Playing the Long Game
Photo via Steelers’com
In Ivan Cole’s follow-up post to the Vikings game, he made this point:
4) Haley. Rebecca was right for the most part about my reaction to one series in particular. [That would be the empty backfield on 3rd and 2.] I didn’t scream though, didn’t have to. There were enough other people around me screaming. Todd’s play calling logic eludes and concerns me at times. Let’s just leave it at that.
And then Cold Old Steelers Fan, always the voice of reason, left the following comment:
4) I cursed the bubble screens till I saw a fake bubble screen used to mask a run on 3rd and short in the Vikings game. Now I am thinking that Haley is playing a longer game than we are.
So would the coaches really run plays not so much in the hopes they will succeed in a given situation but for further down the road? (“Further down the road” can be everything from later in the game to later in the season.)
On one level, of course they do. You see it all the time when a team continually tries to run the ball even when the opposing team stacks the box and runs are going for less than three yards per attempt. This is done, or so I’m told, for the purpose of wearing down the defense. Once they are sufficiently worn down, you start to see some big gains later in the game, if all goes well, at a point where you may be hoping to control the pace of the game and greatly reduce the chances for the opposition to possess the ball. (Of course, if you are losing by more than a score at that point, the strategy didn’t work very well…)
So clearly there are instances where coaches call lower-percentage plays in the hopes of benefitting later on. But this is in a single game. Is it reasonable to suppose coaches may do this with a multi-game perspective?
Again, the answer is obviously yes, if you include the pre-season games. The coaches have a great many purposes in these games, only one of which is to win it. Competitive athletes don’t like to lose, and coaches don’t like to lose their jobs. But there is no point in putting subtle strategies on film which you may wish to use in a game in which the outcome matters. There is also no point in sending the guys about whom you are already certain onto the field, except in a very limited form or fashion.
But now let’s get down to some specifics. Is it possible Todd Haley called a bunch of screen passes in the Cleveland game for the sole purpose of putting a bunch of screen passes on film, and thus have the option to fake them? In this instance I would say no—but only with the words “sole purpose” in the sentence. I suspect there were multiple purposes for calling a billion screen passes, despite their ineffectiveness. Here are some possibilities, as always with the proviso to the reader when I speculate that a) I’ve never played any sort of football at all, b) I’ve only been watching it seriously for less than a decade, and with some degree of understanding for far less that that, and c) we can never know what’s going on in anyone’s mind, however knowledgable we are—although apparently Tony Romo is coming pretty close*…
1) The most obvious purpose in the case of the Cleveland game would be to get the ball out of Ben’s hand quickly in a game against an opponent who is weak enough offensively (or so the staff hoped) to be unlikely to actually win the game, and whose defense is good enough (or so the staff suspected) that they could do some serious damage if they got to the quarterback. In addition, the offense had scarcely worked together at all as a unit, thus making it likely they would have at least some miscommunications on more complicated plays, and the opposing defense was being run by a coach with a reputation for, shall we say, a pro-active approach to making things easier for his defense (which I’m not going to spell out for you). Thus it would seem to me that the very first priority would be letting the offense find its feet without killing the quarterback.
2) Continuing with the particular instance of the Cleveland game, another factor might be The Holdout, or whatever you want to call it. The staff would have had very little chance to look at Bell, and from what we’ve seen the past two weeks I’m guessing the looks they did have showed a player who, for whatever reason, wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from him. Jon Ledyard of Scout.com had an interesting comment on this:
I can’t explain why Le’Veon Bell has taken his methodical running style to a new slow-motion level, but it has to change moving forward. I thought he was fine in Week 1, but he’s way too slow to take advantage of creases right now, constantly looking for a better option or bigger hole. He allowed himself to be caught in pursuit several times because he didn’t take advantage of what was originally blocked for him before looking to improvise.
I don’t know about you all, but it really makes me wonder whether this is a result of what some people speculated when Bell took an enormous gamble on himself by turning down a very nice contract to play on the 1-year franchise tag—that it might heighten his concerns about getting yet another injury to a point where he became less effective. Another way of looking at it, if you believe Ledyard’s analysis that Bell is “looking for a better option or a bigger hole” would be that he’s more focused on making highlight-reel plays than getting three-and-a-half ugly yards.
