Mike McCoy's worst strategic decisions of 2013

Mike McCoy calculating conversion odds in his head just prior to saying "screw it" and kicking the field goal - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Marver categorizes and summarizes the worst in-game strategic decisions Mike McCoy has made in his young NFL head coaching career with the San Diego Chargers.

Let me preface this with the following: no coach is perfect. That said, modern advanced metrics has advanced the classic debate on coaching decisions into quantifiable, (practically) black-and-white decisions. For whatever reason, coaches are still making many of the same mistakes they've been making for decades, leaving points on the field week-in and week-out. Mike McCoy has been no exception thus far in 2013.

I took the opportunity this bye week to compile all the chicken scratch I've accumulated this season while watching the games into a categorized summary of McCoy's most egregious coaching errors. Let's take a look, shall we?

Punting in an opponent's territory

Ah, yes: punting in an opponent's territory. There's no better way to burn points like you're Scott Tenorman burning Cartman's "sixteen measly dollars" than by punting inside your opponent's territory. Unless you're staring at an absurdly long fourth down proposition, you should be attempting to put points on the board rather than gifting your opponent the football. Here are some examples from 2013:

Week 3; 2:59 in the 1st quarter; 4th and 1 at the Tennessee 39; up 7-0

This is a slam dunk go-for-it situation: it's early in the game making the current score irrelevant, and you only need one yard. A first down at the 38 yard line is worth roughly 2.8 points on the Expected Points Added (EPA) curve, while the two scenarios for Tennessee - having the ball near their own 40 or having the ball around their own 10 - yield EPAs of 1.25 and -0.25. The equation balances, i.e. the Chargers should go for it, when the odds of conversion exceed 37%. From what we know both about the history of conversion attempts and the Chargers' offensive prowess, we can safely conclude that the Chargers odds of conversion were significantly higher than 37%. If we say it's around 75% (my rough math), that means McCoy left 1.5 points off the board with this decision.

Week 3; 11:02 in the 3rd quarter; 4th and 1 at the Tennessee 47; tied 10-10

Nearly the same decision as the last one, except it's slightly closer to midfield. No matter: this is a clear go-for-it situation. The break-even conversion percentage here is 51%; slightly higher than the previous decision, but still well below what the Chargers' actual conversion rate probably is. Assuming the 75% conversion rate like in the example above means McCoy left 1.0 points off the board. According to the game probability chart, the punt instantly decreased the Chargers' odds of winning by ~2%, to 48%.

These weren't the only two instances of this. Here are two other punts that should have been conversion attempts:

Week 4; 11:57 left in the 1st quarter; 4th and 1 at midfield; tied 0-0
Week 5; 9:44 in the 1st quarter; 4th and 2 at the Oakland 40; down 0-7

Nothing in football upsets me more than when the head coach willingly gives the opponent the football. Hopefully McCoy will become more aggressive going forward, and it's perhaps promising that neither week 6 nor week 7 had an occurrence.

On to the next category...

Late Game (or Half) Strategy

Week 2; final minute of the game; settling for a long field goal; tied 30-30

The Chargers ended up winning this game, but it was made more difficult than it should have been by McCoy's decision to "play for the field goal" in the final twenty-one seconds of the game. With a timeout in hand and at the opponent's 31 yard line, McCoy called consecutive Woodhead runs for a total of three yards, and followed it up with a Rivers zero yard sneak to position the football for Novak. Basically, McCoy was content with having Novak attempt a 46 yard field goal even though the Chargers, who had been moving the ball at will all day long, had ample time (and a timeout!) to position themselves for a much easier proposition.

Between the Rivers first down with twenty-one seconds remaining and his no gainer to position the field goal, the Chargers' odds of winning declined from 88% to 79%. Basically, by mailing in the final set of downs instead of seeking a significant improvement in field goal positioning (or a touchdown), McCoy took nearly a tenth of a win off the Chargers expected win/loss record in 2013.

Week 3; 3:10 (and 2:25) left in the 4th quarter; 2nd and 16 (and 3rd and 9) at the San Diego 29 (and 36); up 17-13

This sequence was also really poor. The Titans had one timeout remaining, so the best the Chargers could hope for by running the football on consecutive plays was exactly what they got: giving the opponent the football back in front of the two minute warning. In the modern NFL landscape, and especially with a poor pass defense, if you have more than two minutes to work with, you have a real opportunity to score...with or without timeouts.

Tennessee actually erred in not using their timeout following the second down run, as it guaranteed the Chargers got to exhaust some clock (whereas the timeout after second down would mean an incomplete pass by San Diego on third down would leave a full play clock on the game clock, rather than a timeout in the hand). Even dismissing the decision to run on second down as a means to extract a timeout (or clock, as it turns out), the opportunity to nearly end the football game with a completed pass on 3rd and 9 should dictate a pass. The difference between an incompletion or a run at this point is negligible on the game clock...it's simply worth the last Tennessee timeout. And I think we'd all agree that the odds of the most accurate passer in the NFL completing a nine yard pass to practically end the game is considerably rosier than the odds that one timeout is the difference maker.

