintain emotional momentum, and perhaps cause the Chiefs to deviate from their game plan early.
B) Go for it on 4th down and risk not making it and shifting the emotional momentum to the Chiefs.
Belichick chose Option “B”. It failed, and the Chiefs survived a potential early knockout blow, and they ultimately won the game.
Belichick already is considered by many the greatest head coach in NFL history, but in this one instance, we feel his judgment let him down. The first game of any season is different than any other game because most head coaches will tell you that you really don’t know what kind of team you have until you actually get into the game and either start making or missing plays. A head coach also isn’t entirely sure of what this particular team has until he is able to observe his team’s poise, competitiveness, and discipline during a game that matters. Therefore, taking a 10-0 early lead in game number one affords any head coach a nice cushion in order to observe the performance of his team while the opposing head coach is scrambling just to regain some footing.
So what would have happened if the Patriots had taken that early 10-0 lead? Would Alex Smith have played with the same degree of confidence? Would the Chiefs’ play calls have changed? We don’t know, but this decision is our Situational Call of the Week.
Honorable Mention: Mike Mularkey – Raiders @ Titans. We won’t have an Honorable Mention every week, but we had to point out this decision. The Titans kicked off to start the game…and elected to try an onside kick, at home, to start the first game of the season. The tactic failed, the Raiders recovered, went on to score a touchdown and take an early 7-0 lead in a road game. As we mentioned above, the first game of the season is different than any other game, simply because every head coach is trying to understand his team for the first time in live conditions…so getting an early lead takes some pressure off and gives a little more margin for error in decision-making. We do not know if Mike Mularkey prepared for that precise call well ahead of the game, or if it was made at the spur of the moment because his Special Teams Coordinator “saw something.” We believe it is likely the former. But the decision to start the first game of the season, at home, against a good opponent, with an onside kick, certainly was a questionable decision. As it turns out, the Titans were in chase mode all game, and never went ahead at any point in the game.