You’re Not Smarter Than the Coach

The Monday after Super Bowl XLIX was an interesting day. The second day of February was an opportunity for people from all walks of life, from rabid New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks supporters to casual football fans to people who only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, to proclaim that they’re smarter than an NFL head coach.

What prompted this undoubtedly nationwide phenomenon was the second-down pass attempt by the Seahawks at the New England one-yard line that was intercepted by Patriots reserve cornerback Malcolm Butler. This play occurred with twenty-six seconds remaining in the game and the score 28-24 in favor of New England. The Seahawks had to score a touchdown.

This post will not be an attempt to explain the thought process behind this play. Other writers and experts have already explained the multitude of factors that influenced Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to call for a pass attempt in that situation.

Instead it will be an attempt to quell the overconfidence that Super Bowl viewers felt in the wake of that momentous game-shifting play. At your office, in the break room, around the dinner table, at the bar, or on social media, you assuredly were exposed at some point to the opinions of casual football fans regarding this play.

Here’s the thing: They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Even if they’re right, even if the play call was a bad decision, these people can’t thoroughly and accurately elucidate why it was a bad decision. The pass was intercepted, the Patriots took over on downs, and won the biggest sporting event of the year at the last second. “What a stupid call!” cried millions as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The magnitude of this scenario and the import of the event itself elicits opinion from all but the most uninformed of viewers.

But can these people explain why the thought process behind it was flawed? Probably not. Pete Carroll tried to enlighten us as to he and his staff’s thinking at that critical moment. He mentions having one timeout remaining. He mentions a potential replay on a previous catch by wide receiver Jermaine Kearse. He mentions the game clock. He says that his team would probably have time to run three more plays. He talks about personnel (offense having one back, one tight end, and three receivers while the Patriots sent out their goalline defenders to stop a potential rushing play) and the perceived advantage by the Seahawks based on this matchup. (Patriots coach Bill Belichick denied being at a disadvantage).

He goes on to explain that he wanted to preserve play-calling multiplicity for third and fourth down if they had needed those downs to score. They sought to do this by calling for a pass on second down in order to save a little time on the game clock (rushing plays take more time than passes). Had they rushed on second down and not scored (as was the case on first down), according to Carroll, then they would have had to throw the ball on third and fourth down. New England would have known this and sent personnel on the field to stop a pass attempt.

In essence, Carroll was trying to catch New England off-guard and also trying to use the game clock to his team’s advantage. We all know what happened. It didn’t work.

But to the casual football fan, it was a terrible decision.

Okay, casual football fan: Detail a better method for trying to win this game. Be sure to include in your counsel clock strategy, timeout usage, your knowledge of personnel groupings and matchups for these two teams, your insights following your film study of the Patriots defense, and your game plan which included analyzing the Patriots defensive tendencies on down-and-distance at the goalline from the 2014 season. Maybe even include some analytics as many teams are now using advanced statistics to evaluate in-game decisions. Oh, are any of your players hurt during this game? How about previous injuries? What have the trainers told you about any potential injuries to players you might need?

Now give us your play call, which obviously includes personnel, protection, motion and shifts, audibles, quarterback reads and route combination (if you’re wanting to call a different pass).

Since the vast majority of Super Bowl viewers thought the Seahawks should have run the ball on this play, tell us what kind of rushing play you would choose. Would you pull a guard and play power? Maybe pull a tackle or the center? Or just have the line drive block? Would you have a fullback? If so, would he carry the ball? Or would Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks starting tailback? Would you run an inside zone? Outside zone? Would you give the QB a read-option? If so, would you add in a packaged pass option? How about a naked bootleg and hope your QB can run it in himself?

We can keep going if you want. Let’s say you do score. Take us through how you would manage the kickoff following the point-after attempt. What defensive personnel would you put on the field knowing that New England needed to throw the ball down the field to score a game-winning touchdown (a field goal would do no good as its a four-point game)? What coverages would you run? Would you blitz the Patriots QB Tom Brady? If so, how?

All of these were running through Pete Carroll’s mind in the span of probably one minute. Obviously the interception made much of this moot. But the fact remains that its his job to consider these myriad factors and make quick decisions with the Super Bowl on the line. Careers will be defined by your decision. Sports history will be written with your decision. Hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide hang in the balance as you have seconds to make arguably the biggest decision of your career.

Could you do better than Pete Carroll at this very moment?

What if the tables were turned?

Say you’re an auditor for a large company and you royally muck up the company’s tax filing with one small but significant oversight.  Would you want a bunch of guys in visors exclaiming the stupidity of your mistake all over social media when they themselves probably couldn’t do long division?

Imagine you’re a registered nurse who works in a hospital’s intensive care unit. During a particularly stressful shift you accidentally administer too much insulin to a diabetic patient. The patient has a seizure and lapses into a coma. A momentary misjudgement resulted in severe harm to a patient and you’re devastated and afraid that your job is in jeopardy. Would you appreciate guys like this going on and on about your medication error on TV, in print, and on the web? What if these same people have never heard of a gallbladder and can’t name three bones in the human body?

