Copyright 2012 by John T. Reed

On Saturday 1/14/12, I posted a facebook item about what an emotionally draining experience it was to watch my local 49ers win their division championship over the Saints.

This is about the coaching lessons that should be extracted by football coaches everywhere from the extremely depressing NFC championship game eight days later.

Generally, the Niners played well enough to be going to the Superbowl on 2/5/12, but they are not. Because games are not decided by how you “generally” played. They are sometimes decided by individual stupid mistakes, bounces of the ball, ignorance of some obscure rule, and so on.

Dumb reasons to lose a game

Chapter 33 of my book Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football is titled “Dumb reasons I and others have lost football games.” The Niner’s loss in the 2012 NFC championship game provided some more case histories for that chapter. Here are some that are already in it:

• my star players being prevented from starting because they all had illegally long 3/4 inch cleats
• my start tailback and kick returner being out for the rest of the game because his parents never told me he was asthmatic even though I tell parents at the parent meeting that I must know that and have a prescription inhaler ready at all practices and games; and the parents, who were at the game, did not bring an inhaler
• Houston lost the famous game where Joe Montana had to drink hot soup at half time because they only had two long snappers, not three, and both got hurt
• not having the little connectors needed to attach face masks to helmets
• team could not find their field goal kicking tee during game (not me; I wear a carpenter’s nail pouch at games and the kickoff and field goal kicking tees are always in it when they are not being used on the field)

There are more examples in the book.

The Niners may have lost the NFC game because Vernon Davis felt compelled to jump on the back of a Giant in a group around two guys who were in a shoving match after a play. Davis was not part of the shoving incident. He arrived late and gratuitously committed a personal foul for no particular reason. The Niners were unable to overcome the 15-yard penalty and were forced to punt. It is possible the same would have happened absent the penalty. That sort of stupidity in covered in the “Celebrations and personal fouls” chapter of my Football Clock Management book. That chapter has a zillion actual case histories, both famous and obscure, of games that were lost or almost lost because of :

• premature celebration before the whistle (most famous example of that probably the Stanford band marching onto the field during the Cal 5-lateral touchdown play in 1982 Big Game)
• excessive celebration, e.g. the Sooner Schooner penalty in the 1985 Orange Bowl
• premature mourning before the whistle; Duante Culpepper made no effort to catch ball in end zone for game winning TD because he assumed QB’s knee had previously touched the ground. The very catchable pass bounced off Culpepper and his team lost 27-23. The QB had done a fabulous job of making sure that his knee did not touch, as evidenced by the lack of a whistle.
• personal fouls, i.e., post-whistle fights and taunts and all that; Saint Kyle Turley threw a tantrum in an MNF game on 11/4/01. Before the tantrum, it was 2nd & 3 and the Jets 6 with less than a minute remaining. Afterward, it was 3rd and 17. Saints lost. Head coach was going to cut Turley for it, but decided to suspend him instead.

The Niners almost certainly lost the game because of Kyle Williams touching a punt that he made no effort to return. The Giants recovered it and scored a touchdown shortly thereafter from their short-field starting position. The final score was 20-17 so every score or non-score by either team provided the margin of victory.

Teaching fundamentals

I am used to teaching players not to touch a punt when we are on the receiving team unless they are going to return it. And I tell them that I want that ball caught in the air and returned if at all possible. I fire punt returners who shy away from catching the ball in the air or returning a returnable bouncing ball. But sometimes you cannot get to it to catch cleanly when it is in the air or to catch it safely bouncing when there are defenders around. If there is doubt about being able to catch it in the air or on the bounce before the bad guys arrive, I tell them to get away from it.

Also, the returners are not be be deeper than our 10 yard line. If the punt is behind our 10-yard line, they are to go to the other side of the field and pretend to make a fair catch of the ball to draw opponents away from the ball so it will likely go into the end zone for a touchback.

But the reason I taught all those things is I almost always coached youth and high school players, most of whom have little experience. If I were an NFL coach, I would not spend any time on getting away from a bouncing punt when the bad guys are in the vicinity because I would be afraid of insulting the knowledge of my professional players.

