3. Wait, New England didn’t go for two while up 26-21?
Even the all-time great coaches can mess up. I was shocked to see that Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’t go for two points while up by five, especially because Belichick is known for trusting his team in crucial fourth-down situations, playing aggressively on offense, etc. I’ve explained this before, but in laymen’s terms, the difference between a five-point and six-point lead is almost negligible in terms of game context, while the benefit of going up seven instead of six provides much more benefit, as it gives the scoring a full one-possession lead.
2. Dumb and Dumber: Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll can’t keep red flag in their pants
Both of their calls don’t warrant further explanation beyond an overview of what actually happened. In Whisenhunt’s case, he threw a challenge flag after his quarterback, Marcus Mariota, threw an interception. Yet, since turnovers are always automatically reviewed, the Titans were penalized by losing a timeout, which put them in an even deeper hole down 10-24.
Meanwhile, in Carroll’s world, the difference between a second and 10 and second and 17 was so colossal that he challenged the ruling of a seven-yard sack on first down, arguing instead that the play was an incomplete pass. Though the challenge came early in the game, Carroll once again was far too eager to throw a challenge flag and was lucky that the match wasn’t decided by any super controversial call.
1. Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell cannot make a fourth-down decision for his life, gets bailed out by his team
After already kicking a field goal earlier on fourth and two to go up 24-16, Caldwell opted to kick a field goal later in the game, down 31-24, with just under three minutes to go and on the same drive where the Lions actually succeeded in running a fake punt play on fourth and two. This is also in a situation where even if Caldwell uses his timeouts on the next drive, the Bears are still heavily favored to win the game, facing a third and fourth with about two and a half minutes to go and Detroit with only one timeout.
In order to justify this decision, you’d have to like the chances of converting two yards off a fake punt, stopping the opponent’s offense and then, if you fail, stopping them from getting another first down with only one timeout. You also would have to think that these chances were better than getting four yards against what Football Outsiders’ DVOA had before Sunday as the No. 28 defense in the NFL, while disregarding that in a worst-case scenario, you’re still in basically the same situation as before on defense. In other words: you’d have to be a complete nincompoop.
Caldwell is lucky that his team won the game, however it doesn’t excuse his incredibly stupid thought process. However, though he may easily have the most thoughtless decision of the week, there was another certain play that needs to be talked about.
0. Down 27-21, Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano calls a fake punt on fourth and three only for everything to go completely wrong.
Notice the zero I put next to its description on the list. That’s because this decision transcends the world of football incompetence and into immortality. According to Pagano in post-game interviews, the play was never meant to be snapped – he primarily used it to confuse the Patriots and force them to waste a timeout or jump offsides. In what Pagano thought was the worst-case scenario, the Colts would take a delay of game penalty anyway and punt while down only six points.
This, much to the delight for fans of 29 other NFL teams, did not happen. After about nine players shifted to the right side of the play, the center, wide receiver Griff Whalen, instead snapped the ball, almost immediately getting free safety Colt Anderson, the quarterback on that play, sacked.
Even disregarding the outcome of the play, the surreal process – a swing-gate tactic, which already hilariously backfired years ago for Washington and seems to have only worked in recent memory for the convicts in 2005’s remake of “The Longest Yard” - remained mesmerizing to watch.
Perhaps the funniest moment of the fake punt was afterwards, when Belichick, whose players did not look a bit confused during the play, smirking on the sidelines and declining an illegal formation penalty, called on Indianapolis.
Is the miscommunication, lack of organization and terrible play design on the players or Pagano? It’s hard to say. Punter Pat McAfee, per SB Nation, said Whalen had never practiced the play and still lined up as center. One also has to wonder, if Indianapolis was trying to draw New England offsides, why not leave quarterback Andrew Luck on the field: a far more intimidating threat on his own than a special teams unit? This is probably my biggest issue with the play.
Yet, because the decision-making process wasn’t as totally incompetent as its execution, I’m still skeptical that Pagano’s decision is the “worst call ever.” I also doubt that it was some kind of magical turning point that destroyed the Colts’ momentum, as many sportswriters and colleagues of mine have eagerly told me and asked to write about. For most of the second half, the New England-Indianapolis game was just a better team making adjustments and outplaying a worse one.
However, there’s no doubt that the bizarre decision had one of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen in a professional football game. It’s only fitting that while this doesn’t end with the No. 1 spot on my worst coaching decision list, it remains in an entirely separate category as a footnote to yet another week of strange playcalling and absurdity in the NFL.