The point is that lambasting a coaching decision in a game is human nature when that decision ends up costing the team victory. But to proclaim the coach incompetent, a fool, a person too stupid to have his job, based on one wrong decision is asinine. Especially when that coach, Pete Carroll, was at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, Super Bowl champion, one year prior and has a track record of success.

And to castigate the decision itself when you can’t explain the thought processes behind it is even more ridiculous. Football fans thought Carroll should have called for a running play to Lynch on second down. But most don’t even consider the game clock as a factor when in actuality it was probably by far the largest factor in Carroll’s decision making.

In the end, the call had a disastrous outcome for the Seahawks. Carroll’s explanation makes at least some sense and if you disagree with it, as most fans do, then you should be able to reasonably articulate why if you’re hell-bent on letting loose the profanity and personal attacks against Carroll, his coaching staff, and his players. Most Super Bowl viewers who rebuked Carroll probably didn’t even know how many cornerbacks the Patriots had on the field for this play.

Casual fans only show their ignorance of the game and it’s strategy in moments like this. In sports, when tide-altering decisions affect games on such a scale that they enter the public consciousness and become popular topics of discussion, the more appropriate, and certainly more rewarding, way to respond would be to educate oneself on the situation and the thought processes behind it.

That way, when you’re ready to interject your opinion on the big game, you can come off as having a grasp of the sport’s inner workings, it’s schemes, rules, and structures, instead of sounding like another in a long line of mindless spectators.



Cheat to Win: Should We Dismiss the Success of Athletes and Teams Who Break the Rules?

On the heels of Super Bowl XLIX, which saw the New England Patriots defeat the Seattle Seahawks to capture their fourth championship in fourteen years, many have accused the Patriots organization of perpetuating a “culture of cheating” that has allegedly helped fuel their success.

In the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, even the most casual football fans were inundated by mainstream, alternative, and social media alike with accusations and stories of the Patriots playing the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts with underinflated footballs, a scandal that quickly snowballed into “DeflateGate.”

The NFL has launched an investigation into the matter and time will tell (or it might not) if the Patriots are culpable in attempting to create an unfair advantage against the Colts. Underinflated footballs are easier for quarterbacks to grip and throw and are also easier to catch, especially in cold weather. The league mandates that all game balls be inflated to within a narrow pressure range.

Never mind the fact that the Patriots beat the Colts by more than six touchdowns; never mind that New England looked like far and away the best team in the conference throughout the latter portion of the season, continuing a decade-plus run of dominance almost unparalleled in modern professional sports, every football fan outside the greater Boston area seemed to assume the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl by cheating.

New England has been accused of breaking the rules before. In 2007, the team was accused and later found guilty of video recording an opponent’s defensive coaches signaling in plays, a practice the NFL explicitly forbids. This morphed into “Spygate” and resulted in the team losing its first round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and being levied a quarter million dollar fine. (Head coach Bill Belichick was fined a half million dollars). This scandal coincided with the Patriots appearance in Super Bowl XLII on the heels of a record-setting undefeated regular season (they would lose to the New York Giants). Even though New England lost, many, including head coaches current and former, now declare their success tainted due to Spygate.

In fact, some NFL insiders believe that the Patriots indeed do operate using a “culture” of cheating. Players have accused them of being serial rule breakers; some even as far back as the 2001 season, which marked the first of their six Super Bowl appearances under Belichick. Coaches from rival teams have stated that many of the Patriot’s indiscretions haven’t been made public but yet are common knowledge among league personnel. Former Patriots employees who have left the organization have corroborated some of these claims, including Eric Mangini, the former Patriots defensive coordinator and ex-Jets and Browns head coach who initially accused Belichick and co. of taping his team’s defensive signals.

Add it all up and it seems difficult to defend New England’s innocence. Logic would tell most sports fans that this team’s run of success is tainted, that its victories should be recorded with an asterisk. Let’s stop right here for a minute. The New England Patriots since Belichick took over are one of the most successful organizations in all of professional sports; few individuals or teams (Jordan’s Bulls, Torre’s Yankees, mid-2000’s Jimmie Johnson) can match the Patriots’ run of success. As time goes on, Belichick’s Patriots will be remembered as a dynasty, a team operating at a level above its competition. Many would argue that they have greatly benefited from bending, tip-toeing over, and even blatantly disregarding the rules.

Maybe all of this is true. Maybe the Patriots have been a rogue organization engaging in illegal tactics to win football games. Maybe they do seek to gain any unfair competitive advantage they can over their opponents. If this happens to be the case, should we as football fans dismiss the team’s accomplishments over the past fifteen years on the basis of competitive disadvantage?

No way.