The third down decision reduced the Chargers' odds of winning 6%, declining from 81% to 75%. It wasn't as bad as settling for the field goal in Philly, from a percentage standpoint, but this one actually may have cost the Chargers the game: following the subsequent punt, the Titans went all the way down the field, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 21 seconds remaining.

Week 4; 2:00 left in the 4th quarter; 3rd and 8 at the San Diego 35; up 31-20

This one may feel wrong, but it isn't. McCoy called a run in this situation since the Cowboys were out of timeouts and it nearly guarantees forty five seconds off the clock. However, it's also nearly a guarantee that you hand the ball back to the opponent. Why not run a play where you keep both the TE and RB in pass protection and let Philip try to end the game via a completion? If Philip can't find an open receiver quickly, he could always slide in the backfield (accepting a loss of yards), and there would be no difference in time drained off the clock. The difference in field position at this point - of what, ten yards in the case a Philip slide in the backfield versus a Mathews run? - is vastly outweighed by the opportunity to actually end the football game. This wasn't a big deal, as the Cowboys were down nine points with two minutes remaining, and would need two scoring drives (on either end of a successful onside kick) to win the game, but it still was a faux pas, however minor.

All those field goals

To say that Mike McCoy would agree with Bill Cowher's statement about "coming away with points now" would be putting it mildly. Mike McCoy has proven to be an ardent believer in kicking field goals on fourth down, not unlike Norv Turner, and here are some examples:

Week 2; 8:06 in the 2nd quarter; 4th and 4 at the Philadelphia 26; up 10-3
Week 4; 5:16 in the 2nd quarter; 4th and 3 at the Dallas 18; tied 7-7

These first two are different shades of the same thing. The Philadelphia decision is a slightly tougher one to make, but once that math has been worked out, it makes the Dallas decision a no-brainer. The Advanced NFL Stats calculator finds the break-even point for the fourth down in Philadelphia, on an EPA basis, to be a 44% conversion rate. On a Win Probability (WP) basis, the break-even point is 54%. Now consider that, on aggregate, NFL teams convert 4th and 4s at a 53% clip. With the Chargers having a premier offense, I'm confident in stating that the odds of conversion exceeded the requisite 54% to make this make sense from a WP standpoint. Regardless, knowing this is the practical boundary line between kick and go-for-it makes it clear that the Dallas decision (which was closer to the end zone and a shorter conversion attempt) was the wrong one.

Week 5; 6:43 in the 3rd quarter; 4th and 2 at the Oakland 19; down 0-17

I get the thinking: you're down three scores and a field goal is one of those scores. But with nearly a full half left to play, the Chargers should still be playing for as many points possible, not negotiating in terms of the number of scores they need. One Oakland field goal or a Chargers stalled drive with a less-desirable fourth down conversion proposition turns this decision into a crucial missed opportunity.

Ironically, this field goal was blocked, turned into a first down, and subsequently converted into another field goal (in a down-and-distance where the decision to kick made sense).

Week 7; 6:52 in the 3rd quarter; 4th and 1 at the Jacksonville 2; up 14-3

According to the game probability chart over at Advanced NFL Stats, the Chargers expected winning percentage actually decreased with the made field goal, dropping from 94% to 93%. Anytime your play's best case scenario results in decreasing your odds of winning, you're doing something wrong.

Third-and-long handoffs

Week 1; 9:38 in the 1st quarter; 3rd and 24; up 7-0

The Chargers ran the ball. I hate these play calls. If you're going to surrender your opportunity at a first down, you may as well just punt the football on third down. (Note: I am not advocating that. Please don't do that!) Third and twenty-four seems like an absurd conversion attempt, but it isn't all that ridiculous. The odds of conversion since 2002 are actually 10% excluding the possibility of a defensive penalty.

While trying to avoid a turnover is noble, this is sort of like throwing the baby out with the bath water. No team turns the football over at a clip anywhere close to 10%; that's nearly double Eli Manning's current interception rate. While a team playing the pass would be more likely to force a turnover, I can't accept that the odds of league's most accurate passer (whom the offensive coordinator predicted would complete 70% of his passes this season) turning the football over here is anywhere close to as likely as a conversion.

The Chargers' odds of winning decreased 2% following this play and a net punt of 46. That's with a 12 yard gain on the run itself!

Week 4; 9:45 in the 2nd quarter; 3rd and 21 at the San Diego 31; tied 7-7

A seven yard run for Ronnie Brown. Ugh. A first down here would put the Chargers in opponent's territory. If they got just the minimum, the EPA for the Chargers is 2.0 points. The slope of the first down EPA curve is 0.05, meaning that every extra yard you push your opponent back (excluding possessions starting real deep) is worth 0.05 points. The seven yard run, then, was worth 0.35 points in field position. The odds of converting are approximately 11%, worth 0.22 points on its own; so long as the average passing play on a failed conversion attempt exceeds 2.9 yards, it's a fair trade. Basically, let your quarterback try for the conversion; even if it results in a dumpoff for 3 yards, it was worth the "risk".

Summary

Mike McCoy has some work to do in order to be considered a good strategic NFL coach. Surely all coaches make mistakes, but McCoy has made some critical errors in the early stages of 2013...one of which - the decision late in the Tennessee game - may have cost his team the game. The good news is it's early in his career; hopefully he can learn from his mistakes.

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