Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Mark Richt and the Cult of the Field Goal

My column about the import of Richt's colossal mistake against Michigan State is up at SB Nation. The criticism of the decision not to attack in the first overtime is obvious; here is the attempt to contextualize:

Richt's shockingly conservative disposition during the end-game of the Outback Bowl was and remains indefensible, but the passage of time reminds me of one truism: we all overrate the importance of late game decisions when evaluating a coach. When it comes to determining whether a program wins or loses, late game strategery is the easiest factor for fans to judge. We can put percentages on various courses of action, such as the odds of a turnover versus missing a 42-yard field goal. Additionally, because late game play-calling is the last impression that we have of a team for a week (or, in this case, for eight months), it sticks out in the memory and the recency effect takes over. However, this factor isn't nearly as important as the other things that a head coach does.

Recruiting is much more important and Richt has done a very good job in that department such that we can have the sense that Georgia had too much talent to go down the way it did yesterday. Managing a staff is more important and Georgia fans are pretty much united in their affection for Todd Grantham (and well they should be in light of the defense's performance this year). As the demises of Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno have shown this year, the CEO functions performed by a head coach are also critical. Dawg fans should have no concerns about Richt making the right decision if he were confronted with a potentially incriminating e-mail or a (alleged) pedophile assistant coach. Making timid decisions at the end of a close game is annoying, but in the grand scheme of things, it is only a small portion of the pie chart when evaluating a head coach.*
* - Take it from a Michigan fan. We all complained about Lloyd Carr making conservative decisions at the end of games that overvalued kickers, the clock and timeouts while undervaluing the possibility of winning a game with his consistently good quarterbacks. We didn't appreciate the fact that Carr was putting good teams on the field that were in position to blow close games in the first place. Three years of Rich Rodriguez were enough to bring Carr's positive attributes into full focus. For instance, the Big Ten Network had a timely showing of the 2000 Orange Bowl yesterday afternoon. In that game, Carr laid up for a field goal at the end of regulation. He could have put the game in the hands of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, throwing to future top ten pick David Terrell and protected by four future NFL starters on the offensive line. Instead, he put the game in the hands of the immortal Hayden Epstein and was only bailed out by Alabama kicker Ryan Pflugner one-upping Epstein by missing an extra point. Carr deserves lots of credit for assembling a great team and a smaller amount of criticism for relying on the wrong aspects of that team. College coaches should not rely on their kickers unless all other resources have been exhausted.
If you want a more substantive criticism of Richt, it is this: eleven years at the helm in Athens has shown that he is dependent on Florida having a bad coach in order to be successful. When Richt came to Athens, Steve Spurrier was putting one of his best Gator teams on the field in 2001, a team that should have played Miami for the national title in Pasadena if not for a pair of injuries to Ernest Graham. Spurrier then flew the coop for Dan Snyder's filthy lucre. He was replaced by Ron Zook and Richt enjoyed his heyday: three division and two conference titles. Urban Meyer then came onto the scene*, and Richt did not take another trip to the SEC Championship Game until Meyer had fled the stage. Now, the elite programs in the conference are in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, a point that was drilled home in the second half of the title game against LSU. Is Richt going to require regression from one or both of those programs in order to win a third conference title? Quite possibly? More generally, can we accept that Richt is a good, but not great coach? I certainly can, but it will be easier if days like yesterday become more frequent.
* - It does bear mentioning that Richt's second title came in Meyer's first year in Gainesville when Urban was going through the growing pains of De-Zookification.
The point that I do not address is what part(s) of the pie chart do we use to reach the conclusion that Richt is good, but not great.  In other words, is his quality recruiting what makes him good and his staffing decisions prevent him from being great?  That question will require a lot more consideration.


Anonymous said...

How about a discussion of the fact that luck plays a big role in a close game? Michigan State won but it wasn't like it was convincing. Georgia got crushed by Boise State & LSU and loss two field goal games to South Carolina & Michigan State. Would you really think Georgia was that much better if they were 12-2 vs. 10-4? Because they wouldn't be significantly different. Also, as is the case with any field goal game, there was plenty of blame to go around. Murray's two picks directly led to 14 points by Michigan State. His fumble also killed a good drive. Georgia's best running back can't stay health. The defense was tired in the second half. Georgia has always favored running more than they should with their combination of backs & linemen.

4.0 Point Stance said...

I've been saying this for a while with respect to Les Miles. There are still people who fixate on the 2009 Ole Miss debacle as proof that he was a bad coach, and any argument you can muster to the contrary (and there are a lot) is met with "but what about the Ole Miss game?"

I think the primary reason people fixate on late game clock management is that they understand it. So much of what a head coach does to create a successful program is either behind the scenes or beyond the ken of the average -- or even above-average -- football fan. But even an average fan can sure as hell understand how to call a timeout. The real reason your team lost the game may be that your OL coach didn't prepare his wards for the opponent's TT stunts or your free safety kept making the wrong reads on seam routes. A coach can be terrible at preparing for that sort of thing, but no one would ever notice, or they'd just think "Jones sucks out there, put in the backup safety!" But if a coach calls for a spike with 2 seconds left in the Rose Bowl, suddenly everybody's got an opinion.

By the way, congratulations on getting called up to the big leagues. I think you did the right thing in only committing to one article a week; I've seen too many quality bloggers who 'went pro' and saw the average article quality dropped because they were no longer writing about things they found interesting, they were 'producing content' to meet their requirements.

4.0 Point Stance said...

For all that, I have to say I had some seriously choice words for David Shaw last night. Fiesta Bowl hangs in the balance, let's take the ball out of the hands of Andrew Luck and Stepfon Taylor and give it to Jordan Williamson. Risk aversion so extreme it's NFLesque.