Coaching Corner: Sean Payton, Jason Garrett make late-game gaffes

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton calls out from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (Jonathan Bachman/AP)

We finally made it, guys – 10 columns in a row with no complaint from others. It’s about a week before I write the special Thanksgiving edition of Coaching Corner with my “Turkey Decisions of the Year” award, but for now, we’ll stick with the current analysis of what’s gone wrong. Let’s get into it.

3. What is New Orleans coach Sean Payton doing at the end of the Saints-Redskins game?

Payton had a rough weekend. The Saints lost 47-13 against Washington, making Kirk Cousins look like, well, Drew Brees and causing New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to get fired. In addition to that, his starting quarterback, Brees, was unremarkable during the game and threw two horrible picks. This included one that was returned for a touchdown that left the Saints down 30 points early in the fourth quarter.

That doesn’t excuse needlessly putting his players in the face of danger. Payton might not read my column, but as an NFL coach, he really should know better than to call pointless running plays near the end of halves with games completely out of reach. If he wants to keep pretending the game is competitive and give backups a chance, why not call a two-minute drill with them and fill it with passing plays?

At least with that, there’s some more high variance ability for a big play. Running the ball at this point in the game is basically kneeling, but with added injury risk. For a team that just had to take out their starting running back midway through the game, New Orleans should really be more considerate of its players.

2. Carolina head coach Ron Rivera breaks my heart, doesn’t go for it on fourth and one from the goalline up 17-10 with just over nine minutes left to play

This decision broke my heart, not just because it involved my favorite non-Bill Belichick coach “Riverboat Ron” Rivera, who in most circumstances is more than willing to have his offense stay aggressive on fourth and short plays. It was just such an obvious decision for him to make and he made the wrong choice.

Per Pro Football Reference’s game play finder, the average NFL team in fourth and one situations has converted 64.7 percent of the time since 2001. In the case of Carolina, the numbers show them in an even greater light. Since 2013, the Panthers under Rivera have converted 15 of 20 fourth-and-one conversions. Though a field goal from the 1-yard line is basically guaranteed to be about 3.0 points per attempt, extrapolating the Panthers’ massive fourth-down success over the last three years causes the average to be about 4.5.

Rivera probably just brain-farted when he decided to kick the points and figured that his defense had been stifling Tennessee all game long. It doesn’t make his play call any better. Luckily for him, he wasn’t the only one this week to make a mistake in a fourth-and-one situation.

1. Dallas coach Jason Garrett shies away from late fourth and one call, loses 10-6 snoozefest against the Buccaneers

I understand where Garrett came from with his conservatism. It’s not easy to lose your franchise quarterback early in the year and give Matt Cassel the keys to your offense. Out of fear the lost opportunities for scoring will haunt them later, most coaches play conservatively with backup quarterbacks and, in defensive games, will take points or field position whenever they can on fourth down.

As I’ve said in previous editions of this column, this could not be any more wrong. In situations like low-scoring games, points being more valuable is exactly why teams should be aggressive – even if they have miserable offenses. In Garrett’s case, when pinned down on his own 18 yard-line he chose to punt on fourth and one yard to go with four minutes left in the game, along with an earlier decision to punt on fourth and one and their own 45-yard line.

Though these sound like difficult decisions given that the Cowboys were still on their side of the field, consider that even for horrible offenses, 1 yard is, well, 1 yard, which as I said before is an incredibly hard thing to stop them from getting.

Even if we believe that Dallas has a worse offense than average because of franchise quarterback Tony Romo’s injury (heading into Week 10, they were No. 21 in per-play-value metric offensive DVOA per Football Outsiders), I still find it hard to believe that the odds weren’t significantly in their favor against a Tampa Bay defensive line that previously ranked No. 23 in adjusted line yards given to an offense per game.

The New York Times Fourth-Down Bot calculated that the Cowboys’ chances of winning the game after converting would have gone up from 57 to 62 percent, while punting would have kept the game at 57 percent. I suspect this is because even if Dallas failed, there is still enough time left on the clock for them to drive up the field again in the case of the Buccaneers scoring.

Nonetheless, with Dallas now at 2-7 and winless without their star quarterback, they’re certainly food for the buzzards of the unforgiving NFL. By the time Romo comes back, it may be too late. And by the time he gets another full season’s worth of playing time, it’ll be unsure whether Garrett will be around.


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