Regardless of if Tom Brady, the Patriot’s quarterback during this stretch of time in question, and the Patriots coaches knew some of their opponent’s defensive signals, and thus some of the defensive coverages, he still had to adjust the protection from his offensive line, audible to a play likely to work against the expected coverage, manage the play clock, take the snap, and complete the pass. In other words, the “cheating” was only a piece of the puzzle. Brady and the other ten players on offense still had to do their jobs. And they had to do consistently them at a high level, play after play, game after game, year after year to attain this kind of sustained success.

Take a second-string quarterback and give him the same information gleaned from the Spygate video tapes and put him on the field. Will he lead his team to playoff berths? Unlikely. Brady is a rare talent and is firmly entrenched in the discussion of one of the best professional football players ever. All of these instances of cheating, alleged and proven, distract from this fact.

The same holds true for underinflated footballs. Sure, they might be easier to catch, but the quarterback still has to read the defense, identify the open receiver amidst a sea of linemen and pass rushers and he has to make that throw on time and in a location where the receiver can make the catch. Put an offense from a 5-11 team on the field against the Colts in that AFC title game, deflate their footballs to whatever illegal specification they wish, and they will probably still struggle to win the game.

The point is that blanket statements about how cheating nullifies success detract greatly from everything else an athlete or team does to win the game. Regardless of the competitive advantage that’s obtained, if there even is one, there are still a multitude of things to be done in concert for that athlete or team to be successful.

Take, for another example, the success of NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, the winner of five consecutive Sprint Cup championships and a sixth in 2013. Johnson’s cars have failed inspections performed by NASCAR officials at least five times due to unapproved modifications. His crew chief, Chad Knaus, who has been at his helm for the entirety of Johnson’s historic run, has been penalized at least nine times for violating rules on car specifications. Some fans have speculated that NASCAR deliberately turns a blind eye to Johnson’s and Knaus’ bending of the rules. Others wonder if only divine intervention can explain Johnson’s dominance.

Just as with the case with the Patriots, there is much more to Johnson’s string of success than what are mostly minor technical infractions. He still had to drive the damn racecars. And drive them well, race after race, year after year, with Chad Knaus directing the pit stops, coordinating the fuel and tire strategies and car adjustments, and seeing that each week Johnson’s cars had high-performing engines and were tuned to provide maximize performance for a given racetrack.

Many fans have understandably grown frustrated with Johnson’s dominance as it has happened concurrently with a multitude of cheating allegations over the years. But these fans would be remiss to write off the career of one of the sport’s greatest drivers due to some seemingly minor rules infractions. It takes a tremendous amount of driving talent and technical expertise, not to mention some teamwork amongst a large and diverse racing team, to consistently win racing championships. The violations Johnson and Knaus have been accused of probably aided their success only a miniscule amount. It’s not like Johnson would have been at the back of the pack had it not been for an illegal fender or unapproved seatbelt.

There are endless examples that could aid our discussion but the following quote from former Phillies and Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is illustrative. With regards to the seemingly rampant cheating in baseball, particularly the alleged egregious use of anabolic steroids, Schilling remarked, “There isn’t a team in the last twenty years that has won clean.”

Perhaps he’s talking about his own Boston Red Sox, whom he said nudged him towards using performance-enhancing substances to recover from a pitching injury in 2008. A few years later, new allegations of Red Sox pitchers skirting the rules would surface. These allegations can be added to the growing mountain of other cheating accusations that have been made against baseball players over the years.

If we dig deeper across all sports we can find alleged examples numbering in the hundreds of teams and players infringing on competition rules. Recruiting violations in college football. Trained lip-readers spying on NFL coaches. Salary cap violations. Paying off referees. Performance enhancing substances. Racecars sitting too low. Blood doping. Cash payments for players who injure opponents on the field.

The list can go on. The point is that if we dismissed the accomplishments of every athlete or team on the basis of an alleged instance of cheating, we probably wouldn’t have many sports accomplishments to celebrate. The feats of incredible athletes would be erased from the record books. Cinderella stories could become irrelevant. Dominant teams would be forgotten. Entire dynasties might as well have never taken the field.

If we want to see an even competition between two equally matched opponents with no possible hint of an unfair advantage for one side, we can tune into the next televised spelling bee or chess match. But if we want to watch and celebrate true competitive drive, we’re going to have to tolerate a little rule bending from time to time. That’s the nature of sports. Filled with paranoid, hyper-competitive individuals who often obsess to the point of sickness over every loss, it’s understandable that we will see some occasional underhandedness in the pursuit of victory.

Don’t like it? Don’t watch the games. Don’t read the stories or play the fantasy sports. Don’t purchase the merchandise. And don’t incessantly ostracize the accused rule breakers and deny their accomplishments. It takes much, much more than a little deception to win championships at the professional level in any sport. By dismissing the success of every alleged cheater, you’re only showing your ignorance and spite as a fan.

So the next time a story breaks about, say, a Tour de France winner caught doping, just remember that although he may have cheated, the riders behind him were probably cheating as well. And despite all of this, he still had suffer to through two thousand miles over three weeks, fending off waves of competitors and his own pain and fatigue. He still had to ride the damn bike.