By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
There seem to be some strange doings in the coaching ranks across the league lately. Starting with Bill Belichick’s fourth-and-2 gaffe a couple weeks ago in Indianapolis, several instances of coaches overthinking things, mismanaging the clock or timeouts or challenges, or just plain not being able to get out of their own way have cropped up, often affecting the outcome of certain games. Sure, the players are the ones who need to make the plays. But when the coaches don’t put them in the best situations to do so, it usually spells trouble.
Two weeks ago, the same Sunday as the Pats collapse in Indy, Dallas was in Green Bay, trailing 7-0 early in the fourth quarter with first and goal at the one. Despite having Marion Barber – perhaps the league’s best power back – in their backfield, the Cowboys called for a pass on this play. Of course, it was intercepted in the end zone, the Packers quickly embarked on an 80-yard scoring march and ultimately won the game, 17-7. The decision made no sense; needing points, from one yard out and with plenty of time remaining, the last thing the Cowboys should have done was try to get cute. Running Barber, or even quarterback Tony Romo at least once is the call. You would have thought that the failure of that decision would have made an impression on coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
But a week later, with a fourth-and-one near midfield in the third quarter of a game against the Redskins that they were trailing 6-0, another pass play was called. The result was another interception. Dallas wound up gritting out a 7-6 win over Washington in that game, but had they lost again, it’s hard to imagine Garrett not being lambasted for the call, with Phillips not far behind. What’s the point of messing around? In both situations, the Cowboys were at an advantage – against the Packers because of the field position, down and distance, and against the Redskins because of their superior talent up front yet they made it more difficult for themselves by outthinking the circumstances. Dallas is in a dogfight for their division and potentially the playoffs. Seasons can come down to a handful of plays. It’s odd that such a risk was taken, and twice for that matter. Two years ago Garrett was the hottest head coaching candidate out there. Now, after he and the rest of the Cowboys coaching staff are fired after the year unless they win the Super Bowl (which they will not), he’ll be lucky to get another shot right away as a coordinator.
Last week in Baltimore, the Ravens perfected the art of unimaginative offensive thinking as they failed to score a single touchdown in seven red zone trips against the Colts, eventually losing, 17-15. When the field got smaller, the Baltimore play calling consisted of toss to Ray Rice, screen/dump-off to Ray Rice or outside throw to Derrick Mason. Granted, Rice and Mason are Baltimore’s two top weapons on offense, but still, this stinks of “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” The problem was, the Colts were never fooled. They were ready for the Ravens’ lack of imagination (from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who has mostly done wonders with the Baltimore O the past two years) and made one stop short of paydirt after another. Add to that head coach John Harbaugh’s blowing of his final two timeouts near the two-minute warning, one to decide to make a bad challenge, the other after said bad challenge was predictably found incorrect and you have a sequence of events that may have cost the Ravens, now 5-5 and playing Pittsburgh this week, their season.
There’s more, only I don’t have enough space to rehash any of it (other than pointing out again that Belichick’s poor clock and timeout management down the stretch of the loss to the Colts is what really cost the Pats that game, far more than fourth-and-2). So be on the lookout this week and beyond. Hopefully your favorite team’s coach won’t make a decision anyone will regret.
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. New Orleans: Just when some folks may have, ahem, er, surmised they might be slipping, or even look ahead of Tampa Bay toward this week’s Monday Night Showdown with the Patriots, Drew Brees and company shredded the Bucs, 38-7. Now, I’m ready to say that if they win on Monday, 16-0 is a legitimate possibility.
2. Indianapolis: Another super tight squeeze for the Colts, barely holding on for a 17-15 win in Baltimore in which the Ravens wasted those seven red zone trips (five field goals, one miss, one late INT). No matter how poorly they play, these guys always seem to stay calm enough to come through when it matters.
3. Minnesota: More cake for the Minnesota Favres, a 35-9 rout of the Seahawks that featured his royal holier-than-thouness completing 22-of-25 passes with four TDs and taking a seat before the end of the third quarter. It should probably be noted here that while he never played this well last year for the Jets, it was right around Thanksgiving that he started to suck. The rest of this season obviously remains to be seen.
4. New England: Good bounce back win for the Pats over the loud and lowly Jets. If they can conquer their second half/fourth quarter issues on Monday night in New Orleans, they will win and head up this list some more.
