Monday, November 1, 2010

Praising the common-sense genius

In last night's game between the Steelers and the Saints, an interesting situation arose in the second quarter that definitely got my attention. On a 4th and 3 on the Pittsburgh 13 and 12 seconds remaining in the half, the Saints, for some reason, shifted out of field goal formation and looked as if they were going to run a pass play. Instead of letting his field goal unit cover the possible trick play, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin simply called a timeout (the Steelers' third and final timeout of the half). After the timeout, the Saints opted to kick the field goal instead.

Not only was the decision by Tomlin to call a timeout logical, but it seemed like a simple solution. But Cris Collinsworth seemed amazed by Tomlin's timeout-calling genius, and he and Al Michaels discussed the move for the next few moments/minutes until the Saints lined up for their actual field goal attempt.

Now, there are thousands of coaching decisions behind the scenes both during the week for preparation and during actual games that fans will never know or be able to comprehend. But many coaches these days seemingly make so many bone-headed decisions that an obvious coaching move by Tomlin was enough for Collinsworth and Michaels to praise as if Tomlin had just pulled off some difficult maneuver that only he could have accomplished. Why is it so tough to have a common-sense approach?

Maybe that's because just about every bad coaching decision is analyzed endlessly by SportsCenter, teams' local media, other sports TV/radio shows, etc. But like it or not, that's going to be the case this week (and next week) with Mike Shanahan and his decision to pull Donovan McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman in the fourth quarter. (And that's not counting his two decisions to go for two in the second half, but I'll leave that for others to examine.)

To be clear, I completely disagreed with the decision to pull McNabb, even if he was having another mediocre game. I don't think McNabb has played all that well this season, which I've noted in previous posts. But that doesn't mean that Grossman gives the Redskins a better chance to win, which, oddly enough, was another topic that was discussed this week. There's very little, if anything, on the football field that Grossman does better than McNabb, especially with how poorly -- very, very poorly -- the Redskins offensive line was playing against the Detroit front four.

I think Shanahan likes to play these little head games with some of his team's best players. He was (still is?) in a battle of wills with Albert Haynesworth, though hopefully that's over as Haynesworth has played rather well the last few weeks. It's possible that Shanahan was trying to send a message to McNabb that mediocrity from him won't be enough to a) possibly get the Skins to the playoffs and b) earn him a contract to stay in Washington if it's not deserved.

But the timing of the move was beyond questionable. Let's take a look at the fourth-quarter situation again. Leading 25-20 after a Brandon Banks kickoff return touchdown, the Skins defense forced the Lions to punt the ball away, and McNabb and the offense took over at their own 26 with a little more than five minutes to go. The Lions also still had all three of their timeouts. On first down, Keiland Williams rushed for no gain. But on second down, McNabb made a disastrous decision, forcing the ball into a crowded area. Detroit intercepted the pass and took over in Redskins territory. Detroit both scored the go-ahead touchdown and completed the two-point conversion, which gave them a 28-25 lead.

The Redskins got the ball back with 3:12 remaining -- unfortunately, Banks didn't return the kickoff for a touchdown again -- and the offensive line again ruined any potential scoring drive. Trent Williams was called for holding on first down, and after two incomplete passes on second and third down, McNabb was sacked on 4th and 10. With the ball already in Washington territory, the Lions ran the ball three times and kicked a field goal to go up by a score of 31-25.

And that's when the switch to Grossman happened. Three thoughts popped into my head when I saw Grossman running onto the field: 1) Is McNabb hurt? 2) Why would Shanahan do this? 3) How exactly is Grossman supposed to perform any better than McNabb did with the way the offensive line was playing? As if it was destined to happen, Grossman was immediately sacked, and his fumble was recovered and returned for a touchdown. With the game now out of reach, Grossman threw a few short passes when the Skins got the ball back, but they didn't mean anything.

After the game, Shanahan said he made the switch because Grossman "gave us the best chance to win" at the time. I really hope he didn't believe that, no matter how poorly or slowly McNabb had previously run the team's two-minute drill in other games. Grossman had absolutely no chance behind the Redskins offensive line in that game, and that was evident from the beginning of the first quarter. McNabb ran for his life all game, basically having to avoid one or two potential tackles on most passing plays just to get the ball off. Sure, he missed his fair share of open receivers when the line actually gave him time. That's been an issue all season. Does that mean that pulling him in the fourth quarter when all the team needed was a touchdown was really a good decision?

If Shanahan really was trying to send McNabb a message, maybe he could have found a different time to make such a choice. Or maybe he decided that was the single best opportunity he'd have all season to demonstrate to McNabb that he needs to play better, no matter what. Unfortunately, unlike Tomlin, Shanahan did not use common sense in assessing the situation, and it may not only have cost the Redskins the game, but now Shanahan and the team face some serious question marks heading into their bye week.

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