At the beginning of the bowl season, I wrote about why bowl games are so great: They encourage more coaches to be uninhibited in their decision making, compared to the regular season. There’s nothing about that piece I’d want to walk back or retract, but there was and is something incomplete about it: I should have added a little more about how coaches should always be willing to be more aggressive on fourth downs and in other key situations if it’s in their best interests. I did not emphasize that point enough. The bowls do liberate some coaches, but that doesn’t mean the regular season should continue to keep coaches wrapped in conceptual and strategic straitjackets.
This enduring problem doesn’t just exist in college football. It is sadly alive and well in the NFL, with Green Bay Packer head coach Mike McCarthy offering a vivid illustration in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks. This is a college football site, so it’s not as though we’re going to shift our focus to the Super Bowl in the coming weeks — we won’t. However, it’s worth looking at a rather unique pro football game and using it to see if we can learn anything about college football. The NFL and collegiate versions are different on a number of levels, but to a certain extent, football is football and coaching as coaching. Can’t we derive some lessons from Packers-Seahawks that can enrich the college football experience in one way or another?
That’s what this piece is about, specifically in connection to the realm of gameday decisions made by coaches in various situations.
Let’s start with the general points of agreement among football fans of all kinds — those who love the pro game, those who love the college game, and those who love both equally. We’ll then work our way toward the more contentious aspects of this debate and unpack the NFC Championship Game as an instructive example.
First, the higher and more evenly distributed level of talent on an NFL roster compared to a college roster makes it harder to go for fourth downs of longer distances if there isn’t a hugely acute need to have to convert that fourth down. You can reliably trust that on fourth and two, for instance, it’s going to be harder to move around an NFL front seven compared to a college front seven. In college ball, a triple-option play or zone read on fourth and two can fake out the outside linebacker or the supporting safety, who might not be NFL-caliber. In the NFL, it’s going to be harder to run that kind of play.
Triple-option/wishbone/veer quarterbacks generally don’t make the NFL, and they certainly don’t stay in the NFL. We’ve seen how long Pat White and other dazzling college quarterbacks with similar skill sets lasted in the pros. You just can’t run certain sets of plays with any consistency in the NFL. College ball features so many more play-calling choices for numerous reasons, but the talent on a typical NFL roster is the foremost one.
Second, field goal kicking can be trusted in the NFL to an extent it can’t be trusted in college. No football fan would dispute this. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this hashtag. The reality that three points are much more bankable in the NFL certainly makes it easier for pro coaches to collect triples and move on with their lives. College coaches will sometimes go for it on fourth down in scoring territory because they can’t trust their kickers.
Third, several factors make the NFL and college endgames very different, chiefly: the two-minute warning (NFL); first downs stopping the clock (college); and year-round training (NFL) versus limited practice time (college). No one would disagree with the claim that these nuances shift expectations of what is prudent in many games, especially in relationship to the use of timeouts and onside kicks.
Yet, we can look at these three points mentioned above and STILL realize that football is ultimately football and coaching is coaching, no matter what the other rules are. The football community is divided on what a good decision really is, and such a division typically arises from a disagreement on WHY a decision is or isn’t good. This is, like so many other things in life, not a failure of thought so much as an honest portrait of how human beings are different, and are rooted in mindsets that — once entrenched — are hard to undo.
Why did Mike McCarthy kick all those early field goals against Seattle on Sunday? Whether you agree with his decisions or not, let’s simply identify his thought process first: Collect points. Kick early, go for it late, as Gregg Easterbrook of the Tuesday Morning Quarterback says. That’s one of his supposedly immutable laws of NFL football.
Yet, in his most recent TMQ column for ESPN, Easterbrook emphasized how wrong it is to not go for it on fourth and short. His “immutable law” is… well… mutable.
