Thursday, October 1, 2009

Two mistakes

Couple games this past weekend where coaches made the same tactical error.

First the Redskins game. Skins had the ball
4th and goal at the 1 with 7 mins left in a scoreless 1st quarter. Gotta kick the FG, right? No! Zorn chooses to run it in. They handoff to Portis and send him to the left, and he gets stuffed.

That result was bad enough for Washington, but then on the ensuing possession the Lions drove 99 yards for a TD to take the lead. That's at least a 10-pt swing. Skins went on to lose by 5: a FG would have made a big difference in this game. At the very least, the Skins final desperate drive could have played out differently if they only needed 3 to win, as opposed to needing a TD.

(Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell wrote that Zorn made another mistake that gave away points. The Lions failed to convert a 3rd-and-3, and were left facing the choice of either punting or attempting a 50+ yd FG. But Zorn accepted a penalty, which gave the Lions 3rd-and-13. They converted, and went on to score a TD on the drive. That's +4 points to the Lions, in addition to the -3 to the Redskins from the non-FG attempt: more points than the final margin. Looks bad. But I don't agree that it's cut-&-dried that Zorn was wrong on that sequence. He said in the post-game that the Detroit kicker had made eight 50-yd FGs last season, so they were in range, and he felt he had to push them out of range. That makes sense. The decision would have looked better if the D had held on 3rd-and-13.)

Zorn's decision is in violation of a basic tenet of the game. Or at least I think it's a basic tenet: I picked it up from the first football book I ever read, John Madden's Hey, Wait a Minute, I Wrote a Book from 1984. Maybe Madden's opinions made too strong an impression on me, as they were the first I was exposed to. But this still makes sense to me 25 yrs later: the hardest, most important score to get in the game is the first one. Do anything to get that goose egg off the scoreboard. Madden wrote that it seemed to him that once you scored those first points, other points seemed to come more easily. You also never know how the game is going to play out: what kind of opportunities you are going to get, what kind of score will hold up. Take the first points. Later on you can get fancy, go for it on 4th down or try for two points or whatever the game situation dictates. But to start the game, break up the shutout by whatever means necessary. Get on the scoreboard. Take the points.

John Harbaugh faced a similar decision with about 11 mins to play in a scoreless first quarter. The Ravens had the ball 4th and about a half-yard to go between the Brownies 10 and 11 yard line. Harbaugh sent Joe Flacco on a QB sneak, picked up 2 yards, and the Ravens scored a TD on the next play. The rout was on.

Harbaugh's call seems like a mistake to me. Take the 1st points. Having said that, I think there are some mitigating factors that make Harbaugh's decision less of a mistake than Zorn's. A look at some these might be instructive. If nothing else, it will illumine just how bad Zorn's call was.

For one thing, the Ravens did a couple of things tactically to give themselves the best chance of converting the down.

• They ran up to the line quickly and got the play off fast – something like 20 seconds after the refs unpiled the previous play. The Browns may not have been ready; the CBS crew definitely wasn't, they barely cut to the live field in time for the snap.

• The Ravens did not mess around with their play-calling, they ran a QB sneak. I would like to see some stats on this: it seems to me the sneak is almost automatic in "and one" situations. (You associate the sneak with certain players. Was Steve McNair ever stopped on a sneak with one yard to go?) This has got to be the one play most likely to net you a single yard. Useless for anything else: but if you absolutely positively need one, the sneak will get that for you.

Another factor in comparing Harbaugh's decision with Zorn's is the roster. The Redskins O-line is famously weak. It's so bad that the Skins running game becomes one-dimensional, they tend to run it only to the left behind Chris Samuels and Derrick Dockery. If everyone in the stadium knows where the ball is going to go, that's got to stack the odds against the Redskins in that situation. By contrast, the Ravens have a very strong O-line. Last year they had the most productive running game in the NFL. They also have one of the most inventive running games. OC Cam Cameron will go with unbalanced lines, end-arounds, pulls & traps, straight ahead smash-mouth man blocking, option runs, fullback dives – everything. With the draft of Michael Oher this year, the Ravens O-line can go to either side behind powerful athletic run blocking. Which O-line would you rather run behind, if you absolutely positively had to pick up 1 yard?

(I was going to mention that the Ravens have a big strong QB in 6-6 Joe Flacco, as another advantage for this situation. But the Skins QB is a pretty big & strong guy himself. He & Flacco are both listed at 230, with Campbell only an inch shorter. Campbell is probably stronger than Flacco; and has more of a background as a runner, having played his college ball at Auburn. So wait a minute, doesn't it seem like Campbell would be a great candidate to run the sneak? Oh but Zorn didn't call the sneak, he handed it off.)

And of course, Harbaugh's decision worked. It's easy to criticize that as "results oriented thinking", but the NFL is a results-oriented league.

