September 25, 2016

No Sin So Long As You Win

There’s this new game I like to play. I call it, “Imagine if Bill Belichick had done that.

After three straight losses, Mike Tomlin told the media the Steelers were going to “unleash hell” in December. Then they lost to Oakland and Cleveland. Imagine if Belichick had done that.

You get the idea.

Tomlin’s decision Sunday to try an onside kick with four minutes left while holding a two-point lead over the Packers has been called into question by the media, but with nowhere near the fervor of Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-two in the waning minutes against the Colts a month ago.

In both instances, a respected head coach made a decision contrary to the conventions of the league. In both instances, the decisions failed. And in both instances, the stats geeks later backed the coaches up, saying the numbers supported the choices. The only distinctions? Tomlin won, and Tomlin’s not named Bill Belichick.

Mike Reiss, probably at great risk to his ESPN cred, highlighted the disparity in media outrage to the two calls.

“What became clear this week,” Reiss wrote, “is that the furor surrounding ‘fourth-and-2′ went way beyond that.”

Both Belichick’s and Tomlin’s decisions can be defended, though. The one that made no sense at all was Titans coach Jeff Fisher’s decision late in the game against Miami on Sunday.

The score was tied with 56 seconds left, and Titans punter Brett Kern had just laid down a punt at the Dolphins’ two. Fisher had all three timeouts left, but used none, letting the Dolphins run out the clock. Had he used the three TOs and prevented a Miami first down, Miami’s punting from the end zone with thirty-something seconds left, with possibly the punt return alone putting Tennessee in field goal range.

Instead, they go into overtime, and Miami wins the coin toss. Fortunately for Fisher, a Chad Henne interception saved his skin, and the Titans won on a Rob Bironas field goal.

Fisher’s rationale: ““Our defense had been on the field for two consecutive drives and didn’t stop them. We had a chance to end the game in regulation offensively. At that point, I was not going to take a chance and force his hand and let him take an opportunity to throw the ball down the field.”

Except that once they lost the toss in OT, they were putting their defense in a worse situation, and even more at risk of the Dolphins throwing downfield, with all of overtime and their full allotment of timeouts at their disposal. Fisher had nothing to lose and everything to gain in using his timeouts at the end of regulation. Imagine if Belichick had done that.

It’s the old axiom: when you win, all sins are forgotten.

Of course, there’s another consideration. While these coaches are flouting convention on the field, they’re loathe to do so in the press room. Unlike Belichick, they dutifully cater to the media, knowing where their bread is buttered.

As Reiss noted in his article, Tomlin spoke at length on his decision.

“Plan A didn’t work, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it,” Tomlin said. “We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them. We also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That’s why we took the risk when we did.”

Imagine if Belichick had done that.

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