It is no secret that in sports, most coaches and managers would rather follow the herd.
In basketball, teams trudged their way through 84–82 games until a coach like Don Nelson pioneered a run-and-gun offense with the Warriors and Mavericks in the 90s and 2000s. Baseball managers refused to acknowledge advanced analytics until those same numbers spearheaded teams like the Rays and A’s to success in the mid-to-late-2000s.
Football has not yet seen that evolution, and the game could use a Billy Beane, Joe Maddon or Don Nelson.
What I’m referring to is the archaic in-game management of the vast majority of coaches at the professional level. Here’s an example that comes by way of new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was hailed for his advanced offensive tactics and avant-garde attitudes towards an evolving game when he was hired in January. None of this actually mattered because, more importantly, Kingsbury was friends with 33-year-old Rams coach Sean McVay, who all NFL teams with a coaching vacancy were trying to clone last offseason.
That makes what happened in Sunday’s Cardinals-Ravens game all the more bizarre.
The game turned into a competitive battle between two of the game’s most promising young quarterbacks, Arizona’s Kyler Murray and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. While Jackson slightly outdueled Murray, Arizona had plenty of chances to steal a win and move to 1-0-1 against the defending AFC North champions.
Instead, Kingsbury swallowed those chances. Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez kicked three field goals with his team inside the five-yard-line, and two of those field goals came with two or fewer yards needed to get a first down. Kingsbury also punted on his own 44-yard-line with a fourth-and-one early in the first half instead of going for it. In summation, Kingsbury cost his team an opportunity at 15 points. The Cardinals lost by just six. Kingsbury’s offense, which is not one of the more explosive ones in the league, has averaged 5.4 yards per play in its first two games, meaning it could likely muster the necessary yardage to convert in those situations in which he chose to punt and kick field goals.
According to Stats LLC, the Cardinals’ inept decision-making on Sunday was also historic; Arizona became the first team in over 30 years to kick three field goals inside the five-yard-line while losing. Kingsbury was hired to be an advanced thinker, but his thinking was just the opposite on Sunday, and it may well have cost his team a victory.
Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum and examine what happens when coaches play to win instead of not to lose.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson has burnished a reputation as being one of the most aggressive fourth-down coaches in the league. His team has been among the top two in the league each of his three full years as Philadelphia’s head coach, and he once again played smartly and aggressively against the Falcons on Sunday night. His offense was faced with a fourth-and-goal from four yards outside the goal line in the third quarter, but instead of ending a third-straight trip to the red zone with a disappointing field goal, Pederson went for it. His quarterback, Carson Wentz, found wide receiver Nelson Agholor in the back of the end zone for six points instead of three. The play increased the Eagles’ win probability by 8.9%, while a field goal would not have had the same effect.
While the Eagles eventually lost the game, they didn’t play not to lose. Pederson stuck to his guns, and, despite the team’s ultimate failure, its head coach won’t have too many decision-making regrets about how the game transpired.
The flock of NFL coaches says that you should avoid risks like the one Pederson took on Sunday unless they are absolutely necessary. Many in the coaching community, which has progressed on this issue in the last few years, would likely side with Kingsbury’s logic in taking the sure points.
This also points to another issue with the hiring and firing practices of NFL teams, particularly when it comes to their head coaches. While risk is not necessarily always rewarded, it should be at least respected when it comes to game strategy and hiring a new head coach. Kingsbury was thought of as a “risk-taker,” which is a notion he quickly disproved in week two. He never earned this reputation; rather, it arose from who he knew and other characteristics like his age (39) and background, which included coaching future NFL quarterbacks like Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech.
So when you watch the next slate of NFL games, whether it’s this coming week or in the future, look at the decisions certain coaches are making. Then, remember this: while they may think they are, not all of the league’s 32 head honchos are coaching to win.