Monday, February 8, 2010

Payton outshines Peyton, sets precedent for future coaches?

(Submitted by Josh Carey)

With any luck, Sean Payton has just ushered in a new era of pro football coaching.

Payton made two crucial decisions in Super Bowl XLIV to overcome an Indianapolis Colts team that opened the week as 4.5-point favorites and expanded that to a 6-point spread before kickoff as the money moved to the midwest.

The first was the (incredibly correct) decision with 1:49 left in the first half, trailing 10-3, to go for the touchdown from the one-and-a-half yard line. One of two things will likely result from this: 1) You tie the game, 2) The Colts are pinned in the shadow of their end zone with less than two minutes in the half. Keep in mind the Colts are poised to get the ball to start the second half. Taking a field goal and making it 10-6 gives the Colts two chances to extend the lead before you get the ball back. And Peyton Manning is so dangerous with two minutes to go, Bill Belichick made the same call in his own territory earlier in the season.

The fact Pierre Thomas couldn't get over the right side is inconsequential. However, given those circumstances, Payton managed the situation perfectly. A lesser coach would have used his remaining timeouts in rapid succession, giving the Colts a third-and-one with around 1:30 left. If the Colts convert, they're still in prime position for a drive late in the half.

By running the clock down to 51 seconds before calling a timeout, Payton balanced his ability to still net three points with his desire to keep the other Peyton from blowing the game open. In the end, he got the same three points as he would have by kicking right away and kept the Colts from scoring. Now just to handle the issue of kicking away to Indianapolis...

By now you're aware of the onside kick that took an eternity to sort out. There's a fine line between genius and insanity. That call took chutzpah, regardless of the outcome. It's the same concept as the fourth-and-goal decision. With the call, Payton essentially admits he doesn't believe he can beat the Colts down by four while kicking the ball away. Allow the Colts to get up two scores, and now you have to make up a possession somewhere, while playing perfectly yourself, to make it back.

Viewed in that light – where there had been no first-half turnovers from either side – Payton's decision might have even been, amazingly, correct. If the Colts recover, you could hold out hope for holding them to a field goal and keeping it a one-possession game. Considering the Saints' propensity to give up yards but tighten up in the red zone, this isn't an unreasonable line of thought.

The rest is well-covered elsewhere. Manning throws a pick that essentially seals the game, Garrett Hartley makes a Super Bowl-record three field goals beyond 40 yards, despite concerns about his ability to hit from long distances during the season. And the Saints receive a victory that seems like destiny.

Gregg Easterbrook, in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, often refers to the concept of “Football Gods” as a comedic device that rewards teams that play the game correctly. Regardless of your thoughts on divine intervention in football games, it's easy to wonder if Payton and his Saints were being rewarded while Jim Caldwell and his Colts were suffering.

Payton took the bull by the horns and made risky calls to try and seal the game. Caldwell laid down in his pursuit of perfection in games against the Jets and Bills late in the season. Yet as snow coated Ralph Wilson Stadium in January, Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark went out and ensured that each receiver reached 100 catches for the season. This pursuit of individual accomplishments in lieu of a chance at perfection goes against every tenant of teamwork involved in the game.

Caldwell avoids the stigma of the 18-1 season, but this is a perfect example of coaching not to lose, instead of coaching to win as Payton did this evening. Indeed, Caldwell deserved to lose, if one has any respect for the integrity of the game. If the Rams announced they were attempting to lose to gain a better draft slot, everyone, including Caldwell and team president Bill Polian, I'm sure, would be up in arms about tarnishing the integrity of the game. And yet, that is no different from the Colts' actions at the end of the regular season.

So maybe Payton has changed things for the better. Belichick's fourth-and-two call combined with Payton's moves might finally end the habit of incorrect calls that will play well in the media after the game.

There are two areas where coaching could easily be improved. The first, and easiest to understand, is the point after touchdown. For decades, NFL teams were forced to kick for a single point after a touchdown. The addition of the two-point conversion offers teams an underutilized means to gain an advantage. It should not go unnoticed that with a five-point lead, the Saints went for two in this game.

The first coach with an average offense that completely eschews the point after touchdown in favor of the two point conversion – after every score, of every game – will reap the benefits. Consider that you merely have to make more than 50 percent of your two-point conversion attempts for this strategy to gain a net benefit of points in the long run. If you can do that, you're giving yourself a leg up on the competition.

So why hasn't somebody done this? Because the first time a coach loses a game by one point while employing this strategy, the media (and maybe even his boss) will be all over him. Clearly the coach that opens the floodgates must be secure in his job and his team. But once a team does, it could change the game forever.

The second area is fourth downs, which we again saw from Payton. But beyond that, a team that rarely punts on anything less than fourth-and-five, even deep in their own territory, will likely see a benefit. Especially if it's a team with a weaker defense. How many times has a team punted for around 25 net yards and given that back in the next two or three plays? If that team attempted to extend its drive instead, they could see positive gains in the offense.

Certainly that's a more controversial position, so feel free to debate it in the comments (I'm already running long), but the coach that implements such an aggressive mentality could see his team make huge strides against teams coached more conservatively.

Just like Sean Payton, whose "controversial" calls got him and his football team a Super Bowl ring.

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