For those who don’t know: Coaching Corner is a weekly column I write for UConn’s local student newspaper, the Daily Campus. Inspired by ESPN writer Bill Barnwell and his retired “Thank You For Not Coaching” articles for the now-defunct Grantland, I take a look at the three worst coaching decisions of each NFL weekend and try to analyze the statistical and underlying factors for their situation.
Last week was finals, which prevented me from having the time to write a column. This week, however, we are going to look at the anatomy of one collapse: how Tom Coughlin blew the New York Giants’ chance at beating the undefeated juggernaut Carolina Panthers
Coughlin’s first mistake wasn’t late into game – it came just under five minutes into the first quarter, when neither team had scored and the Giants were on Carolina’s 41-yard line. Facing a fourth and one situation, Coughlin decided to punt, most likely because he was facing an elite defense and because it may have been too early in the game to make an aggressive decision.
Of course, these arguments completely fall apart when considering how successful teams are likely to be in short yardage situations, even on fourth down. Since 2000, in every regular season fourth and one conversion attempt, when the scoring margin is still within one possession or tied, teams have converted them at an average 68.1 percent. In order for Coughlin to value field position over going for it, he would have to think that New York’s chances of failing to get one yard were astronomically lower than the average offense. Keep in mind that the Giants heading into Week 14 ranked No. 16 in the NFL for offensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Even taking into account the strength of Carolina’s defense, do the odds really go against New York?
You don’t even need statistics to defend going for it – just use common sense and think about the risk and reward of each decision. Choosing to punt has little to no upside and gives Carolina control of the ball. Going for it may end up in failure and slightly less field for the Panthers to cover to score, but there’s an upside of retaining the ball and having an opportunity to score points – which is incredibly valuable against a 13-0 team.
Coughlin passed another chance of going for it on fourth and one, this time while down 14-7. Though this was from the Giants’ 29-yard line and came with just about 90 seconds left in the half, consider that the Panthers were about to receive the ball at the beginning of the third quarter either way.
The terrible coaching decisions didn’t end there. After Carolina scored, leaving about 15 seconds left into the half and now up 21-7, Coughlin called a running draw play to close out to half. In previous editions of Coaching Corner, I’ve talked before about halftime draw plays essentially being an incredibly high-risk and low-reward play call. Let’s take a look at what the statistics say about them.
Out all non-quarterback kneel rushing plays this season that happened with less than 30 seconds left in the second quarter and within their own territory, none have resulted in a touchdown. Even if we discount numerical evidence and think anecdotally, the Kansas City Chiefs blew a game earlier this season because of a halftime draw that ended up in a fumble recovery for a touchdown, albeit near the end of the fourth quarter in a tie game. Running a draw play near the end of the half is pointless, risks injury and could result in a horrible turnover. If Coughlin shied away from a deep-throw attempt because of a risk for an interception, why not kneel?
As the game went on, it got uglier, both within its score (Carolina leading 35-7) and the physical altercations between each team’s opposing players – specifically one regarding a man whose name fittingly rhymes with “oh hell; deck him.”
Despite their head coach’s constant blundering, the Giants rallied back. After converting a fourth and two that Coughlin basically had no excuse to play passively, they scored 28 unanswered points. Unfortunately for New York fans, Coughlin had just one more mistake to make.
They had saved all three of their timeouts, which is a good thing, but the Giants forgot to use any of them – except when Coughlin tried to “ice” Carolina kicker Graham Gano after the Panthers had already moved their way into New York territory and with only five seconds left on the clock. Because choosing to use the timeouts you’ve saved up all game on icing a kicker over getting your team the ball back is so valuable.
Trusting the defense to force Carolina to punt is acceptable, but after failing to keep them out of his team’s territory, Coughlin’s number one priority should have been ensuring that there was enough time left on the clock for his offense to mount a comeback considering there was just under two minutes left. Even intentionally letting the Panthers score would have probably been a better use of resources once there were about 45 seconds left on the clock.
Another decision that struck me while re-watching the game was Coughlin’s decision to pass on first down with about 128 seconds left. Though it didn’t stand out as immediately bad, abandoning the run throughout the drive reeked of odd desperation from a team that was still in the game.
Whether through wimping out on fourth downs, lazily calling for halftime draws, botching timeouts and not benching a player for literally punching an opponent, Coughlin gave a masterpiece showing of how not to coach a game. It was, without a doubt, the worst coaching performance of the year and especially disappointing given Coughlin’s Super Bowl-winning legacy.
This is nothing new for Giants fans, who have watched their team go 3-7 in games decided by one possession. At 6-8 in the NFC East, New York’s playoff chances aren’t dead, but they’re unlikely. They’re only a game behind first-place Washington and have to beat the current NFC Wild Card leader Minnesota Vikings on the road. Then, they’ll need to play a tough home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who are also fighting for their playoff lives.
With just two more weeks into the NFL season, coaching matters more than ever. As the Giants are watching their playoff hopes slip away, last Sunday has to hurt more than ever. After several years of rumors surrounding Coughlin’s job security, it looks like his time may finally be running out.