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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Dick Vermeil's Last-Second Play Call

I loved Dick Vermeil's call on the last play in regulation at home against the Raiders on Sunday. Down 23-20 with one second to go, the Chiefs' mentor called a handoff to Larry Johnson, who leaped over the line and into the end zone for the game-winning score (they kicked the extra point because, unlike in overtime, NFL rules require that the PAT be attempted). Great, gutsy call.

I had two thoughts about the call. The first involved the odds of being right, and The Sports Economist has a good post on the topic here. There's game theory involved, of course, and I for one wondered how many coaches would have taken the plunge and how many would have settled for the field goal and taken their chances on overtime. My guess is more would have done the latter than the former, but read the whole post and determine how you would come out. I recall a quote from a famous coach about going for a first down on a fourth and one early in the game when the ball was at midfield. The quote was something like, "If we can't get that yard, we have serious problems." In other words, the odds were that his team was more likely to make it than not.

Vermeil had to have believed that if his offensive line couldn't make their blocks in this type of pressure, well, what were the odds that they'd make the playoffs or do well in them anyway. Now, the Chiefs can use this result to fortify their courage, that when faced with the abyss, they know how to conquer it. That play call could play huge dividends for Kansas City in the last half of the NFL season.

Here's the other thought -- did the age of the coach matter in making the call? Vermeil has been to a few Super Bowls, won one of them, and he's a grandfather and about 70 years old or so (we should all look as good as he does at that age). He doesn't have much left to prove, and, if they fire him, he's had a great career, could make the Hall of Fame, and he really wouldn't have damaged his career (not that one play call would cause him to get fired, at least not this one). But would a younger coach, one on the way up in his career, made the same call?

I am not so sure. On the one hand, if the team scored a touchdown, he would be heralded as a brave coach, an excellent leader, and someone who is decisive about his team's abilities -- with a great future. On the other hand, if the team failed to score, he could be excoriated as a dopey lummox who flaunted the odds and should have taken the sure thing. We've heard these comments time and time again, and I'm reminded a quote that a friend of my father's, an Air Force veteran, once said: "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there is no such thing as an old, bold pilot."

Which means, perhaps, that Vermeil's decision was a very sound one. Or it means that we're not defining boldness the way we used to. My view is that a coach less secure in his job and less sure of his own decisionmaking probably would have kicked the field goal. That's not necessarily the coach who will get your team to the playoffs, though. In contrast, a coach of Vermeil's stature had absolutely nothing to lose. A coaching statesman, if his team scores a touchdown, people marvel at his courage. If his team failed, they would have said, "you have to give Vermeil credit for having guts."

I'm glad that the Chiefs went for it and applaud teams who have enough confidence in short-yardage situations to end their games once and for all. There's no guarantee that if you kick the field goal, get the tie and go into overtime that you'll win the toss or convert on your first possession. The Chiefs had their destiny in that game right before them, ripe for the taking, and they went out and seized the day.

That's what winning teams do.

Old coach or young coach.

And the odds seem to be pretty good, to boot.

Err, to touchdown.

1 Comments:

Blogger Ralph Hickok said...

In one of the most famous NFL games ever, the "Ice Bowl" between the Packers and Cowboys in 1967, Vince Lombardi made a similar decision to go for the winning touchdown instead of the tying field goal. That, of course, was the NFL championship game, and the Packers scored the TD to win the title. Both Lombardi and Bart Starr said afterward that, during the Packers' timeout (their last), they gave no thought at all to trying the field goal. All they discussed was what play to call. There was little, if any, second-guessing in the media about the decision, so far as I recall.

11:13 AM  

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