The general bravado of so many NFL head coaches seems to fade pretty quickly when forced to decide whether or not their offense can gain a yard or two in a critical situation.
Take Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, for instance, whose Steelers — once down 28-0 in the first quarter of Sunday’s wild card round showdown with Cleveland — were trailing by just 12 at the start of the fourth quarter when faced with a 4th-and-1 from their own 46-yard-line.
Facing that short of a distance from near midfield, the math suggests going for it in a tie game in the first quarter. Faced with the same decision while trailing by two scores in the final frame? Slam dunk. You go for it. It’s one yard. Instead, Tomlin took a delay of game before punting away.
Cleveland, whose offense had shredded Pittsburgh all game, scored a touchdown on its ensuing possession to all but seal the outcome.
Earlier Sunday, Tennessee faced a 4th-and-2 from Baltimore’s 40-yard line while trailing 17-13 with 10 minutes to play. Down in the fourth quarter and facing the prospect of having just one more offensive possession, and armed with a quarterback who completed 69% of his passes Sunday, the decision wasn’t difficult — yet Titans coach Mike Vrabel made the wrong one.
The Titans punted, the Ravens went down and kicked a field goal on its next drive. Tennessee then threw an interception and didn’t touch the ball again after that.
After the game, Tomlin noted his defense had strung a few stops together and he wanted to “keep the momentum going in terms of field positioning.”
Vrabel told reporters he thought his defense, ranked 28th in yards allowed this season and 24th in scoring, was “playing well” and that he felt like the Titans could “play the field position game” because his defense would get another stop.
Too many NFL coaches treat field position as a form of valuable currency, even though it can change in an instant. The 34 yards Pittsburgh gained in field position by punting evaporated four players later. The same was true for Tennessee.
The math on those plays is simple: Go for it and get the first down and your odds of winning vastly improve. Punting is mere percentage points better than failing on fourth down. It’s not rocket science. It’s not complicated.
NFL coaches like to talk about being the aggressors and setting the tone in a game, and fortune often does favor the bold. So, why when push comes to shove does passive seem to be the game plan? You know what’s more valuable than field position? Possession. It’s helpful to keep it. You don’t do that by punting at every opportunity.
Beyond situational cowardice, general game plans are often too conservative. Look at Minnesota. The Vikings offense was largely excellent this season, yet Minnesota still finished just 11th in points per game (26.9) because even with a capable quarterback and two elite wide receivers, Mike Zimmer still preferred the team hand the ball off more often than not.
That used to be Buffalo’s game plan, too. The Bills had a strong defense and relied on that and a running game to earn wins. Then they got Stefon Diggs and switched to a pass-heavy attack that finished third in the NFL in yards per game. Quarterback Josh Allen is now an MVP candidate. Clinging to a lead in the fourth quarter of its wild card game against Indy, Buffalo kept throwing and scored 10 more points to help put the game away.
Cleveland put Pittsburgh away Sunday not by running the ball and trying to drain every second from the clock, but rather by keeping the ball in the hands of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who continued to pile up points in a 48-37 win.
Be aggressive. Set the tone.
Perhaps the conservative play calling from NFL coaches in key situations comes from a fear of looking silly and taking a risk that will leave others questioning your decisions. But, by now, as the viewing public has become more knowledgeable to numbers and situations; they know the opposite is true.
Losing doesn’t necessarily make you look bad, but looking afraid to try to win does.