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Monday Morning Quarterback

Eventually, when things get back to somewhat normal, I’m going to devote space on this forum for sports commentary. As a preview, I will discuss an issue involving the most recent major Championship game, Super Bowl LIV.

Head Coach and offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan was heavily criticized after the game by the media about his play calling, some even blamed the loss solely on him. The main criticism was about a pass play he called on 2nd & 5 on their own 25 after a 5-yard run with 5:26 left in the 4th quarter ahead 20-17. The pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle fell incomplete. They failed to convert on 3rd down which led to a punt that the Chiefs turned into the go-ahead touchdown. The collective media was both in agreement and apoplectic. They should have run the ball.

But after watching the Chiefs drive right down the field and score a touchdown to cut their lead to 3 points, maybe Shanahan wanted to stay aggressive. Maybe he thought playing conservative, played right into Patrick Mahomes hands. Maybe the Chiefs showed a high tendency of playing a defense in that situation which was vulnerable to play action pass.

The series prior, the 49ers faced a very similar situation. Ahead 20-10, they had the ball, 2nd & 4, after a 6-yard run with 11:18 left in the 4th quarter, they called a pass. There was no criticism of that play call when in fact it was a very similar call in a very similar situation. Why was there no criticism? The answer is easy. That play worked. Garoppolo completed the pass to Kittle for a 12-yard gain.

The average NFL quarterback completes over 60% of his passes. The best running team have around a 50% run efficiency. So, by throwing the ball in that situation, the 49ers had a better chance of gaining the yards for a first down than by running it. They were more likely to be facing a 3rd and 5 or less by running the ball.

I’m not claiming that a run would have been a bad call in that situation. In 2nd and 5 or less, the coordinator has his entire playbook available to him. He can run inside or outside, throw short, medium or long, quick game, play action, gadget, flea flicker. It’s all there for him to call, except according to the critics the call you make that doesn’t happen to work.

What would the criticism have been if the run that the media critics so desired was stuffed for no gain or a loss? It would have sounded something like this:

This is the Super Bowl; you can’t run the ball twice in a row.

You can’t be afraid to stay aggressive.

You can’t play conservative in such a big game.

Shanahan got scared. He was playing not to lose, instead of to win.

How can you get conservative when playing against Patrick Mahomes?

You have to outscored that high scoring offense.

You can’t expect to run out the clock in this game vs this team.

We have heard all the clichés a hundred times before. Bottom line; their criticism came down to this; the play didn’t work, you lost. It’s all your fault.

How much criticism would Doug Pederson have received if the “Philly Special” on 4th and Goal in the Super Bowl slipped through Nick Foles’ hands incomplete? He would have been vilified. Instead, he’s a genius. Being aggressive is only good if it works.

If the only reason for criticizing play calling is that the play didn’t work, and praising it is because the play did work, that is not analysis. My three-year-old daughter could make that assessment. We don’t need these obvious observations. We saw which team won and which plays were successful.

Did any of these commentators discuss what front the Chiefs were running, were the Chiefs playing a clean box or a loaded box? Were they playing split safeties or single high? Was it a blitz look? Did they match personnel? What were the Chiefs tendencies in all those areas? All of that information is needed to come up with the best play call. This is not Madden, where you just dial up plays.

None of this information was discussed or even hinted at in the critique of the play call, yet all this information must be processed to make the play call. The play caller had about 12 seconds to process all of that. The critics had 12 hours to process it, and yet all they could come up with was, he should have run the ball.

The important decision was not so much run or pass, but which run play or which pass play. Most audibles at the line of scrimmage are a check from one run to another run or one pass to another pass. There are fewer run-pass checks. So, making sure you have the correct call is the most important thing.

When claiming the 49ers should have run the ball, did any of the critics suggest which specific running play Shanahan should have called. This is important because calling the wrong running play could be less successful than an incomplete pass. The critics may say they will defer to the play caller on which running play to call, but he should have just run the ball. You cannot defer to the play caller the same time you are criticizing him. And if you do not understand that deciding which specific run or pass to call is more important than deciding whether to run or pass, you don’t have enough of an understanding of how a game is called to criticize any play caller.

In the end, most of the play calls and coaching decisions that have the greatest impact on the outcome of the game, are not the big obvious plays that are discussed in the media. They are the subtle decisions that go unnoticed by the lay person. Creating certain match-ups, alignments, shades, scheme adjustments, altering footwork, which techniques to use, are all important decisions designed to give slight advantages that increase probability of the success of a play. Game planning and play calling becomes very granular.

I’m not claiming that coaches and play caller are above criticism, nor am I suggesting that certain people do have a right to criticize, but if you are very emphatically going to blame a Super Bowl loss on one person for one play call, you better be much more informed with you criticism than simply saying, he should have run the ball.

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Judd Garrett is a former NFL player, coach and executive. He is a frequent contributer to the website Real Clear Politics, and has recently published his first novel, No Wind