Of course, it could just be “rust,” although that wouldn’t be consistent with Ledyard’s claim that he was “fine” in Week 1. But given how few touches he had in Week 1, it is surely difficult to draw too many conclusions. And I suppose one could also speculate that Week 1 taught Bell that the offensive line wasn’t back to 100% either.
3) This would, I suspect, be what Homer J would call the Yinzer rationale—Todd Haley is in love with screen passes, and he calls them just because he likes them, whether they work or not. In such case Haley isn’t a very good coach. But let’s lay that aside and assume it isn’t actually the case, at least for the purposes of this discussion, and whatever Ivan might think : )
4) There are a lot of good reasons for having the possibility of using screen passes effectively. (I’m using the example of screen passes, since that was the issue at hand.) Thus the coaching staff, or Haley, or whoever makes the final call (we can assume it wouldn’t be Ben, as I don’t think he’s a big fan) decided to use a game in which the chances of winning were high to practice them in a live situation.
This may sound like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. But as a conductor and performing artist I can tell you this—if you want to make a recording of a given piece or group of pieces, and you want to minimize the amount of time you have to have the recording engineers hanging around, with all of the consequent costs, you go out and perform the program as many times as you possibly can first. (I only wish I had been able to do this for my own recordings…) It isn’t that you want to give bad performances, even if they are at high schools or in other relatively unsophisticated venues—it’s just that you need a chance to work out the kinks.
Football people say it all the time—game conditioning/speed/what have you is just not the same as practice, and there is no way to replicate it outside of actual games. Games that count.
I know exactly what they mean, because the same is true of music. You can practice until you are cross-eyed but it still doesn’t tell you exactly what is going to happen when you actually perform the music. First of all, it takes more energy. My undergraduate organ teacher, a well-known recitalist, told me once that it was a good idea to play straight through your program twice without pausing in the week before a performance, because that would give you an idea of the amount of stamina it would take to play through it once with an audience.
There was an interesting example in a similar vein with Mike Hilton. The first week he more or less split defensive snaps with William Gay because he was winded from playing all of the special teams snaps. While he said he really enjoys being a gunner, he felt he wasn’t able to play all of the special teams snaps as well as most of the defensive snaps. So the coaches took him off of some of the more high-energy-requirement special teams situations in the Vikings game, and he played almost three times as many of the defensive snaps as William Gay. Since Hilton appears to be an upgrade at this point in Gay’s career, that makes a lot of sense. And possibly if his game conditioning improves throughout the season he won’t need those breathers, or perhaps it just makes sense to keep him fresher anyhow.
And in the end it gave an opportunity for the Steelers’ 5th round pick, Brian Allen, to get on the field, and it was he who downed the punt at the MIN 1 yard line. (I incorrectly attributed this to James Conner in my game recap, and this gives me a chance to set the record straight.) So this was a win-win.
But to return to the difference between practice and performance, I would say, from my own experience anyhow, that the difference is primarily one of focus. Try however hard I may, I can never achieve the level of focus in a practice session that I do in a concert. I discovered years ago that increasing my focus in practice sessions allowed me to get away with considerably fewer and/or shorter ones, and since I’m a big fan of maximizing my efforts I work diligently at that. But nonetheless you can never replicate the intensity of focus a live performance situation creates.
So do I really believe the coaching staff would use real game time to “practice” something? Well, actually, I think it is at least possible, if the circumstances are right. It could come back to bite them, of course.** But it could also mean the difference between a victory and a loss a few weeks hence, and this would definitely factor into the risk/reward calculations.
There was a bit of minor confirmation last Tuesday in a Ray Fittipaldo Post Gazette article. Fittipaldo was focusing on the amount of playing time the members of the talented Steelers WR corps were (or weren’t) getting. Note this paragraph:
Bryant said the receivers aren’t focused on playing time or touches. They’re on board with offensive coordinator Todd Haley as he tries to figure out what the best combinations are for his unit.
