Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Overtime Rules Will Make Coaches Much Wimpier...

With the new overtime rules in place for the 2010 Playoffs, many are still getting used to the rules. However, most coaches should probably be more worried about their strategy instead.

David Fleming of ESPN did a nice job explaining numerous scenarios of how some playoff games could pan out. However, one scenario, which was touched on briefly by Tony Dungy, was left out: Deferring the ball after winning the coin toss.
"It will change the way the coaches view the overtime, especially in the outdoor stadiums if there is a wind factor," Dungy said. "Coaches are going to be much more apt to defer and take the wind because you know if you can at least hold a team to a field goal, you're going to get the ball again."

Dungy goes on to suggest that a defensive minded coach such as Rex Ryan of the New York Jets, should consider deferring. However, Ryan has already insisted he would take the ball if he won the toss in overtime.

The rule is if the team that wins the toss scores a field goal on the opening possession, it will then kick off to the other team. A touchdown would end the game at any point. And the game would become sudden-death if the teams trade field goals on opening possessions.

Conventional wisdom tells us that coaches will generally accept the ball first. However, in this overtime system, it might not be the best bet. Here’s why:

-Since the 2002 season (including playoffs), there have been 156 over time games, and only 10 of those games ended on an offensive touchdown on the first possession, only 6.4%!

-Scoring an offensive touchdown in overtime in general, has happened less than 13% of all instances since 2002.
-Offensive Touchdowns deciding overtime games are so uncommon, that scoring on defense isn’t that far behind. Since 2002, a defensive touchdown was scored on the first possession three times (1.92%), and nine overtime games total have been decided by a defensive touchdown (5.77%). Knowing these numbers, is it really that big of a gamble to elect to kick (especially in bad weather) to gain field position? Playing bend, not break defense, and hoping for a turnover, or good field position is a good strategy in this case. If you stop them, only a field goal wins the game.

-Chances are if you lose on a touchdown, or kick return—you probably deserve to lose anyway.
-Even if you elect to kick, and the opponent scores a field goal (2nd worst case scenario), you would know exactly what you need in terms of strategy, and would have an extra down to play with (4th down). The playoffs feature many elite, and high profile quarterbacks—so would being down 3 with Drew Brees be such a bad thing? Ok- maybe it's a bad idea with Charlie Whitehurst.

-There’s an inherent advantage to this strategy, because we already know exactly what coaches will do on their first possession of overtime: Look to kick a field goal.

Coaches are bred to deflect blame away from themselves in fear of keeping their jobs, in favor of making bland, “safer” decisions in which they could peg bad results on their players. In 4th and short situations in field goal range, coaches will decide on a field goal in fear of being blamed if they don't convert the 4th down.

If they kick a field goal, and the defense gives up a touchdown, then the blame is shifted off the coach and the coach could look to his defense for letting the team down. Same goes if they miss the field goal because that was conventional wisdom in the first place.

4th and shorts are the most common misconception in football. Going for it is not necessarily a risky move-it’s a calculated decision. Out of the 12 playoff coaches, only Bill Belichick (maybe Sean Payton) would consider going for a crucial fourth down to try and score a touchdown. Not even boisterous Rex Ryan. For all the talking he does, he mostly back downs on 4th and shorts.

In 2002, former Detroit Lions coach, Mike Mornhinweg famously elected to kick rather than receive. He was criticized everywhere because his opponent, the Chicago Bears, went on to score on their first possession. This result single handily killed this strategy with the old system. However, the Chicago Bears scored a field goal- not a touchdown. If that had happened in this new playoff overtime system, Detroit wouldn’t have been in a terrible situation. They would get the ball, and would know exactly what they need to do, and would have an extra down.

There’s no doubt in my mind, coaches will wither into Marty Schottenheimer mode and play it safe on 4th downs on their first possession of overtime. With that in mind- the small number of overtime games being decided by an offensive touchdown on the first possession in the first place will go down even more—which is an advantage.

So why not? As a Jets fan, I would definitely be more distraught if Rex Ryan wimped out on a fourth and short in overtime and lost, than if they elected to kick the ball and lost on an 80 yard bomb. At least if he elected to kick- he had confidence in something- even if it had a negative result. For all the testosterone in the NFL- there are sure a lot of wimps.

If you’re playing a team that’s not coached by Bill Belichick or Sean Payton—it would be a very intriguing, and calculated strategic move to elect to kick rather than return, especially if you trust your defense, and weather is playing a factor in the game.

However, the irony is that no coach would have the balls to do this strategy in the first place, right or wrong.