Coaching Corner: Aggressive play calling pays off for Harbaugh, Tomlin

In this photo taken Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches action from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Charles Krupa/AP)

This time, it's personal.

Forgive me for the cheesy introduction, but it’s almost required after the end of Saturday’s college football game between UConn and Missouri. When UConn head coach Bob Diaco chose not to kick a game-tying field goal or keep his offense on the field for a fourth and four conversion, instead opting for a fake special teams play – one that already failed earlier in the game.

Thankfully for Diaco, his status as a college coach keeps him from too much critique in this column, but it’s interesting to note that immediately following the play, I was bombarded with texts from colleagues and friends begging me to include him as one of the worst coaches of the week.

Anyway, let’s move on to who made the best decisions.

The Best

2. John Harbaugh goes for it on fourth and inches against Oakland

As you may have noticed by now, coaches should be aggressive way more than they shouldn’t, especially in situations where the odds are heavily within their favor. When Ravens head coach John Harbaugh chose to go for it on fourth and inches on his own 29 yard line, you could practically hear every conventional wisdom-following football fan sigh and say something along the lines of, “it’s too early – you need to keep your momentum.”

This, of course is total garbage. Are the vaunted Oakland Raiders such a defensive juggernaut that you can’t trust your offense to get inches worth of conversion against them? For reference, Pro Football Focus ranked the Ravens as having the third-best offensive line in the NFL, as well as its premier offensive lineman in Marshall Yanda. Harbaugh was right to trust his team to convert, and they even ended up getting a touchdown on the same drive.

Though they didn’t win the game, it was nice to see Harbaugh make a smart decision that many other coaches would be too scared of doing. 

1. Mike Tomlin finds his aggressive side and goes for two three times in a row against San Francisco

This year, Pittsburgh has converted 15 out of 27 on all third and fourth down conversions – the standard for “last downs” on a typical offensive drive – 56 percent. For comparison, their kicker, Josh Scobee, since 2014 has converted 30-39 yard kicks (around where extra-point kicks are now lined up) 11 out of 13 attempts, 85 percent.

Though the percentage is certainly in favor of kicking, Pittsburgh gains more value per play, taking into account both successes, with 1.12 points per two-point attempt and 0.85 per extra-point. Even if Scobee was perfect, as long as Pittsburgh can convert two-point attempts more than half of the time, this was clearly a right call.

When you take into account that Pittsburgh’s two-point conversions are shorter conversions than the average play, it becomes evident that the Steelers made a calculated and smart decision in going for it both times to start off the game.

The Worst

2. Mike McCoy elects for a point after attempt, rather than going for two down 12-14

The Chargers head coach had a rough Sunday, with multiple decisions that not only made me cringe, but also contributed to his team losing against the Bengals. However, in addition to opting for a field goal attempt on fourth and one, as well as fourth and three – one of which missed– McCoy’s worst decision actually came after San Diego scored a touchdown to start off the third quarter.

Just think about the thought process that goes into this decision. Was there any? Last week I talked about how smart coaches optimize their decisions through a low-risk and high-reward system. Kicking an extra point while down two points has almost no rewards, as the game is still within a possession. On the other hand, going for two can at least tie the game and failing will still leave you in the same situation, as you are down by one. 

McCoy knows more about football than me (as well as any NFL coach). But it doesn’t excuse him from being called out about making oblivious decisions. Yet, McCoy has his divisional rival head coach to thank this week.

1. Andy Reid decides to run a draw play at the end of the fourth quarter

Last week, the Kansas City Chiefs head coach made the best play call of the week. It’s heart-breaking that I have to put him as the worst decision maker today, since this is definitely the worst decision of the regular season so far.

Think about the reward of this play. What are the chances of any running back breaking a noteworthy gain to put Kansas City in field position for a long field goal attempt with one timeout and starting from their own 20 yard line? Occasionally, a draw works, like Robert Turbin’s run against the Patriots in the last Super Bowl, but more often than not it’s a waste of the clock – which a kneel-down can easily accomplish and do without injury risk.

While Reid deserves to be criticized for this playcall, the problem isn’t that Charles fumbled the ball, costing the Chiefs the game against the Broncos. The process of deciding to run an end-of-regulation draw has always been flawed in the first place. Coaches, stop running this stupid play.


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.