5. San Diego: The Chargers make their season debut here following a 32-3 wipeout of the once great, now enigmatic Broncos in Denver. It can’t hurt that older or injured stars like LaDanian Tomlinson, Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman are starting to come around. I’m just curious why it always takes these guys so long to get cooking.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Cleveland: How nice of the continually amazing Eric Mangini to choose not to praise the grit and effort and resolve of his lousy team after putting up 37 points (seemingly 37 more than they’d scored all year up to that point) in an excruciatingly near miss against Detroit and instead accuse the Lions of faking injuries to give themselves more time to come back and win in the end. I know he’s since apologized for this nonsense bit still, what an absolute schmuck.
2. Tampa Bay: Another coordinator fired? That makes two. Last time I checked, there were only two coordinators per team. No one left to 86 now except you, coach Morris.
3. St. Louis: The Rams keep fighting, taking advantage of crappy Matt Leinart filling in for Kurt Warner to make a solid run at the division leading Cardinals last week before blowing in the end. I like this team a lot more than their constant place on this list might suggest, but the bottom line is no matter how hard they try, they’re still 1-9.
4. Detroit: The Lions made that amazing comeback against the Browns and got some overwhelming evidence that Matthew Stafford can be their guy down the road. But let’s not forget, it was Cleveland they came back on, not anyone halfway decent. And they’re still the Lions, as they proved beyond the shadow of all doubt on Turkey Day against the Packers.
5. Oakland: The Raiders actually took advantage of a gift, wrapped up in a nice package by the Bengals. What would happen if their owner were to ever in a million years allow someone who doesn’t think it’s the original AFL in 1967 to make an important decision.
Brady Quinn, Browns: Try to forget for a moment that he plays for the worst team in the league and his coach is one of the worst in quite some time. He threw for 304 yards and completed 64 percent of his passes against the Lions, by far his best day as a pro. And his four TD passes were one more than he’d thrown in his entire NFL career combined. Too bad he gets Cincinnati, San Diego and Pittsburgh in his next three games. At least he’s now apparently dating gymnast Alicia Sacramone.
Chris Johnson, Titans: Sorry to be redundant with this guy, but after his 151 yards last Monday against Houston, he now has five straight games with at least 125 yards on the ground while averaging at least five yards per attempt. The last to do that? Only the great Jim Brown.
The Chiefs: Two straight wins for the first time in two years, the most recent an absolute shocker over the Steelers. Bravo to Todd Haley, Scott Pioli, Matt Cassel and all the rest down there in Kansas City. Small steps but steps all the same.
Kerry Rhodes, Jets: New York’s loudmouth safety has been unable to back up all of his ridiculous yapping and has been benched despite making as much if not more money than anyone else on the Jets defense. No word on whether clown coach Rex Ryan cried or felt disrespected when delivering Rhodes the bad news.
The Steelers Special Teams: Four kickoff returns for TDs allowed in their last five games. Taking it a step further, they’ve allowed a return TD (kickoff, punt, INT, fumble) in each of their last eight. That’s not going to get them back to the Super Bowl no matter if their quarterback is healthy or not.
The Falcons: 4-1 after their first five games, Atlanta is now 5-5 and with the Eagles and Saints coming up in the next three weeks, a second straight playoff berth may not be in the Cards. It seems Matt Ryan isn’t the only one enduring a sophomore slump, (hello, coach Mike Smith!).
Once again, it must be noted that both the Saints and Colts are 10-0. It’s now the latest into a season that two teams have sported such marks since 1990, when both the Giants and 49ers hit Week 11 at 10-0 before each falling that week, the Giants to the Eagles and the Niners to the Bucs. The following week, they played each other on Monday Night Football from Candlestick Park in San Francisco with the Niners winning, 7-3. They would meet again on the same field several weeks later in the NFC Championship Game, the Giants winning 15.13 in an upset that wound up being Joe Montana’s final game as a Niner and Bill Parcells’ second to last game with the G-men (the final one was their Super Bowl win over Buffalo a week later).
The Colts and Saints won’t meet this season unless its in the Super Bowl, which is a pretty decent bet. For the record, I think the Colts will handle the still-not-ready-for-the-big time Texans this week and that the Saints will drop a close, not terribly high-scoring (think like, 30-27 or something of the kind) contest to the Patriots, leaving just one unbeaten headed into Week 13.