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Coaching Cowardice Culture: Matt Lafleur’s Packers; the latest victims

With 2:09 left in the game the Green Bay Packers (who trailed the Tampa Bay Bucs by 8) lined up to kick a short field goal rather than attempt to score on a 4th and goal situation. I am fully aware that NFL coaches, by and large, are much better at understanding the situation that most of us in our living rooms.  They have dedicated their lives to coaching and their commitment to their craft has allowed them to ascend to the height of their profession. However, with all of that dilution out of the way, there are times where I simply don’t understand why certain decisions are made.  Matt Lafleur’s decision to kick a field goal, remain down by a touchdown and give the ball back to Tom Brady was the latest in a bizarre set of decisions that has plagued this postseason.

Football games are rarely, if ever, decided by a single play, a single mistake, or a single decision. It’s a complicated game and while it makes for easy fodder for media types to descend upon a single decision, there are many plays and choices that can affect an outcome.  In many cases there isn’t a seminal moment but rather several seemingly unrelated junctures that allow the game to get out of hand for one of the teams. I consider this to be akin to a poor performance by an orchestra. It likely will not be a singular catastrophe that derails a performance but rather a few dissonant notes scattered throughout the performance that will leave the conductor and the audience confounded.

All that is to say, the decision to kick is not THE reason the Packers lost.  Green Bay had the opportunity to capitalize on two late interceptions by Tom Brady and they did not gain a first down either time.  However, while the decision to kick the field goal is not the sole reason that the Packers lost the game, it was a head scratcher for fans and did not play well in the football community.

We’ve seen this type of decision get made often during the NFL playoffs.  In each of these circumstances, the teams have not fared well.  With four minutes left, Kevin Stefanski had a 4th and 9 situation, the Browns trailed the Chiefs 22-17 and had only a single timeout remaining.  The Browns decided to punt the ball back to Chad Henne and the Chiefs (as Pat Mahomes had left the game with an injury).  The Browns would never see the ball again and the Chiefs would advance to the conference championship. On the way there the Browns defense would allow a 4th and 1 conversion to Henne and the Chiefs.  The Browns not only decided to kick the ball away when they were afforded the opportunity to go for it on fourth but also did not run a sequence of plays that would even set themselves up for a 4th and short situation.

The Tennessee Titans had a similar situation arise in the wild card weekend.  While not as obvious as the two situations delineated above, the Titans, who were the underdog in the game punted the ball back to the Ravens with 10:06 remaining on the Ravens 40 yard line coach Mike Vrabel decided to pun the ball and gain 25 yards in lieu of a fairly makeable 4th and 2 convert attempt or a 52 yard field goal attempt.  Once again, the team that played it safe did not win the game.

NFL coaches are famous for preaching, toughness and the will to win.  The gladiators that put their bodies on the line every week deserve better than cowardice from the position of leadership.  There is simply no other way to put it, these decisions were just cowardly and in no way embodies the “do what it takes to win” mantra that the NFL has represented for years. We have known for years that teams are disproportionately risk averse in situations that analytics would defend aggression. 

This brings us back to the Packers situation. The team, through cowardice and incompetence have absolutely failed their superstar quarterback.  Not only did Matt Lafleur take the ball out of the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks hands but, much like that wasn’t the only reason they lost, the organization has failed Rodgers at every turn. 

The Packers draft strategy was one that left many puzzled.  The Packers traded up to draft Rodgers replacement Jordan Love.  In this draft they would draft only a single player who would end up playing on Championship Weekend (AJ Dillon got to play in the game after an injury to Aaron Jones).  Whatever you think of the Packers skill position players (I’ve often said that they’re secondary receivers are essentially glorified shopping carts), it is still unacceptable to provide no help for a team that reached the NFC championship in four of the last seven years.

So why is it that coaches take the safer route when it seems so obvious that being aggressive would reward them or at least give the impression that the team is doing everything to win? I believe that in many cases coaches are, even if subconsciously, coaching to keep their jobs rather than coaching to win.  Just as they are held accountable if the team doesn’t live up to expectations, coaches who aren’t coaching in a way that puts their team in the best position to win should be held accountable. Andy Reid went for it on 4th and 1 in his own territory and allowed his backup quarterback to secure the win for the Chiefs and years ago Bellechick trusted Brady on fourth down in a game where The Patriots would go on to lose. In each case the result was different but no one could fault either head coach as the two legendary football minds left no stone unturned on the path to greatness.

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