It’s easy to second guess a coach during a game. On any given sideline, 53 players will have at least 54 opinions of what should be done on any given play. There is what each privately thinks and doesn’t share, and what they all would agree is in the best interest of the team. That’s why a coach calls plays and players do as they are told. When a coach second guesses his players, it’s not easy to swallow.
The media debate around John Fox’s decision on the final possession of regulation in the Denver Broncos loss to the Baltimore Ravens has been pretty intense. The Ravens just roasted the Broncos’ secondary for a 70-yard bomb to tie the game. Denver took the ball on their 20-yard line needing only a field goal to end the game and advance to the playoffs. They had Peyton Manning at quarterback, and he’s led the second most game-winning drives in NFL history. They were in Denver. The players and pieces were on their marks. Ready? SET?
EXIT STAGE RIGHT!
Boy, really glad I’m not a member of the Denver Broncos following that surrender.
Peyton Manning was born to turn those moments into points. He didn’t come out of retirement and risk his neck to take a knee. With that in mind, Fox explained himself after the game.
“It didn’t seem to be the right time to go for the jugular,” he said. “I’d do that again 10 times out of 10 if faced with that situation.”
Somewhere in Tampa, Greg Schiano just got a nosebleed and punched his television. Somewhere in Denver, a lot of Broncos have lost faith in their head coach.
All he needed was a field goal. On the road Joe Flacco has MORE confidence in a checkdown on 4th and 29 for the game AND a Hail Mary to force overtime than Fox has in Manning setting up Matt Prater for a field goal for a win AT HOME. Let that sink in for a few moments.
The Ravens have been running off gutsy plays and Ray Lewis’ torn triceps for weeks. They just made a momentum-swinging play to cling to desperation. Fox let them off the cliff, helped them back on the ledge, and gave them several minutes to collect their thoughts and catch up. Did anyone in Denver mention to him they were in the playoffs? He felt better going into overtime with a freshly roasted secondary than trying to squeak in a field goal and win the game.
I’ll be honest, I’m thoroughly convinced Fox made that call because he doesn’t believe in his team to execute in that final minute. There is someone Fox doesn’t trust, but I don’t think it’s Manning. It must be Matt Prater, the kicker who missed a 52-yard field goal earlier in the game. If you asked Fox and Manning before a game to pass on two timeouts and the ball with 31 seconds left to win and avoid overtime, they’d rightfully ask if you fell off the moon and landed on your head. The NFL should investigate if Fox suffered a concussion during the game and rushed back to coaching despite medical advice. More tests should be ordered. Someone jam salt up his nose already.
Many situations arise in football where trust plays are a central issue. Come game time with precious seconds on the clock and a season on the line, you go with what you have, and you either execute, or you don’t. In Denver there’s another option: walking away and crossing your fingers.
I remember playing on a team in college where the offensive coordinator and the head coach regularly clashed with the QB behind the scenes. The QB was our incumbent and a pretty sharp slinger. Our coaches favored a ground heavy attack to set up the pass, and we had a real stud at RB. Our QB preferred to air it out. This is as common as cats fighting dogs.
Before our fourth game of the year, sitting at 2-1, our coaches decided to bench the QB for his backup because they felt he wasn’t playing up to par. They blamed his blitz audibles for inconsistency and wanted to shake up the offense. It quite rightly shocked several offensive players, but we prepared for the game like we would any other. It was early in the year, and there was a lot of football to be played.
As fate had it, the backup QB came down with mono on Friday night before our Saturday game and was out for weeks after. Begrudgingly the staff turned to the starter again, who’d held his silence in bemused wonder. That Saturday he went out and lit up the other team for three touchdowns. In the first quarter, two of them on audibles. The coaching staff never forgave him.
After a sit down the next week the QB convinced the OC to let him call the plays for one drive in the first half of the next game. The result? A seven-play drive for a field goal during another win. He never called his own plays again. Even better, the OC in the booth would relay to the QB on the field certain plays he was forbidden to check out of regardless of the defensive alignment. I can tell you there is nothing more disheartening than breaking a huddle on your own 10-yard line and having the defense yelling “COUNTER COUNTER, WATCH THE COUNTER” 10 seconds before they stuffed our counter run for a six-yard loss. I think it was totally the pulling guard’s fault for not sealing the end.
For the remainder of what turned out to be a very successful year, the coaching staff and the QB gingerly worked through their mistrust of each other as we kept winning. The rest of the players handled it pretty well as it was mostly behind the scenes, but there were many times it affected the team. Our OC was nicknamed “Scrambled Eggs” after his demeanor on game days in the booth. It proved true.
Our year ended in disastrous fashion on a frozen field in Halifax among a cutting windstorm. Our play calling was pretty erratic at best, although the way St Mary’s played us that day it made no difference. You couldn’t hear the QB going through his snap count from 10-feet away because of the howling wind. Relaying play calls from the sideline was painful at best, and we were pasted 60-7. A few days later word emerged from assistants that our OC lost his play call sheet early in the game and never got on track. The same OC who wrote the playbook, installed the offense, and had been doing so for 15 years.
Maybe he forgot what football was completely. The plays were being shuttled in and out of the huddle by running backs by the time we were down 35 points in the second half and our QB started calling his own plays. It’s disrespectful on one hand, and goes against the team ethos, but the fact is our QB had more trust in the players around him to move the ball than our OC had in the entire offense. With the season dwindling fast and ugly, the QB threw everything we had left into the storm and the defense. It made no difference on the scoreboard, but made all the difference in the locker room.
Losing happens whether you’re playing your best or worst football at times. The game is cruel that way.
When it comes to trusting your players, you either do or don’t. John Fox didn’t. Maybe he can’t even believe it now, but he sure can’t admit it publicly because he’d get crucified in the locker room and even more in the media if he did. Fox thought he could buy time by playing conservative, but the only thing he accomplished was losing the season in overtime and the trust of some of his players.
There is no guarantee the drive would have produced points, and the result could have easily been the same, with overtime still played. But ask yourself or any player who’s played football…do you want to go out with all guns blazing, or kneel down and cross your fingers?
Now ask yourself what answer you need from a coach to believe in him?
John Fox can say what he wants, and you can believe him. But I’m certain he doesn’t believe in all his players. Now they know it too, but they just don’t know who.
He can point to Rahim Moore’s blown coverage on defense or Manning’s interception in overtime, and make a valid argument the game was lost over several series, and not just one possession. He’s right, but he should also cross his fingers for next season. This one is over.
I wonder how many Broncos will still believe in him.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.