A football head coach has a lot of responsibilities, it is certainly not an easy job. A good head coach, college or pro, has to find the right balance of discipline, motivation, strategy and leadership. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be so few who are able to attain the highest levels.
However, one thing that often gets overlooked is the ability of the head coach to count. Yes, simply count. It is a shame to watch that hard fought win slip through their fingers due to something as fundamental as 3rd grade arithmetic.
This last weekend there were two cases in which this was exactly what happened. Imagine, an entire week of preparation, watching films, coaching players and strategizing, all wasted due to the lack of a little common sense and the ability to count in multiples of 6, 3 and 2.
The first example is Coach Brian Kelly for Notre Dame while hosting the Northwestern Wildcats. After dropping two of three, the Irish found themselves battling the Northwestern Wildcats in an attempt to preserve their number 18 ranking and a quality bowl bid. While a hard fought game, the Irish took what looked to be a strong hold on the game by opening up an 11 point lead with just 10:34 remaining, conversion pending. Instead of taking the certain 12 point lead, Kelly instead chose to attempt a two point conversion. While few, if any, seemed to question the decision, it is in fact the point at which the train left the tracks for Kelly and his team. The worst part is that there was absolutely no logic behind it.
The questions are, what is the advantage of a 13 point lead over a 12 point lead and is it worth the risk? With 10:34 remaining there were two, at most three possessions remaining for Northwestern. In that situation there are two scenarios that stand out above all the rest. The first, Northwestern would score a touchdown, attempt a two point conversion, and kick a field goal. This scenario would be worth 11 points and would have become irrelevant with the extra point and a 12 point lead. The second, Northwestern simply scores two touchdowns, which, with either a 12 point lead or a 13 point lead would still leave the Irish trailing. So what was the advantage of a two-point conversion in that situation? Virtually none. What would have been the advantage of the extra point? It would have removed the field goal as an option for Northwestern.
Another key point is the argument that Northwestern could have scored a touchdown and two field goals is largely irrelevant due to the fact that a 12 point lead would have greatly reduced any field goal option for the Wildcats, plus it would have required them to get three possessions and score on all three of them, plus it would have to assume that Northwestern got the touchdown AND missed the two-point conversion. Even if all that came to pass, the 12 point lead would have still guaranteed a tie and overtime. For these reasons the two-point attempt for the Irish simply cannot be justified.
As it turns out, of course, the first scenario is exactly what happened, a touchdown, a two-point conversion and then a 44 yard field goal with just 19 seconds remaining. Yes, it was unlikely, but it would have never even been an option if Kelly could handle basic math and logic. As a result, the Irish find themselves out of the AP top 25 and, with a tough remaining schedule, very likely a much less attractive and profitable bowl game.
The second example comes from an NFL game just one day later between the Seattle Seahawks and the surging Kansas City Chiefs.
In this game, with just over seven minutes remaining, the Seahawks found themselves down by four and facing a fourth and goal from the Chiefs’ two yard line. Pete Carroll, a championship coach on both the college and professional levels, chose to attempt the touchdown as opposed to the easy field goal.
Why? Who knows? It seemed impulsive and almost certainly hurt the Seahawks’ chances for victory.
Down by four, what is the upside? The Seahawks take a 3 point lead with seven minutes to go. Yes, that is tempting, but is it worth the risk?
The Chiefs still had seven minutes to respond. While a three point lead would have been nice and certainly desirable, it hardly guaranteed anything. Additionally, this was two yards against one of the better short yardage defenses in the NFL, in fact, a defense that hadn’t given up a rushing touchdown the entire season.
On the other hand, there are several advantages for just kicking the field goal.
First, they stay in the game. For instance, if the Seahawks failed to get the touchdown then they would give the Chiefs a chance to close the door should they “break one,” however, with a field goal the Seahawks remain in the game no matter what.
Second, down by only one point with over seven minutes to go the chances are very good that an opportunity will present itself. Up to that point the Seahawks had managed 20 points, 24 first downs and over 300 yards of offense. Yes, with two or three minutes left it’s a no-brainer, but seven minutes is too much time to go into “panic mode.” Carroll had every reason to expect two more possessions and, on top of that, he had Steven Hauschka waiting on the sidelines, the Seahawks’ kicker who converted a 58 yarder just last month.
Third, these are the super bowl champs here. They didn’t achieve that for no reason.
As it turned out, the Seahawks did in fact get two more possessions and one of them failed at the Chiefs’ 36 yard line. That would have been a 53 yard attempt, a long, but makeable kick for Hauschka.
Both these cases involve coaches ignoring logic in favor of emotions and a gut impulse. Both of them made a poor decision and likely cost their teams a victory in the process. Maybe these coaches just got too caught up in the game. Maybe they just have too much on their minds. But seriously, with all those statisticians and assistants around why not find one who can handle grade school math and run these decisions by him or her when it really counts?