Does anyone really want to win these games? That’s the question I’ve been repeatedly asking myself throughout the NFL playoffs.
All I want to see is good football. I want two reasonably well-coached teams to play hard and hopefully have the game decided with a minimal number of significant miscues during crunch time. It’s funny to watch someone pull a Leon Lett every now and then, but I’d rather see games decided by great plays, not ridiculous gaffes. I don’t need to see teams choke away games. After all, I do get to watch the Giants play 16 times a year.
Unfortunately, players — and to a larger extent their coaches — have continually goofed to a frustrating extent over the last three weeks. The tone for the playoffs may have been set on the first Saturday of wild card weekend when the Seattle-St. Louis game was decided on a dropped pass. Later that night, the Jets’ Eric Barton turned his team’s game-winning goal line stand into a Chargers’ touchdown because he couldn’t resist the urge to swat Drew Brees’ helmet.
The players on both teams seemed to sleep-walk through the Vikings-Eagles divisional playoff. When Minnesota attempted a fake field goal, the Vikes had too many men on the field, forcing Randy Moss — the play’s primary receiver — to retreat to the sideline. The Eagles had an excellent chance to capitalize on the Vikings’ mistake, but they ran into blunders of their own. Knowing that his team had no timeouts, Donovan McNabb ended the half by completing a pass in the middle of the field, costing his team an easy field goal. I had to take a break from watching that game.
Among all the bad plays and ill-advised decisions, Brett Favre’s pass from five yards beyond the line of scrimmage takes the cake. If Favre had kept running, he would have gotten a first down or put the Packers in position to go for it on fourth down. Instead, probably because he wanted to avoid being hit, Favre threw an illegal pass that forced his team to settle for a field goal — one that Ryan Longwell subsequently missed — turning the game’s momentum toward the Vikings. Favre responded to his own mistake by laughing like a maniac. Of course, this play has fallen off most people’s radar because of Randy Moss.
I find it easier to tolerate players making mistakes. It might be that the rate of the action on the field can force players to make errors that seem more inexcusable on replays. Or maybe it’s the fact that I can’t run a 4.4 forty.
In any case, really bad coaching drives me absolutely crazy. Coaching staffs have at least a week to develop game plans, and they have lifetimes to develop a basic sense of strategy. Meanwhile, head coaches have jobs that any guy I know would take in a second. With only 30 positions to fill, you’d think we would see only the best of the best patrolling the sidelines. In reality, they’re a lot of incompetents out there.
The two most egregious examples of bad coaching have involved setting up for game-winning field goals. First, in OT against the Jets, the Chargers easily moved the ball to the New York 30-yard line. Against a tired and dispirited defense, the Chargers could have gotten at least another first down to setup an easy chip-shot field goal to win the game. Instead, Marty Schottenheimer decided that 40 yards was close enough for Nate Kaeding, his ROOKIE kicker. Kaeding acted out his Scott Norwood fantasy, and the Jets won on their next drive.
With all the criticism Schottenheimer received for not giving his kicker an easier attempt, it would seem almost impossible that another coach would replicate his mistake only a week later — especially if that coach had actually been on sidelines during the Chargers-Jets game. I don’t know how Herman Edwards missed that lesson. Maybe he was too busy trying to figure out which member of his staff he was going to fight next.
Anyway, moments after kicker Doug Brien had just missed from 46 yards, Edwards got conservative when the Jets returned a Roethlisberger pick to the Steelers’ 37 yard-line. He was all too happy to set his kicker up for another long boot — 43 yards — on a field notoriously difficult to kick on. Somehow he is still employed.
Nothing really compares to these mind-boggling coaching mistakes, but it’s worth mentioning that neither the Colts nor the Steelers seemed to present a reasonable game plan against the Patriots. Sure, the Colts had to deal with bad weather and the fact that the defense forced their receivers out of their favorite routes. But, I still don’t understand why Manning and Co. didn’t take a few shots down the field, especially when the Patriots were pulling away in the second half. Even if nobody was open, it had to be worth taking some chances against a secondary decimated by injury and with only one legitimate defensive back. Sorry, Troy Brown.
I understand where the Steelers were coming from. They didn’t want to put the game in Big Ben’s hands, so they tried to establish the run and stay away from predictable third down passing situations. However, by being repeatedly stuffed on first and second down, they forced Roethlisberger to air it out on third and long. When the Patriots knew the pass was coming, he couldn’t complete anything beyond the sticks. Maybe the Steelers should have mixed in a few more passes on first down earlier in the game. That approach seemed to work in the second half.
At a time when conventional wisdom states that head coaches have never been more crucial to their teams’ chances, it’s frustrating to watch so many questionable decisions coming in from the sidelines. Even a self-proclaimed “wizard” like Mike Martz couldn’t figure out that it might be a good idea to punt the ball out of bounds instead of into the hands of Falcons return-man Allen Rossum.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Andy Reid of the Eagles and Bill Belichick of the Patriots, arguably the best coaches in their conferences, led their teams to Jacksonville. Hopefully, for the sanity of football fans everywhere as well as my own, that means the Super Bowl will be played and coached at a higher level than the rest of the playoffs have been.