Context Is Everything

Obviously, over the past couple of days, you’ve likely heard or read plenty about Broncos’ head coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to go for two at the end of the Chargers’ game. Much of it revolves around the testicular fortitude necessary to make such a call (true, because Les Miles thinks that was ballsy) and the rest is about the supposed “offensive genius” of the Rat Fink (which I would argue, went out when John Elway retired.)

I am not arguing that Shanahan isn’t a very good to great coach.  The majority of Super Bowl winning coaches fall in that category, particularly ones who win back to back — no matter the great talent level, coach input, motivation, and game planning must count for something. He is very good with good personnel on offense and knows how to identify it. (At this point, he looks very savvy for going after Jay Cutler when fans in 2006 were wondering why he didn’t go higher in the draft for Matt Leinart or Vince Young if he was going to trade up.)

And that call made sense. If your defense is bleeding, having given up 28 points in the second half, it’s a much smarter call to take a shot at winning the game right there and then rather than risk the capriciousness of a coin flip in overtime, where you may not get the ball. At that point, the team that wins the coin flip wins the game.  While I don’t like citing Easterbrook too much, if the percentages are so good for two-point conversions, coaches should be going for it more often.

But neither Easterbrook nor Michael Silver nor any analyst can really go into the reserve that allows Shanahan to make a call like that, because it’s not something you can call and confirm.

Fans of the Denver Broncos know Mike Shanahan will never be fired. He and owner Pat Bowlen are much too close and on the same page for that. This is the context that defines everything about the Broncos’ organization right now. He has an unusually long leash because of the back-to-back Super Bowl wins, but the last decade or so has been frustrating for the fanbase, watching him try to make consistent winners out of Brian Griese and Jake Plummer. Losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots in the 2005 AFC Championship bought him more time, but in the “what have you done for me lately?” environment that is the NFL, even two Super Bowls would have put someone on the hot seat after last season’s 7-9.

But even if there is some spectacular collapse upcoming (and I don’t see it; they might miss the playoffs but they won’t finish under .500), the Rat Fink isn’t going anywhere.

You can write all you like about the fact that the team is on what appears to be its 4th D-coordinator in as many years (Shanny fired Jim Bates after last season), it doesn’t matter.  Shanahan controls the Broncos’ football operation and is one of the last two coaches in the league who has such status, Bill Belichick having similar, if not nominal control, over the Patriots. He came in on the wave of GM-coaches in the 90s, gave up his personnel responsibilities as GM nominally to Ted Sundquist, and then fired him after last season’s under-500 finish.

He has taken risks on character cases (Maurice Clarett and Marcus Thomas), failed to find a coordinator who could bring a consistent defensive identity to the team, and had offensive fits and starts when deciding to yank Plummer in favor of Cutler in the middle of the 2006 season.

Yet he can still make that two-point call.  An NFL coach is, by nature, very conservative because he is all about trying to keep his job and minimize the blame that can be placed on him. Thus, the point after and overtime is the safe play — if the coin flip doesn’t go your way and the other team wins in overtime, the fault doesn’t lie quite so much with you. (Never understood this logic personally, if you can’t get a defense good enough to stop a team, isn’t that still the head coach’s fault?)

But, if you have an NFL coach with assured job security like Shanahan — the right call becomes the easy, no-brainer call.  It’s not a genius call — just the call of someone who knows his situation and can assume that risk.

6 Responses

  1. This was an excellent column, and kind of sums up a lot of problems in the NFL. Sort of like how the world of American business expects and demands big quarterly gains or your stock price plummets, and the world of American television demands a smash hit within 2 episodes or you’re canceled, I think the results-now-or-you’re-fired culture in much of the NFL makes the kind of coaching that would allow a struggling team to strengthen its fundamentals over a period of several seasons and eventually build a long period of dominance almost impossible.

    Maybe it’s a chicken-egg question — are the NFL’s long-tenured coaches safe because they’re winners, or do they become winners by getting enough rein to develop and execute a long-term strategy? — but I’d argue it over a beer.

  2. TMQ already has covered this exact point for the last several years about fraidy-cat coaching decisions. Perhaps you’re not familiar with the work of Mr. Easterbrook?

  3. Or, instead of over-analyzing, you can also look at the fact that Denver was down one after the TD. If they get the 2 pt. conversion, they win by one, if not, they lose by one.

    Point spread: Denver +1.5.

    Sometimes the real facts are right in front of us, and we overlook them. The only “genius” in this decision is that they were playing Russian Roulette with the spread if they went to OT.

    If you don’t think this happens, think again.

  4. Lar Mul – if I’m not familiar with him, then why would I cite him? I know he’s implied and written about this, but it’s funny that he won’t say it now about Shanny’s job security specifically. This piece had been formulating in my head since Sunday night, and I probably should have written it before Tuesday.

    BK – I’ll consider that when there is a coach who gives a shit about the spread. Winning, sure. I don’t think they care by how much.

  5. 100% correct – if only because I have been making this point for the last 2 years. Are you going to be in a better position to win the game in OT than to be on the 2 yd line? Coaches go for the tie because they are too chicken-shit to go for the win. Don’t tell me that “WE PLAY TO WIN” when coaches go for the tie and OT everytime. As a Raider fan I dislike Shanahan immensely, but I had to applaud his decision. Right call – every time.

  6. Now pls explain to me what a call in the 2nd game of the season has to do with job security. for someone who claims to be a Broncos fan you are pretty much clueless. You dont like the guy and that has been evident for a while, fine. But too think he made his choice because he knows he has job security is stupid. He made the choice before the drive even started. I will bet his thinking is that if he goes to OT he has a chance of never seeing the football. This way he put the chances of winning or losing in his offenes hand. Genius probably not, gutsy and having faith in his offence definately.BTW WTF does drafting Clarett and Thomas (who is producing) have to do with going for 2?

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