It used to be thought that team sports helped build character, good sportsmanship, respect for one’s opponent, dignity. I don’t know if anybody still claims this, but what we see on the field doesn’t really scream for that kind of conclusion. (Also, how would you test this? What would your control group be?) Regardless, that’s all a little idealistic for my purposes. My contention is this: everybody loses once in a while, but a football organization can either look good losing or look bad losing. And in the game of football, the way these losses look at the end of the game tend to reflect most on the coach and the quarterback. I’m focusing on the coaches here, because they, directly or indirectly, are responsible for the things that most characterize a team’s philosophy and style of play.
Again, I’m not exactly talking ‘moral victory’ type stuff, I’m rather talking about whether, by the end of a game, a coach has impressed me enough, even in a losing effort, to make me think that he’s maximizing the talent of his team and putting his players in the best position to win, or— otherwise.
I’m going to write about some of the losses we saw this weekend and view them as emblematic of coaching mannerisms that annoy me to no end. If I were a fan of one of these teams, I would feel very nervous about my team ever competing for anything meaningful, specifically because of the coaching I’m writing about here. So: here are three rules for making me think you’re a potentially excellent coach, even in defeat.
1. Don’t let any one guy beat you.
Here I’m pointing the finger directly at Penn State head coach James Franklin. Marvin Harrison Jr. is a fantastic football player; he will unquestionably be drafted in the top ten of the NFL draft; he was the best player on the field on Saturday in the Ohio State/ Penn State dogfight. All of that is absolutely true. But it’s the head coach’s job to make sure the best player on the other team is neutralized, and I’ve rarely seen anyone less neutralized than Marvin Harrison Jr. He finished with 11 catches for 162 yards, and that gaudy stat line doesn’t account for everything he did for his team. Near the end of the first half, Penn State’s excellent defensive line got to the quarterback, forced a fumble, and ran it back for a touchdown—all of which vanished because the poor cornerback who was covering Harrison was flagged for defensive holding. But I contend that this corner, Malick Meiga, may not have panicked and grabbed Harrison if he had some help! The guy was playing as well as you can reasonably expect, still getting consistently torched, and no one decided to do much about it. This was in fact after a red zone third-and-ten play in which the safety on Harrison’s side ran down toward the line, showing blitz—showing everyone in the stadium that Harrison was now isolated against a corner in man coverage. Harrison of course converted a first down, setting Ohio State up for a touchdown, despite Meiga getting flagged in his attempt to stop the pass. You can’t let one guy beat you, and Franklin did. In the fourth quarter, Penn State was losing 10-6, and had Ohio State backed up almost in their own end zone. It was second and 13. Get two stops, or a safety, and you’ve got a legitimate chance of taking the lead in this game. Instead, when Harrison lines up in the slot, Penn State lets a linebacker cover him. This linebacker proceeds, first, not to jam him at the line to mess with the route’s timing, and then immediately to back off to help double cover the outside receiver, allowing Harrison to streak, totally open, across the formation. Of course he gained twenty plus yards on the play. If I were a Penn State fan, I would have to console myself that we’re going to have a lot of strong looking draft picks coming out of the program and a nice bowl game against a 12 seed every year, because my head coach refuses to go out of his way to stop exceptional players.
2. Don’t confuse stupidity with aggression.
Tennessee, this Saturday, became one of an increasingly long list of teams to go to halftime with a lead on Alabama, only to be walloped relentlessly after half for a demoralizing loss. Alabama remains very good; it’s no shame to lose to them. However, the manner of losing is another thing. Josh Huepel’s team twice tried for fourth and one conversions on run plays and got stuffed on both, which contributed to their 13 point lead turning into a 14 point loss. Here’s the thing: I’m all for going for it on fourth down in those spots. I’ve seen some people suggest that Huepel was being too aggressive and should have let his defense do its thing. But Alabama can score in bunches! The best way to help your defense is to keep possession. Going for it is totally the right call. However, the actual plays that were called were ridiculous. First, you’re going to have your quarterback, who is admittedly a large human being and a good athlete, in a short shotgun and just ask him to find a hole? On a fourth down with a bunch of NFL hopefuls glaring at him from five feet away? Maybe some misdirection might help! Then, just to prove it’s not a fluke, on the second fourth and one try, it was just— a handoff. No misdirection, no attempts to stretch the defense or bring extra blockers. Just an attempted off tackle run, directly into a human being doing his best impression of a brick wall. Aggression is good in football! Aggressively doing something that has no realistic chance of success is not good.
3. Don’t be a coward.
This is the corollary of the above rule. I didn’t think the suddenly vulnerable San Fran team did anything particularly cowardly in the Sunday Night Vikings game they embarrassingly lost to a team without its best player (hey, at least they didn’t mess up rule number 1!). But the loss did remind me of last season’s NFC championship. In case you’ve forgotten, that was a game in which they failed to block Hassan Reddick, who had sixteen sacks on the season, and got Brock Purdy’s ligaments rearranged, and then neglected to block the interior of the line and lost their backup quarterback to a concussion. And what was offensive genius Kyle Shanahan’s plan for dealing with this situation? It was to put Purdy, in visible pain and unable to throw beyond the line of scrimmage, back in the game. (And then spend the offseason whining about how the NFL should allow teams to carry three quarterbacks. Note: NFL teams can carry fifty three quarterbacks if they want to!) That is, rather than move to an exclusively wildcat offense—on a team that features Christian McCaffery and Deebo Samuel—Shanahan decided to play what was essentially 10-on-11 offensive football the rest of the game. Admittedly, the wildcat doesn’t seem like a strategy with a high chance of success, but it has some chance of success. And some chance of success is supremely better than no chance of success, which is what putting an injured Purdy back in game gave them. This was playing for pity, not for a win, and that is a cowardly coaching move. If I were a Niners fan, I would be hoping for a defensive mutiny, where Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga demand that the coaching staff consult with them before its cowardly punts, field goal attempts, and trading away potential stars.
Coaches, you can’t win every game. But you can lose without looking like a loser. Work on that.