Caution will only get a coach so far in the NFL playoffs
Posted: Monday January 17, 2005 6:15PM; Updated: Thursday January 20, 2005 11:46AM
Herman Edwards' Jets had multiple opportunities to win at Pittsburgh in the divisional playoffs, but ended up losing 20-17 in overtime.
There are coaches who are always looking for ways to beat you, who will go for the throat. Give us 40 seconds and one time out and we'll put points on the board, is their philosophy. These coaches have Super Bowl rings.
There are coaches whose playbooks are filled with things that can go wrong. They have a fine working knowledge of the terrors of the game. They coach not to lose. Yet they lose, maybe not over the course of a season, or a career, but they lose the big ones. Let me tell you about this latter breed.
I am covering a Bills-Jets game in Shea Stadium in the 1970s. Buffalo is coached by Chuck Knox, very sound, very straight up by the book, owner of an illustrious career without a championship of any kind. The Bills are nursing a small lead into the game's closing moments. They're running the ball. It's a familiar script. Bills run, Jets stop it and call their time outs. Bills punt, Jets have one more shot and it's a thrilling finish.
All of a sudden, with the Jets out of time outs, Buffalo QB Joe Ferguson throws an eight-yard out and buys a first down. A couple of kneels later, it's over. I hunt down Ferguson in the Bills' locker.
"Whose call?" I asked him.
"Bench call," he says, cutting his eyes away from mine.
"Don't give me that," I say. "There's no way in the world Chuck Knox makes a call like that."
"OK, OK, it was mine, and I got in a hell of a lot of trouble for it," Ferguson says, "but don't tell anyone, OK?"
One night in San Francisco I was listening to John Brodie, the 49ers' great quarterback, telling old stories about the mentality of coaches -- particularly his own, Dick Nolan. Dick won his share, but never the big one.
"We're ahead by a couple of points," Brodie says, "and Coach Nolan tells me to run the ball and work the clock. Gene Washington comes back to the huddle and says, 'The corner will bite on the hitch and go.' I say, 'Let's do it.'
"So I throw it to Gene, and it's like stealing. Bam, six points. Game's over and everybody goes home. Coach Nolan bawled me out for it."
We saw this coaching mentality at work twice in the last two weeks. It's not often we get to see a coach have the chance to profit from a compatriot's awful mistake, but that's what happened. San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer blew the wild-card game to the Jets because he refused to take a chance and move his field goal kicker closer than a 40-yard attempt. Which sailed wide.
Buoyed up by this memory, Jets coach Herman Edwards found himself in exactly the same position in Pittsburgh, the situation bearing a spooky resemblance to the Schottenheimer affair. Only this time the kick was from 43 yards. And the kicker, Doug Brien, had already missed a 47-yarder, when, as he described it, "the wind seemed to push the ball down." And this was in a stadium so tricky to kick in that the longest field goal ever accomplished within its confines was 46 yards.
Nevertheless Edwards chose to shut the book at the page that read, "field goal, 43 yards." Even worse, he had his quarterback kneel on third down, lengthening the distance by a yard, in some goofy attempt to run off two more seconds. And, of course, we know what happened. The Steelers, not the Jets, are in the AFC title game.
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You cannot say people like Knox, Nolan and Edwards are wrong any more than you can say a person is wrong for voting a certain way. It's in their genes, their bloodlines. They can't help themselves. They coach not to lose. Edwards, no doubt, saw a sack, a fumble, an interception, as he visualized a serious attempt to advance the ball against the Steelers. What he didn't see was a couple of first downs and a gimme field goal of 30 yards or so.
No rule is absolute, and coaches such as this might catch a rare bit of fortune and actually come out on top in a big one, although the record is heavily against it. In college, it's a completely different story. Clunkers abound. Things are done by the book, but it is possible to win despite this if they can corral enough great athletes. You can beat people by your personnel, by the strength of your program. It's much tougher in the NFL.
If it comes down to late strategy, clever use of time outs, innovation or such, I really don't see how the Jets would beat anybody. At first I thought clock management was the problem. Well, obviously Edwards recognized this, so this season he assigned the job to Dick Curl, a veteran coach whom the players dubbed Grandfather Clock. But nothing changed. They still screwed up the clock dramatically against Baltimore ... and again, when they didn't stop it at the end of regulation time against San Diego ... and still again when they just let it melt away against Pittsburgh.
And the sideline shots showed instead of one blank face, that of Edwards, two blank faces this time, belonging to Edwards and Curl, his clockologist. This is the way they coach, and they are not alone. Schottenheimer coaches not to lose. So do a few others, not as many as there used to be, but some.
Mike Martz in St. Louis always has been a proponent of the other breed, a go-for-the-throat guy. But last year, when faced with a crucial situation at the end of regulation time in the divisional playoff against Carolina, with the ball on the Panthers' 15 and a chance to win the game with seven points, he let the clock run down, kicked a field goal and lost in overtime.
"I've never regretted a decision as much in my life," he told me in the offseason. "All I could see was a turnover, a fumble, an interception. I'd never coached like that before, and I hope I never do again."
Most coaches nowadays have gotten away from the Edwards-Schottenheimer mentality. The rules have made it just too convenient to throw the ball. Mike Shanahan; Mike Holmgren; Bill Belichick and his offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis; even old timers such as Bill Parcells and Dick Vermeil, are always looking to put up points, to throw the ball when they're killing the clock, to score in a hurry. The old-line thinkers are kind of quaint now, like blacksmiths or snuff box collectors.
Vince Lombardi was perceived by some as being a conservative, when in truth he was an innovator. He was the first to throw long on third-and-short. He opened up the running game with his run-to-daylight approach. And he knew how to work a game.
Edwards and Schottenheimer have received much applause for taking their teams as far as they did this season. But unless their mentality changes, they will give the enemy a huge advantage in a close game when the stakes are highest. It's a shame for their players and their fans, but as far as their own thinking is concerned, the light hasn't come on yet. They think they're giving their team the best chance to win, when all they're really doing is lengthening the odds.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.