I watched two risk-management decisions come to life last weekend — one in the flesh, another via satellite feed. One flopped and one didn’t. One choice likely will cost a coach his job, the other firmly reminded a franchise of why it had made the hire.
First, the flop — Missouri at Tennessee. Derek Dooley hasn’t won an SEC game this season. The Vols' defense is allowing 37 points per game against their non-pastry opponents. And now Mizzou has just jammed it under Dooley’s nails, converting two fourth downs on a long, torturous drive that tied the game with less than a minute left.
Tigers squib the kickoff. Yes, it prevents the long runback, but it’s still a dangerous maneuver because it sets up Tennessee at its own 39. With 43 seconds and two timeouts in their wallet, you’d have to say the Vols were still in business, at least for maybe a long FG attempt.
Initially, Dooley tries two pass plays. One goes incomplete; the other is stiffed for no gain.
Suddenly the coach pulls his offense off the field, clapping with wild, pep club enthusiasm — “OK, let’s go! Let’s go! Onward!” — as the stadium watches the clock drip to zero. But the real message to his team was, I have no confidence in you. I can’t afford an interception here. I can’t afford a fumble.
Emotionally it was a rough thing to do to his players. They stiffly trudged toward him. I wonder if George Washington, the fine general, clapped as he pulled his troops out of New York, the decision to retreat from White Plains?
Initially the Knoxville crowd is silent. No boos. That’s because their jaws are locked in disbelief. Evidently, the coach who hasn’t won an SEC game this year decides his best chance to get one is in overtime, against a wild, spread-em-out offense like Missouri’s. A quick poll of the Tigers fans in my area is taken. A consensus.
“A gift!” they all say. “We’ll take it.”
Derek Dooley still hasn’t won an SEC game this year.
It has been quite a while since I’ve seen Jeff Fisher operate with such calculated abandon. The last time was 2004, when he was coaching a Titans team had been ground to dust by injuries, and Fisher found himself flipping through books on gambling and sorcery and witchcraft, trying to conjure up some luck into his weary ballclub. He kept it away from the high-octane Chiefs one night with a phony punt. Against Indy and Peyton Manning he called three onside kicks in a row then another fake from punt formation. Hey, desperate times …
"We felt our best chance to win this game was to keep [Indy’s] offense off the field,” he said afterward. “We told the guys, ‘So what if we don’t recover it? They get it on the 40-yard line and they’re three plays away from being on the 4-yard line anyway.’ ”
Fisher was at it again last Sunday at San Francisco. After a 3-2 start, his Rams had broken down and there was no way he was coming in there and winning a straight tug-of-war with the brawny 49ers. So he hit San Fran with a classy pair of fake punts that worked and injected his fading team with some spirit.
The first fake out of his own endzone, P Johnny Hekker whipping a pass to the sideline, catching the Niners napping and getting 21 yards. The next one was a little dressier, a mock end-around, then Hekker flipping to TE Lance Kendricks, who picked up 19 on an out route.
Fisher said he only ordered one of them — the throw to Kendricks — while the other was a player’s choice by Hekker. If he’s open, hit him.
“It was something San Francisco did that was unsound,” Hekker explained. “They left our gunner wide open and didn’t bring anyone out to cover him. It’s something we were ready for.”
“We have a punter who can throw it …” Fisher said. “Sometimes we’ll put [the fake] on … or I’ll call it off. But that’s how we do things here.”
Doing things like trying to win football games, not survive them.
Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh has become a gambling man lately. His luck hasn’t been as good. He tried a trick field goal in close against the Giants and it got stuffed, and on Monday night at home he went for it on 4th-and-short at midfield — with a backup quarterback and a backup fullback and a rainy sky — and the Chiefs wrecked it.
Tomlin is a stoneface. Blown risks don’t phase him if you’re smart about it. “You assess the situation; sometimes it’s worth the shot,” he’ll tell you.
Evidently, Vince Lombardi loved to launch the bomb on 3rd-and-short setups, when the defense is bunched in tight. And there’s that old story about the Chiefs’ Len Dawson being questioned by a writer in the postgame for throwing the ball in the same situation. It was Dawson’s first year in the AFL after a washout stretch with the Browns and Steelers and he didn’t appreciate the second-guessing.
“I called it because I thought it would work,” he growled. “Hey, I rotted too many years on the bench to come in here and play conservative.”
Remember Super Bowl XXI, how the Giants hit Denver with some dramatic flim-flammery to juice up that game? The Super Bowl, the stage that grips the throat tightest, and there’s Bill Parcells flashing his team from a midfield punt formation into a QB sneak and banging out a first down.
“We’ve had that [play] in all year,” Parcells said. “It’s a gut feeling.”
That’s an honest way of saying it. Gut coaching versus the by-the-books method. Gambling versus knowing when to sit on your hands. Baseball managers last for years playing the statistics. In football, it’s a weave of both tactics that produces the real winners.
Years ago I knew a business exec, a guy in a tie who’d bombard you with that tired “definition of insanity” adage — “doing same things but expecting different results” and blah, blah, blah.
Well, that guy eventually got fired, because he kept doing things the same way and the company kept up its same losing results, and in football you wonder why coaches don’t crank up the risk tolerance when their own ship is sinking, trying to create some breaks and excitement instead of punting near midfield when you’re down by 20? Bill Walsh, the wonderful 49ers coach, once gave me his explanation.
“A full-time gambler will never win,” Walsh said. “If a gamble works then it’s a short-lived euphoria but it’s no way to travel. The odds are against you. People tend to play it safe. The conservative approach won’t cost anyone his job.”
Oh, but it does. I can think of plenty of buttoned-down coaches who traveled safe and came up losers. So why not twirl the dice?
I mean, which is better for a guy on a life sentence — to plan an escape and create some hope, or sit there forever and count the hours?
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.