After what Kyle Williams did in the 2012 NFC championship game, neither I nor any other coach should be afraid of teaching those fundamentals every year no matter how experienced the players. One NFL coach started every year by explaining, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Shame on me for thinking that was an obvious fundamental. I have often commented that football players must have meetings where they brainstorm novel, stupid things to do to screw up a game or practice.

Shame on Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff if they did not teach Wiliams and other punt return team members to stay away from a bouncing punt when bad guys are near. Shame on Williams if they did.

Deposits and withdrawals

After coaching over 900 players on 35 teams, I observed a sad phenomenon. There are two kind of great players:

• those who do well and still behave like great kids, e.g., Ryan Whalen whom I coached when he was a high school freshman; he later starred at Stanford and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011
• those who do well and regard every good deed as a deposit into an account from which they must make withdrawals as soon as possible by acting like jerks

The latter group, which includes the Niners’ Vernon Davis, seem to feel that the most important benefit of doing well is that you can subsequently get away with more bad behavior because the coach will be reluctant to cut, suspend, or bench you because you are too valuable to the team.

When I was a cadet at West Point, we were graded on a system where 3.0 was max and 2.0 was passing. Most tests had 30 questions. Each question was worth one tenth. Cadets joked that the only reason to go 3.0 on a given test was it let you go 1.9 on the next ten tests resulting in a 2.0 average. The underlying belief was that one should only exert the minimum effort to pass.

The Vernon Davises of the world seem to have the same belief with regard to making a great catch or great run. The only reason one makes the game-winning catch on January 14, 2012 is so one can climb up on a camera platform and do a body-builder pose eight days later in the NFC championship game, or jump on an opponent’s back after a scuffle in that game.

In every supervisory job I ever had—Army officer landlord, bartender, coach, business manager—I was too lenient at first and much less so later but still too lenient by the time I finished in the position. If I had my coaching, or other supervisory days to live over, I would have thrown more kids off the team, and the equivalent in the non-coaching jobs.

What you tolerate, you encourage.
• What you demand, you get.

Give ’em an inch and it may get you beat some day, like on January 22, 2012 in the NFC championship game that decides who goes to the Super Bowl.

Someone is going to say the Niners might not have been in the NFC championship without Vernon Davis. So be it. I would rather lose the division championship with good guys than lose stupidly in the NFC championship because I did not reign in or get rid of one known asshole who, doing what assholes do, destroyed the chances of 52 good guys on the team. To say that you have to keep guys like that around is to buy into their deposit/withdrawal mind set.

The Patriots are known for not wanting or tolerating that sort of player. It is probably no coincidence that they will be in the 2012 Super Bowl. It is called character, and as the NFC Championship game showed, it is not just a nice-to-have, philosophical virtue. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. Players who lack character are weak links. They can and will get you beat. If you have to lose, at least lose while playing as well as you can, not because some jerk you knew was a jerk sabotaged your team to show off how much bad-boy behavior he could get away with. Fundamentally, tolerating known bad guys is profoundly bad coaching. Previous Niners head coach Mike Singletary once threw Davis out of the stadium during a game. I found that such bad guys give loud-and-clear advance notice of their lack of character in every realm where I have encountered them.

If a player surprises you with bad behavior, shame on him.
If a player warned you of his bad behavior, then behaves badly in a game, shame on you.

On muffing kicks and fumbling

Once upon a time, the Niners had a running back named Dexter Carter. He had a propensity to fumble and muff kicks. He was there seven years and did some good things, however,

Here is a news item about him from (San Francisco Chronicle newspaper):

December 25, 1996 |Gary Swan, Chronicle Staff Writer

Return man and running back Dexter Carter may have finally reached the end of the line with the 49ers.

Coach George Seifert said yesterday that Carter will not be returning kickoff and punts in the postseason, starting Sunday at Candlestick in a wild-card game with Philadelphia.

When Carter lost a punt -- recovered by teammate Curtis Buckley -- in the second quarter of Monday night's game against the Lions, it was his seventh fumble or muff in the last five games he has been the 49ers main returner.