The differences between Harbaugh's and Zorn's situations is stark. Zorn's Redskins crumbled last season, going 2-6 to end the year, then began this season 1-1. They lost at the Giants, in a game that probably wasn't as close as the final score, and barely beat the Rams in week 2 on the strength of 3 FGs (no TDs). Zorn may have felt he needed to jump-start his offense, but now we can see clearly that the Redskins are a bad team, or on the edge of being a bad team, and more than anything they need to eke out a few wins. The Lions game for them was the first of 4 straight against winless opponents: time to right the ship.

On the other hand, Harbaugh might have a chance at a Super Bowl. There's no question about whether he has a good team: the question is how much they can achieve this season. The answer to that might depend on whether he can transform his team into an offensive juggernaut. That's clearly the task that Harbaugh & Cam Cameron have set themselves, judging by the play-calling thru three games: overturning 10 years of futility & frustration on the offensive side of the ball. Maybe part of that is taking some risks to get touchdowns in the red zone early in the season.

I still think you should take the points. But if this Ravens offense continues to grow, and it takes them to the promised land, then I might have to concede that Harbaugh knew what he was doing.


  1. I can't buy the argument that Baltimore somehow made less of a mistake than Washington. I might buy the argument that Washington's mistake was compounded by the playcall though. The main difference between the two plays is field position. Zorn is correct, teams don't go on 99 yard drives. It really doesn't happen, and as some pundit noted it really Didn't happen, excepting an additional mistake by Washington which you noted.

    I would say that either of those decisions would have been less harmful against better opponents. You want to get bad opponents down early, extinguish their hope and grind out the win. Oddly this is less important against good opponents since they will be less phased by a three point deficit.

    Of course if Washington or Baltimore had been playing one of the better teams I would have expected either to kick. Just more backward strategizing in the NFL.

  2. Maybe we're saying the same thing, if I say Washington made a "greater" mistake and you say Washington compounded their mistake with play-calling and Baltimore gave themselves the best chance of making their decision work. Your phrasing might be better, in separating out the decision to go for it vs what tactics to use.

    I will say Baltimore's mistake was less, for these 2 reasons. (1) Baltimore has a better team, and any gamble has better odds when your team is better. Or maybe the correct observation is that the delta between Baltimore and their opponent was greater than the delta in the Redskins game. (2) The reductionist argument that Zorn concluded that his team would get the first down, and he was wrong; while Harbaugh concluded his team would get the first, and he was right.

    Harbaugh's move still seems like a mistake to me, but less of a gamble than Zorn's. Not only is the Ravens offense better than the Redskins offense (and better relative to their competition); but if the team gets stuffed, the Ravens D is better than the Redskins D, while the Browns have scored like 1 TD in their past 9 games. It was somewhat less risky from every angle. Not sure how much: but somewhat.

    Was it really a mistake for Washington to accept that penalty? I didn't see that part of the game. Zorn said the Lions were in FG range and he felt he had to push them out. Were they?

    Disagree with your comment about better opponents. Any mistake is automatically more harmful against a better opponent. There's a smaller chance of getting away with anything, against a better opponent. You are both less likely to convert the down, and more likely to need the 3 pts later.

  3. Oh we really do think about it differently. Against better opponents you need to gamble more and execute your gambles. Against bad opponents the conservative approach is better.

    I really don't have any problem with Zorn's decision. The play call was awful, but even so Washington should reasonably expect to get the ball back in good field position. They turned the ball over on the flipping one yard line. Seriously, what's the odds of mounting a scoring drive from your own one, not to mention a drive for a TD? It has to be less than 10%. Maybe less than 2%.

  4. Was Zorn's decision to accept the penalty after the failed 4th-and-3, a mistake?

  5. That was the compounding error that I talked about (3rd and 3 but I knew what you meant). I understand the whole 'the other teams' kicker makes 50 yard figgies like nothing' argument, but Hanson also makes 55 yard figgies like nothing, so pushing the team back 10 yards and giving them a down only sort of pushes Detroit out of field goal range. Gaining 6-7 yards on 3rd and 13 is usually pretty easy and that's all Detroit really needed post penalty. Add in the non-zero chance that they get a first down - which they did - and you just have to force a fourth down decision there.

    I really think that was a much worse gamble than going for it on 4th and 1 on the 1.

    Yesterday in the Michigan game UM had 4th and inches at their own 17 and I totally would have supported them going for it. As it went the punter called his own fake (he has the authority and Rodriguez wasn't too upset about it after the game) and got stuffed.

    There isn't a great deal of difference between giving the opposing team 1st and 10 around midfield or first and 10 inside the 20, certainly not enough of a difference than to count on your offensive line to get a few inches of lean.

  6. Yeah. I think there's a certain area of the field, maybe around the opponent's 40 or so, where it makes sense to routinely go for it on a "reasonable" to-go, like 4th-&-3 or something. Unless your punter is a genius at pinning them, like say Feagles.


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