That’s as good an example as one will find of how divided football fans are about the eternal tension of “boldness versus caution” in situations across the spectrum. Easterbrook’s own mind has been divided over time — maybe he’s evolved to shed the notion that “kick early, go for it late” is an immutable law, but the point remains that he so ardently defended one position for many years, only to then take up the opposite position this week, in the aftermath of Packers-Seahawks. Give Easterbrook credit for having an open mind, but his lack of consistent clarity shows how tangled this larger topic really is for football fans… and why the NFC Championship Game is a laboratory worth exploring for college football people.
Why is strategy such a point of contention for football fans and even commentators? It’s much more settled and established for those in the analytics crowd, who advocate the bold play a lot more often; however, a lot of veteran TV analysts reflexively lean to the cautious approach. NFL coaches, as a group, certainly lean to the cautious side; Bill Belichick stands out from the crowd in his decisions, which is a rather spectacular reality when you stop to consider that he is one of the three or four best coaches in NFL history, and very possibly the best coach not named Lombardi.
How do these disconnects occur?
As stressed above, this is a division of mindsets. Let’s explain:
For some, “security” is found in the attainment of three points. This is Mike McCarthy for you. “I have three points safely tucked in my pocket” is McCarthy’s way of thinking ahead and plotting several moves in advance. Those points are, for him and the many who agree with him, a safety net for a later point in a game.
For those who disagree with McCarthy and his line of thinking, the “security” issue is flipped upside-down. Getting three points instead of none might lead to short-term security, rooted in the knowledge of having something to show for a drive, something which tangibly shows up on the scoreboard. However, those who disagree with McCarthy frame “security” in a larger context:
If you collect lots of field goals now, a touchdown or two by the opposition could create a very insecure scoreboard reality later in the game. Decisions shouldn’t just value “points or no points,” but the tradeoffs between the risk taken in the pursuit of a maximum number of points, and the cautiousness in securing four fewer points while also conceding a measure of field position as well.
Both sides are thinking ahead in their own way, but the points of emphasis are different, because certain terms are framed differently.
Consider another similar example: a disagreement over the nature and meaning of failure.
McCarthy and anyone else who thinks along the lines he used on Sunday in Seattle would regard a scoreless drive as a failure. Getting three points, for the McCarthy camp, was certainly not a complete success or the most desired outcome, but it wasn’t total failure. What’s very likely a part of the calculus for McCarthy and other cautious coaches/fans/commentators is that the letdown caused by a fourth-down failure is seen as an added manifestation of risk, something to be avoided. Kicking the short field goal on fourth and one might not be satisfying, but it deprives the opposing defense of a shutout on a given drive and the crowd-boosting energy that could generate.
For the analytics crowd and those who strenuously disagreed with McCarthy, “failure” represents the inability to find daggers, to make plays with a maximum of value and consequence as they relate to the scoreboard. “Failure” is found in the combination of not scoring the maximum number of points while also conceding field position as a result of kicking a field goal inside the opponent’s 3. Big-boy games against elite opponents are won by scoring sevens, not threes. This is, for instance, the very reason why Oregon and Mark Helfrich were wise to go for it on fourth down and goal from the 3 against Ohio State, and foolish to kick a subsequent field goal in a similar position: Ohio State was likely to score more sevens, and any true forward-looking posture would have taken this into account. (Helfrich went “full NFL” later in that same game by punting when down multiple scores with over eight minutes left. Seattle’s Pete Carroll did the same thing by punting when down 19-7 with roughly seven minutes left in the NFC title game. More on Carroll in a bit.)
You can see what’s at work here: Notions such as “security,” “long-term interest,” “value,” and “failure” are all framed in contrasting ways. It’s not as though the competing camps don’t value different things; they simply have different ideas of what many shared goals should look like.
Let’s pivot from Mike McCarthy to Pete Carroll to nail down a few final points about the unending divisions among football people as they relate to the college and pro games, magnified by the NFC Chanmpionship Game.
Rarely was the disconnect between football’s two worldviews more evident than on the night of the 2006 Rose Bowl between Carroll’s USC Trojans and the Texas Longhorns.
