Coaching Corner: 'Fire Away'

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula, right, talks with field judge Eugene Hall during the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. (Ben Margot/AP)

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula, right, talks with field judge Eugene Hall during the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. (Ben Margot/AP)

With Week 7 of the NFL season under wraps, we’ve already seen loads of memorable calls throughout the league. When I first started this column, I started off taking into account both the best and worst calls of the week.

But as more coaches began to make dumb mistakes and I had to spend more time explaining why they were bad, I realized that the mistakes were the only part that all five of my readers seemed to care about. Time to give the people what they want: onto the worst decisions of the weekend.

3. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton calls two dumb challenges, loses his timeouts before the end of the first quarter, gets away with questionable fake field goal

Payton is a fairly successful head coach, having won a Super Bowl, but it doesn’t excuse how badly his team wasted their timeouts and failed at clock management. In this game and with six minutes left in the first quarter, Payton lost his first timeout by challenging a deep incompletion on first down: a clearly stupid decision from both a process and outcome-based analysis, since the Saints still had second down to call another play and failed in challenging the play.

Unfortunately for Saints fans, Payton wasn’t done. Right before they scored a touchdown later in the drive, he challenged another catch in Colts territory on third down, only to lose another timeout. Later in the quarter, with less than a minute to go, the Saints called another timeout, leaving them with none for the second quarter. Though New Orleans ended up winning the game, it certainly wasn’t because of their coach. He was bailed out by succeeding against a fairly mediocre football team.

Oddly enough, the first touchdown the Saints scored actually came immediately after a fake field goal, which was praised as genius from many of my friends, having brought New Orleans’ offense to the 1-yard line. The New York Times 4th Down Bot, an automated program which statistically measures the value of every fourth-down decision across the league, said that the fake field goal was only justifiable if Payton thought his team had a 41 percent chance to succeed on the play. I can’t imagine it would have worked 41 out of 100 times, but I guess it worked the one time that mattered.

Yes, I know it’s a surprise that I don’t advocate going for it on fourth down this time. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think coaches should call plays like Madden players. That said, Payton’s questionable use of challenges and bad clock management has certainly been an influence on his team’s 3-4 record.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith goes limp on final fourth and short call, ends up losing the game after being up by 24 points

Every time a coach blows a fourth and short decision, something inside me dies. Last week, we saw Jim Caldwell blow it for the Lions. This week, Lovie Smith gets my ire for wussing out at the wrong time, opting to kick a 21-yard field goal on fourth and three, while up 27-24, with just under two and a half minutes to play in the game.
 

Smith’s decision is bad because Tampa’s team was exceptional at rushing the football against Washington, gaining just under 200 yards and 6.3 yards per carry – more than twice as much as what the Bucs actually needed. Instead of understanding this, he froze up.

What also makes this decision so painful is that the alternative (going for it) had practically no downside. Even if the Bucs failed, they’d still be up three points and have their opponent pinned just a few yards ahead of their own end zone. This incompetent decision especially hurts because it played a huge roll in an already painful loss for Tampa Bay fans, who now have to worry about slim playoff chances with 2-4 record being pretty slim in a division that includes the undefeated Panthers and 6-1 Falcons.

1. San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Tomsula does pretty much everything to give me an aneurysm

I talk a lot about understanding low-risk, high-reward scenarios, but sometimes you don’t even need to know the numbers behind in-game decision making. Some decisions just require common sense – something that Jim Tomsula lacked nearly all of last Thursday in probably the worst coached game I have seen all year.

Was kicking a field goal down 17-0 on fourth and two late in the third quarter really worth it? Or how about calling a draw play on 3rd and 26 with just over seven minutes left to go in the game and down 20-3? Tomsula even did the same thing earlier, when he ran a pre-halftime draw play with about 16 seconds to go in the half. Such decisions, as I wrote earlier have little to no reward, with all the risk of an injury or, like in the earlier case of Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, a turnover.

Tomsula’s incompetence on these plays was actually so frustrating to watch that I started yelling at the TV, causing one of my good friends and colleague, Daily Campus sports editor Matt Zampini, to tell me to shut up.

Yet, those weren’t even the worst calls of the night. Still down 20-3 and with only four minutes to go, Tomsula did the equivalent of waving the white flag, punting on fourth and four. He proceeded to do the same thing on fourth and three a little over a minute later. That’s not valuing field position, nor is it being calculatedly risk-averse: it’s moronic.

Watching the 49ers offense that night (and most nights this season) is like watching a bowling ball go into the gutter, but Tomsula’s unacceptable play calling, indicative of a total lack of faith in his team, hurt San Francisco far more than any lack of talent. Besides, if you’re going to give up, why not kneel?

The 2015 San Francisco 49ers are not a very good football team right now. As we have learned almost halfway through the regular season, those type of teams tend to be led by even more incompetent head coaches, ones who make my job both hilariously fulfilling and also slightly depressing.


Anokh Palakurthi is associate life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at anokh.palakurthi@uconn.edu. He tweets @DC_Anokh.