The Greatest Pressure (Part Two) – Superbowl Edition

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I wrote a while ago about the greatest pressure that coaches face.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, the greatest pressure that coaches face is NOT to win, it is to follow conventional wisdom.  Coaches are expected to do the things they are expected to do.  If they don’t, the consequences can be extremely negative.

As a case in point, last week’s Superbowl had two very widely questioned coaching decisions in the last minute of play.  The second was the decision of the Seattle coach, Pete Carroll, to pass instead of run from 1-yard line.  When the play was unsuccessful it was widely derided as the worst play call of all time.  It has since been defended by a variety of analytics sites as being the correct decision (for example here and here).  However, if Carroll had followed conventional wisdom and still lost, the post game narrative would have been about the incredible goal line stand from New England at the end of an exciting game.

The first decision was also analysed in the 538 article linked above.  The New England coach, Bill Belichick, did not call a timeout on that same drive, meaning that had Seattle scored New England would not have enough time left to score.  The same article that defended the Carroll call, criticised the Belichick call for that exact reason. Conventional wisdom is that calling timeouts leads to victory.  But Bill Simmons, in his review of the game (near the end) came up with another interpretation which I think is great for all coaches to consider.

You know what really happened? Belichick trusted seven months of practice and two weeks of scouting, and he trusted the fact that he’d already prepared a 24-year-old undrafted rookie to react perfectly, historically and remarkably if that slant was coming. He’ll never get credit because the whole thing seemed too improbable. After all, how could a coach behave THAT differently from every other coach in that exact same spot?

As I alluded to in the original article, teaching and preparing a player / team for a challenge and then trusting them do it without interference is often considered bad coaching.  And the greatest pressure is NOT to win, it is to be a ‘good’ coach.  Luckily for the Patriots (and the Seahawks) their coaches only actually care about winning.

And it turns out that in the NBA calling a timeout in crunch time makes it less likely to score than doing what Belichick did.  Who would have thought?


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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  1. Great article. I’ve been following the hysteria around the Superbowl and its been fascinating. It seems that there is actually a reasonable justification for both the initially offensive decision (not running it by Seahawks) and an equally reasonable justification for the next (not calling a timeout by Patriots). Unsurprisingly there have been some very interesting and astute debate about it in the States. You have to get through the ridiculousness first, but if you know where to look (fivethirtyeight, grantland, etc) you can find it. I just wish there was something similar in Australia (Offsiders on Channel 2 each week is pretty good but there isn’t too much else).


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