Throughout the 2015 season, VICE Sports has been exploring the many ways in which NFL head coaches sabotage themselves with critical game-management errors.
Coaches "play the percentages" with only a dim grasp of what the percentages really are. Driven by fan and media pressure to play conservatively and lose rather than win aggressively, they often kick away their last, best opportunity to win in the first half—only to take desperate gambles to keep hope alive in the second.
In the wake of a not-very-black Black Monday, six men who started the season as NFL head coaches are unemployed. As part of our continuing mission to make everyone who loves the NFL smarter—and maybe reverse some of that pressure to be conservative—let's take a look at how the ex-coaches approached decision-making.
CHIP KELLY, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: 7-9, .956 4TH-DOWN PERCENTAGE
The New York Times's 4th Down Bot is still a work in progress. It was retooled in the middle of the season and doesn't have data for every single week. It also, by design, throws out decisions made at the very end of halves, because Win Probability skews so heavily at these times. Of course, high-leverage situations are exactly when coaches should be looking at the real percentages, but it isn't my bot.
The Bot is still a sophisticated model that accounts for a lot of factors, though, and it's the best decision-review engine we've got. Taking everything into account, the Bot thinks Kelly did an exceptional job, going 86-4 in the games it measured. All four of those mistakes came in the last four games of the season, when, against all odds, the Eagles still had a chance to win the division.
In Week 14 against the Buffalo Bills, Kelly chose to punt on 4th-and-5 from the Bills' 41-yard line; the score was tied at 20 with 8:47 left. Trusting his defense—his 28th-ranked scoring defense—to get a stop, Kelly risked ending the season right there. Fortunately, Fletcher Cox bailed Kelly out on the next drive, blowing up a LeSean McCoy run. In a bit of poetic drama, the former Eagle (and outspoken Kelly critic) was thrown for a 10-yard loss. On the Eagles' next possession, they drove for a game-winning field goal.
In the decisive Week 15 game against the Arizona Cardinals, though, the Bot flagged Kelly for two big 4th-down mistakes. The first was a second-quarter 4th-and-1 from their own 34-yard line. Despite being four-point home underdogs already down by seven, Kelly chose to punt rather than take better-than-even odds to keep the drive alive.
A late-half decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Cardinals' eight was given up on by the Bot, but was absolutely the right call: had Ryan Mathews been able to get that yard, the Eagles would have had an excellent chance of going into halftime tied, and due to get the ball back in the second half. Unfortunately, he didn't get the yard.
On the opening possession of the second half, Kelly opted to punt on a 4th-and-4 from his own 41. The Bot cried foul, and with good reason: the Cardinals went on a 23-7 run the rest of the way. That was Kelly's last, best chance to salvage the season (and his job), which is a very bad time to get conservative.
MIKE PETTINE, CLEVELAND BROWNS: 3-13, .923 4TH-DOWN PERCENTAGE
There was a whole lot wrong with Mike Pettine's Browns before we even got to game management. Yet, despite a couple high-profile brain farts from whateverth-string quarterback Austin Davis, Pettine actually did a decent job of being appropriately aggressive.
The Bot graded him 72-6 on the season, and he even earned "Opening the Door" plaudits in the Week 3 and Week 6 editions of this column. The Bot grades every fourth-down call—and Pettine's team faced a lot of easy decisions on 4th-and-forever. One crucial 4th-and-short, however, might have saved Pettine's job.
In a Week 9 Thursday Night Football matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pettine had a chance to upset his cross-state rivals in a prime-time home game with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. Pettine should have pulled out every stop on the organ to win this one, but early in the second half, as detailed in this space, he punted on 4th-and-inches. Despite being down by just four, with a viable chance to pull the upset, Pettine got cold feet—and so did his normally hot-footed punter, Andy Lee, who kicked it just 28 yards downfield.
The eventual 31-10 loss dropped the Browns to 2-7, and probably ended any chance Pettine had of making a case to keep his gig.
JIM TOMSULA, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: 5-11, .910 4th-DOWN PERCENTAGE
The narrative surrounding Tomsula was an offseason freight train: uncouth, untrained, and unready to lead one of the NFL's most genteel organizations, Tomsula was supposed to be a position coach flailing wildly and out of his depth. A huge season-opening Monday Night Football upset of the Minnesota Vikings and a 10-1 4th-down track record derailed that narrative freight train, at least temporarily.
Tomsula continued to do relatively well with game management, hiding two missed decisions in a close Week 6 win over the decimated Baltimore Ravens and a 27-6 blowout loss at the hands of the St. Louis Rams. A gutsy first-half call to go for a 4th-and-1 from the Atlanta Falcons' nine-yard line in Week 9 secured an eventual 17-16 win, and earned a fist-bump in that week's edition of this column.
Unfortunately, his courage left him in Week 14. Down by seven against Pettine's hapless Browns, Tomsula punted on 4th-and-6 from his own 44-yard line. That might not sound too bad, but against the Browns defense he had a 41 percent shot of making it—and against the Browns offense, had he failed, the field position wouldn't have been lethal.
Passing up a scoring drive, however, did him in. The Browns went on to win just their third game all year, and Tomsula went on to get fired for not being good enough at coaching.
TOM COUGHLIN, NEW YORK GIANTS: 6-10, .835 4th-DOWN PERCENTAGE
Coughlin is a great coach, beloved by many of his players. His against-all-odd success in Jacksonville is often overlooked, and his two Super Bowl championships impossible to ignore.
The oldest and longest-tenured coach on our list was also the most conservative on 4th downs, and the Bot marked Coughlin an unimpressive 76-15. That's almost four times as many suboptimal decisions as Kelly had, with just one more opportunity.
How did this hold the Giants back? Look no further than the crucial Week 13 matchup against the New York Jets. In the battle of MetLife Stadium tenants, Coughlin blew two huge opportunities not only to establish dominance in the city but to keep his team in the NFC East playoff race.
The first was well documented here. The Giants were pushed back a yard on a 3rd-and-goal from the Jets' one, setting up a 42 percent chance to extend their four-point lead to an impressive 11 points. Instead, the Giants kicked a field goal, crucially letting the Jets hang within one score.
Late in the second half, with just 2:48 to go, Coughlin again made a suboptimal choice. On 4th-and-1 from their own 29-yard line, the Giants had a 69 percent chance of converting, which would all but seal the game. Instead, Coughlin punted—and Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick shredded the Giants defense for the tying touchdown.
The Jets won in overtime, and the Giants dropped to 5-7, turning a Week 15 match-up against the then-undefeated Carolina Panthers into a must-win.
They didn't win, and now Coughlin isn't the coach anymore.
JOE PHILBIN, MIAMI DOLPHINS: 1-3, 1.000 4TH-DOWN PERCENTAGE*
KEN WHISENHUNT, TENNESSEE TITANS: 1-6, .917 4TH-DOWN PERCENTAGE*
The Times's 4th-Down Bot was offline for retooling for Weeks 3-5, meaning we didn't get a very accurate picture of either of these coaches' 4th-down ability this season. However, with Whiz getting fired just seven games after drafting a No. 2 overall rookie quarterback, and Philbin getting the ziggy during the Dolphins' Week 4 bye, it's clear the axe was hovering over both their heads long before their teams even took the field—and it's not clear any in-game optimizing could have stopped it.