I vividly recall Ron Higgins of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal eviscerating Carroll for his decision to go for it on fourth and two near midfield in the final minutes. Texas stopped LenDale White, giving Vince Young half a field, which he predictably covered with ease to win the national title. Higgins and many, many others thought Carroll was foolishly extravagant. They thought that a refusal to punt was pure foolishness; the response was rooted in decades of old-time SEC football, flowing from the Bear Bryant/Vince Dooley/Pat Dye schools of thought.
What Higgins and others of like mind failed to grasp is that the world of the Bear, Dooley, and Dye had long since ceased to exist. Football had stopped becoming a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust sport. The 2006 Rose Bowl was itself a testament to such a reality. That second half was pure Star Wars, with blockbuster action and explosive plays all over the field, made by ridiculously talented athletes.
In 2005, Carroll and Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis both went for it early and often — with long distances to make — in their epic clash in South Bend. That game was arguably the best regular season contest in college football history — it certainly belongs in the discussion — but for the Old Guard, a new culture of “going for it” was simply not something that could be intellectually allowed. Nevertheless, Carroll — at USC — showed that while players will often and unavoidably make decisions look good or bad, it is just as true that a coach’s decisions can transform the psychology of players, making them more attentive and motivated, such that they perform better when it counts.
What makes Carroll’s tenure in Seattle hard to easily categorize is that while he values a culture of boldness, his team — so strong on defense and so comparatively weak on offense — is built in the Old Guard way in this new age of offense. Carroll’s Seahawks are designed to win by not making mistakes, by avoiding problems. This is why they almost lost, in fact — the mistakes flowed like a river after being kept under wraps the previous several weeks. McCarthy was, in a certain sense, making sure each Seattle mistake led to Green Bay points. From that standpoint, it becomes a little harder to blame McCarthy for his choices on Sunday (but only a little, not a lot).
It is therefore not a surprise that Carroll’s decisions painted a picture of internal conflict on Sunday. His punt down 12 with seven minutes left (mentioned above in a comparison with Oregon in the national title game) was pure NFL. Yet, his fake field goal and his onside kick were decisions made in a spirit of doing everything possible to win.
Adherents of boldness in decision making will say that Carroll’s moves were vindicated, and that he got away with his fourth-quarter punt. Backers of Mike McCarthy will point out that whenever a coach can maneuver a situation toward a “we recover the onside kick, we win the game” scenario, he should do so… and it should be considered good coaching. McCarthy’s critics will respond with the valid claim that had Green Bay recovered the onside kick, it still would have had to get one first down to fully seal the game, instead of giving Seattle the ball back with around one minute left and no timeouts. McCarthy critics will also add that while draining two of Seattle’s timeouts following Russell Wilson’s final interception near the five-minute mark of regulation was smart, the third-down play on that Packer possession should have been a pass attempt by Aaron Rodgers. There was a balance to be struck on that possession, but McCarthy — after draining two of Carroll’s timeouts — plainly chose not to pursue a first down. That choice, certainly in principle if not also in its actual effects, opened the door for Seattle to get the ball back, score… and at least have a shot at the onside kick which changed the course of the NFL season.
You will notice that this essay has not focused on whether Mike McCarthy’s full approach was right or wrong. The focus has instead been on explaining why — and how — football people disagree so deeply on questions of security, failure, momentum, long-term interests, and various other concepts that all inform gameday decisions. A few of McCarthy’s moves (not throwing on third down with under five minutes left, up 12) were, if not indisputably wrong, almost certainly flawed. Other moves could be defended in a larger context.
What I hope you’ve gained from this extended piece is an appreciation for why the other side thinks the way it does. You have your own strongly-held views on this topic, I’m sure. This isn’t an attempt to change your mind. It IS, however, an attempt to make sure that various dimensions of football strategy and endgame management are fully thought about, weighed, and processed.
Whether you agree with him or not, you’d have to think that Mike McCarthy needs to give fresh consideration to the choices he made on Sunday in Seattle.
All of us who love football — whether it’s the pro game or the college version — could stand to do the same.
Let the conversation continue.