Second Guessing Play Calls is Like Second Guessing Rock, Paper, Scissors?

Most fans think they are smarter than the football coaches of the team that they cheer for.  They curse, stomp their feet, throw things at the wall (or the TV) and tweet up a storm.  Coaches are in a no win situation.  If a play fails (regardless of reason), the talking heads on TV and sports talk radio will join in the cacophony and support the fans who were outraged by the decision to run/pass.  Perhaps no play in NFL history symbolizes this phenomenon better than Pete Carroll’s decision to allow Russell Wilson to throw from the 2 yard line with the game on the line.  Malcolm Butler makes a play for the ages and forces his way inside to pick off the pass and the Patriots are the ones that are raising the Lombardi Trophy.

“What are you thinking?” was the theme of the outrage.  “How can you not hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch?”  Lynch was certainly having a great game.  But would that play have worked?  None of us know that answer.  Wilson’s pass could easily have resulted in a TD and the masses would have jumped on board and said “Great decision to fool them and NOT hand the ball off to Marshawn!”  On the flip side, had they handed the ball off to Lynch and he was stopped by the Patriots defense, the critics would have howled “How could you call such a predictable play?” 

Though I am certainly guilty of that at times as well, when you truly think about it, we do not watch as much tape as the coaches. We do not know the health of the players. We do not know the feel of the game in terms of what is working.  That doesn’t mean we can’t express our frustrations and that we cannot believe a different decision would not have created a better result.

Each time I find myself going down that rabbit hole, I try to come back to this theme—Second guessing play calls is like second guessing decisions in a game of rock, paper, scissors (RPS).   Actually, it is probably worse.  Nobody spends 50+ hours a week studying rock, paper, scissors film (at least I hope not).  Therefore, you really cannot tell someone’s tendencies.  In addition, unlike RPS, which has only three options, a football play has hundreds of options on each the offensive and defensive side of the ball.  No call is inherently good or bad.  It only becomes so based on the combination of several factors:

  • Offensive play call
  • Defensive play call
  • Offensive execution
  • Defensive execution
  • Player mistakes (beyond fundamental execution, things like slipping on a pass route or dropping a well thrown ball)
  • Officiating mistakes

We have all seen plenty of well blocked screens where a RB drops a ball, or a WR slips.   Or a well defended pass that deflects up in the air and gets caught for a first down.  When a play works, it looks artful. When it doesn’t work, it looks pathetic.  As frustrated as we might get, try to remember this next time you are tempted to attack your favorite team’s coaching staff. 

Instead, go track down your friends and ask them why they threw Scissors when they clearly should have known that your other buddy was going to throw a Rock.  See their reaction when you throw a tantrum at their decision and you will get the sense of what coaches think when you do the same thing.

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