The Niners have formed a protective circle around Kyle Williams who stupidly touched the punt that led to the Giants TD. He also fumbled devastatingly to the giants later on a kick return in the game. He is the back up to normal kick returner Ted Ginn who was injured for the NFC game.

The Niners have rallied to support Williams since the game.

My youngest son was an equipment manager at U. of Arizona. He seemed to recall a Williams punt mistake in the 2009 Territorial Cup (UA v. ASU annual rivalry game). Here is part of the news story about Williams in that game:

Although Williams has displayed his big-play ability throughout his career, but the Scottsdale native has always taken a step back and made some downright game-changing mistakes as well, and yesterday was a perfect example of that. 

With ASU down by 11, Erickson needed a big play to turn the momentum in the Sun Devils favor. So, Erickson dialed up a play for Williams, and then Sullivan found him racing across the field towards the sideline. Williams turned the play into a 44-yard touchdown and cut the lead to five points. 

Erickson was about to attempt a two-point conversion; however, Williams was elated, so much so that he removed his helmet while he was still in the end zone. Erickson was then forced to send out Thomas Weber for the extra point. 

The Wildcats were forced to punt to Kyle Williams and rely on their defense that had let them down the whole fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the Sun Devils never had a chance to test the U of A defense for a third time in the fourth quarter.

Williams went back to receive the punt, and in traffic the senior called for a fair catch; however, the catch was never made. Williams muffed the punt and the Wildcats recovered the ball deep in Sun Devil territory.

Unfortunately, as they say, "the rest is history."

The Wildcats kept the football on the ground to chew up the remaining time on the clock, and then sent out Alex Zendejas to kick the game winning 32-yard field goal with no time remaining. 

I have publicly supported players of mine who muffed kicks or who fumbled. However, I also recognize that some people can’t handle pressure. Players who chronically muff or fumble must go. I suspect Niners players are responding to Williams’ personality and “there but for the grace of God go I,” and all that. Noble, but perhaps not the cold-blooded analysis the Niners need to do.

I did not appreciate Williams’ “who me?” routine after his knee touched the punt—especially now that I read he was doing similar stuff in high school and college. I do not fire a player for A muff or A fumble. But I watch him very closely if I see anything suggesting a pattern.

I see a pattern with regard to Kyle Williams.

His life has been threatened since the NFC game. I would not threaten his life and condemn those who do. But I might threaten or take away his job if investigation indicates he has a propensity to crack under the pressure.

My oldest son was a running back through college in the Ivy League. I believe he let the ball get stripped from him once senior year of high school (we were running out the clock at the end of the game and the opponent was not able to score after gaining possession) and he fumbled a screen pass in the open field after catching it in a game at Yale in college. I recall no other fumbles in his career. That sort of rare fumble or muff happens to all running backs and kick returners. My son was also a kick returner in youth, high school, and college. No muffs.

It is only a problem if it is chronic. But if it is chronic, it is a HUGE problem and needs to be fixed by firing the player promptly.

The amount of time Eli Manning had to throw

Time and again during the game Eli dropped back to pass and had all day. I did not stop watch it but you have coached 16 football teams and scouted and attended hundreds of games, you acquire a sense of things not being right. Experienced coaches typically spot too many or too few men on the field instantly without know who specifically is missing. The picture just doesn’t look right.

Anyway, during this game, I got into a rhythm a follows:

1. Watch ball go to Eli who drops back
2. After a few seconds with him still holding it, I start wondering where are the Niners?
3. I refocus my eyes on the red jersey. There are three or four of them being totally stymied by five or six white jerseys.
4. After the play ends, Fox Sports almost always replays it. Now from the beginning, I focus on the D line and others near enough to blitz. Usually, I see no one other than D line who appear like possible blitzers.
5. As the replay begins, I study the paths of the red jerseys. Too often, they just head straight for the QB and there are only three or four of them. The offense has no trouble in most cases stopping them.

There are three ways to stop the pass:

A prevent receivers from leaving on their routes
B pressure or sack the passer
C cover the receivers

The Niners seemed to be relying primarily on C and it did not seem to be working. Pressure has disadvantages. For example if you rush more than five, you have to go to man pass coverage and the best receivers can typically get separation from defensive backs during their routes. But if 3- and 4-man rushes are not working, I would think you would have to try B, which means more rushers and/or stunts. In stunts, the rushers take indirect paths to the qb like one aligning in the C gap then looping to the B gap on the snap while the B gap guy slants out to the C gap.

