Friday, September 05, 2008

And so it begins

Football is back.

The Giants opened up the season with a 16-7 trouncing of the Redskins. No, the score doesn't look too bad, but the game was non-competitive from the start.

The blame falls squarely on the coaching staff for this one. First-time head coach Jim Zorn, who is also calling the plays (he's never done that before either) was clearly overmatched in both capacities. The playcalling and time management were terrible. To some extent, this is expected in a first-time coach. When goofball owner Dan Snyder fires the entire staff and replaces them with clueless newbies, this is the result.

But what's inexcusable is cowardice.

I'm not merely picking on Jim Zorn here, he's only the first representative of a long list of cowards that I'll highlight this season. I'm incredibly weary of watching highly-paid NFL coaches make decisions not to win, but to avoid blame.

Here's the scenario: Down by two scores, it's fourth-and-one on your own 46, middle of the third quarter. Your offense has been horrible (crossing midfield just twice, once thanks to a long kickoff and 15-yard penalty) and your defense has been mediocre at best (7 possessions by the Giants to this point, resulting in 4 scores.) If you want to win the game you must go for the first down. Kicking it away, from good field position, with a greater than 50% chance that you'll give up another score, is not any way to win - but it is a way to avoid media criticism when you lose.

A few plays later, the Redskins pick off a pass. It's one of those potentially momentum-changing moments. Still down by two scores, the Redskins face a very similar situation (4th-and-2 from their own 44) and choose to punt again.

I have no idea how to statistically quantify the Redskins' differing chances to win if they punt vs. going for the first down, but I know this: anyone who has watched football realized the game was over when they punted. But you won't read about coach Zorn making controversial decisions today, you'll instead read about the Giants' defense and the poor decision-making of Jason Campbell. Mission accomplished for Zorn: he avoids blame while losing, building his resume for his next position (I guarantee he'll be fired after this season.)

What was Zorn waiting for? What did he think the odds were that the Giants would simply self-destruct, and give up two TDs on interceptions or punt returns? Surely they had to be less than the odds of making it on fourth-and-one? And so what if you fail, when you're losing 99% of the time you punt anyway? (I've linked this before, but in case you forgot: the numbers back me up.

Bill Parcells, widely recognized as one of the greatest coaches of all time, would have gone for it. Bill Belichick would have gone for it. The last year Parcells coached, the three coaches that went for it the most were Parcells, Belichick, and Cowher - all Hall-of-Fame types. But the average coach is more concerned about the perceptions of his future employers than about winning. There's just no other explanation for this cowardice.

I am confident that if you kept everything else constant, as a coach you could increase your winning percentage by as much as two games/year, by simply punting less. I keep waiting for a young coach to come into the league and play to win, but I'm disappointed again and again.


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