Many times throughout the season, I criticized San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy for not being aggressive enough in decision making on fourth downs. I’m almost always saying something snarky about it on Twitter during the games. I also noted during the season McCoy should be seriously considered as a Coach of the Year candidate. If those two things seem to be conflicting thoughts, they are not.
There is a difference between being a good overall head coach and consistently making smart, informed and aggressive decisions. Usually the coaches who make those smart and informed decisions on game day are very good head coaches, but there are plenty of good coaches in the league whose first instinct is to play conservatively in key situations.
We — myself included — put a loaded emphasis on things like fourth down decisions because it’s one of the few things we can use to quantitate the value of in-game coaching. The truth is, we don’t completely know what goes into the game planning every week or other ways the coaches prepare their players. What we do know is the Chargers made the playoffs after a stellar season from Philip Rivers — helped by an offensive system implemented by McCoy — and after the team was 5-7. There’s some value in holding a team together to finish the season with four wins for a 9-7 finish, regardless of if the playoffs were on the line. Does a Norv Turner coached 5-7 team even dream about finishing 9-7? Too many Chargers fans don’t know whether to laugh or cry over that question.
The issue, though, with conservative play calling has to do with not showing confidence in your team. Look at how excited we all got when Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera decided he was going to start going for fourth-and-short early on in games. In past seasons, Rivera had punted in short fourth down situations with his team trailing in order to rely on his defense to produce a stop and give the ball back to the offense. Some say Rivera hasn’t made a “key” fourth down decision late in a game this year, and that’s true, but only because he hasn’t faced them. Keeping his offense on the field early in the games has led to more points in the first half, reducing the probability of a close game in the fourth quarter.
McCoy doesn’t have to start going for every fourth down or start thinking fake punts are automatic, but there is two situations McCoy could easily improve: Fourth and short around mid-field and inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. In the Bengals game last week, McCoy decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter, up by a touchdown. There’s a simple explanation for going for it here. A touchdown would have put the Chargers up by 14, pending the extra point. A failure to score would have still kept San Diego up by seven with Cincinnati starting on their own-5 needing to drive 95 yards to tie the game. With the way the Bengals had played on offense up to that point, a 95-yard touchdown drive would be unlikely. A punt would be the most probable result of the drive, giving San Diego favorable field position to start the next drive for an attempt to score again. Being aggressive doesn’t just mean trying to score on the current drive. It usually sets up favorable conditions for the next drive as well.
Where decisions like this really can give a team and coach an advantage on the field is while facing a similarly conservative opposing coach. That happens to be what San Diego gets this weekend with their Divisional Round game against the Denver Broncos. Denver head coach John Fox is aggressively conservative, even with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. Going for one or two fourth downs against Fox can give the Chargers and added possession or two, which they might need to outscore Manning.
There’s little question McCoy will come into Denver with a well thought out game plan to beat the Broncos. He’s already done it twice during the regular season — losing by eight and winning by seven in their two meetings. Trying to get an extra possession or two could turn McCoy’s good game plan into a great one and lead to another Chargers win.
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