Rushing more guys prevents the offense double teaming anyone and may result in the defense outnumbering the offense if they rush six. But the offense always has five ineligible receiver interior linemen. If we rush 3 or 4, the offense always has more blockers than we have rushers.

At times, especially late 3rd and early 4th quarter, there seemed to be more plays where we rushed more than four and/or used stunts. It seemed to work forcing Eli to throw the ball away or get sacked. He was sacked six times, a near record for the Niners.

In a typical NFL or NCAA game, each offense has 60 plays total including both run and pass. Eli threw 58 passes plus he was sacked 6 times which means they tried to run 64 pass plays.

I DVRed the game and went back to look at pressure on Eli. I watched several plays, all of which had no pressure on him. He got about three or four seconds each time and never left the pocket. You cannot let a guy named Manning stand in the pocket looking for a receiver for three or four seconds.

Looking around the Internet for the amount of time a QB usually takes from snap to pass I found:

• 2.3 seconds
• In the past two years, more than half of Cutler's 82 sacks came when he held the ball for more than three seconds.
• a device which sounds an alarm if the QB holds the ball too long. Coach can set what time he wants.
• In general, the average sack occurs around 2.7 to 2.8 seconds after the snap of the ball. Consider that the internal clock a quarterback must have--while the timing can depend somewhat on whether it's a four-man rush or an all-out blitz, in general if a quarterback holds the ball for more than three seconds, he's in trouble. If he gets rid of it in less than 2.5 seconds, he will rarely find himself on his back.

Time limit on field goal kick is 1.3 seconds. Holder is 7 yards back.

Time limit on punt is 2.0 seconds. Punter is 18 yards back.

Anyway, the fact that Eli was able to stay in the pocket looking for an open man for three or four seconds is a serious criticism of the Niners’s ability to put pressure on him. One web story said the Packers lost in large part because Eli had all day to throw the ball.

So it appears the Giants O line is pretty good. Okay, but there still seemed to be a rather clear correlation between the number we rushed and the complexity of their paths. The more rushers and complexity, the more pressure we got. It looked to me like we had far too many plays on defense where we just did a straight rush of 3 or 4 and Eli had all day—4 seconds or more.

It is a wonder we came within 3 points given the number of times Eli had a ton of time to find a receiver. I could not see the receivers most of the time on TV but I am guessing they ran their entire route then started running what are called scramble routes. Those are routes you change to when the QB has to scramble out of the pocket or when your original route has taken you to the sideline or end line at the back of the end zone or out of the QB’s arm range. So I am guessing the Giants receivers were running scramble routes—while Eli was STILL IN THE POCKET!

D line fatigue

Early in the game, Giants running backs were hit by dead-on collisions an the line of scrimmage. Later in the game, the D line rarely seemed involved in stopping the run. Rather linebackers were making ankle tackles from the side again and again—farther upfield. Looked like D line fatigue. Since NY ran an extraordinary number of plays, that is perhaps not surprising. But ya gotta deal with it. Since the Niners run defense was at the top of the league, I guess they are the best guys, but you’d better have same big-picture game strategy, like keeping the NY offense off the field, if your guys run out of gas in the fourth quarter.

Sickening loss

I have lost my share of games as a coach, player, and father. If you play your heart out and the best team wins and it’s not you, so be it. You still feel good about your effort and your season

The NFC loss, however, was sickening. The Niners played well enough to win and go to the Super Bowl, but Vernon Davis deliberately ran up 30 yards in gratuitous, after-the-whistle penalties and Kyle Williams was astonishingly stupid and negligent on one play and may have been doing his usual thing—fumbling—on the other. It is the job of the coaching staff to make sure they have no weak links because the whole chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Coaches are not responsible for the occasional rare fumble or muff by a solid ball handler. But they are responsible for letting a chronic muffer near kicks or a chronic fumbler carry the ball.

John T. Reed