What?!!!! Haley doesn’t know what the “best combination” is? Well of course he doesn’t.
Bryant wasn’t allowed to practice until almost the end of training camp. Juju Smith-Schuster missed a lot of it with injuries. It wasn’t obvious to anyone, including, I suspect, the coaching staff, who was going to win the competition for any slot not occupied by Antonio Brown or Martavis Bryant. (Don’t forget that besides the eventual winners, Sammie Coates was also in the mix, as well as a couple of guys who “represented themselves well” in camp, as Mike Tomlin would say.) They also didn’t have Le’Veon Bell around until the week before the season began, and Bell was an important part of the passing game last season. How on earth could Haley have any idea, even two weeks into the season, as to exactly what the best basic personnel set would be?
I could witter on ad nauseum but I think you get the idea. It’s almost certain we will never know whether any of these speculations are correct, and it doesn’t matter, really. The main point which I hope you take away is that what we see on Sundays can only tell us so much, and the depths of our ignorance are always going to be pretty profound. This does not, however, mean we have to stop shouting at the television when the Steelers line up with an empty backfield on 3rd-and-2…
*In case you’ve missed it, check out the videos on NFL.com. Romo has apparently been spooky-good as a commentator at sniffing out what the next play is going to be from looking at the formation. Perhaps being able to look at the formation without wondering if an opposing defensive player is going to put him on IR yet again contributes to his seemingly preternatural abilities.
**Could this possibly be a partial explanation of “The Steelers play down to bad teams” meme? Perhaps there is at least an unconscious tendency on Tomlin’s part to feel certain games are an opportunity to try some things out or work on some techniques. (I expect Coach T would be horrified at the very idea. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.)
But before we speculate about such a thing, it makes sense to see if there is ample justification for the meme in the first place. So I decided to take a look at Tomlin’s record during his entire tenure, as there were years the Steelers were a dominant club and years where they were, to use the euphemism, rebuilding. Or just very unlucky with injuries. And sometimes a team which looked bad before the Steelers played them turned out to have been on their way up, as was the case with the Miami Dolphins last year. That loss looked rather different at the end of the season.
Here, after a lot of squinting at Pro Football Reference, is Tomlin’s regular season record in a variety of metrics. Please note that for the purposes of these calculation I counted an 8-8 season as a winning record and an 7-8-1 season as a losing record, because it was frankly too much trouble to have a third category.
I thought the clincher might be the final metric—how Tomlin’s teams did against really bad teams. (Teams who lost three times as many games as they won, or more, surely qualify as “really bad.”) Here are the numbers:
- Mike Tomlin overall regular season record prior to 2017: 103 – 57
- Record against opponents who made the playoffs: 27 – 29
- Record against non-playoff-achieving opponents: 77 – 27
- Record against teams with a winning record: 46 – 36
- Record against teams with a losing record: 57 – 21
- Record against teams who finished with a better record that the Steelers: 17 – 18
- Record against teams who finished with the same record as the Steelers: 9 – 11
- Record against teams who finished with a worse record than the Steelers: 78 – 27
- Record against teams who finished with a 4-12 or worse record: 24 – 5
While there is no doubt the Steelers have laid an egg on occasion against teams they “should” beat, things look rather different when you look at the whole body of work. Under Tomlin the Steelers have beaten teams who ultimately didn’t make the playoffs or ended the season with a losing record almost three times for every one they lost. [And unless you’re the Team Which Must Not Be Named, you’re just not going to beat every team you “should” beat. That’s why they say “any given Sunday.”]
The Steelers under Mike Tomlin have basically split games with teams who ended up with better records than they—which is fair enough. And they have beaten the very worst teams almost five times for every time they lost.
I didn’t break out the numbers by season, because my eyes are glazing over at this point. But three of the five losses to truly bad teams came during what we have come to see as the heart of the “rebuild” – 2012 – 2014. (The other two were in 2007 and 2009.)
I’m sure this won’t put to rest the above-mentioned meme, but I thought it was worth putting some hard numbers to it.