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Observations from Mike McCoy's First Two Years as Chargers Head Coach

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After 2013, Mike McCoy earned high marks in weekly preparation and lower marks in game-day management. Unfortunately, instead of seeing improvement in the latter, we saw regression in the former, and the result is a Head Coach with growing left to do.

Mike McCoy during the Week 16 game against the San Francisco 49ers
Mike McCoy during the Week 16 game against the San Francisco 49ers
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2012, Mike McCoy was Number 2 on my list of recommended Head Coaching hires. One of the reasons I recommended McCoy was his (relative) youth. Coming into 2013, I figured the Chargers were at least 2 years from having a legitimate chance to compete for a Super Bowl, and I wanted a coach who would have the opportunity to take chances, make mistakes, and grow on the job.

We've certainly seen McCoy make some mistakes, and we've also seen some strong game preparation and in-game adjustments.

Let's take a look at some numbers from McCoy's first 2 seasons:

Mike McCoy's Head Coaching Statistics (Regular Season Only)

2013 2014 Tot. Avg.
Games 16 16 32 --
Record 9-7 9-7 18-14 9-7
Points For 396 348 744 372
Points Against 348 348 696 348
Difference 48 0 48 24
Expected (i.e. Pythagorean) Wins 9.22 8.0 17.22 8.63
Actual Wins vs. Expected Wins -0.22 1.0 0.78 0.39
Strength of Opponent 7.88 8.22 -- 8.05
Record in games decided by 8 points or less 4-6 5-2 9-8 --
Record in games decided by 9-16 points 3-1 2-4 5-6 --
Record in games decided by 17+ points 2-0 2-1 4-1 --
Record vs. teams with 8.0 or more Expected Wins 7-2 3-7 10-9 --
Record vs. teams with less than 8.0 Expected Wins 2-5 6-0 8-5 --

Observations:

  • The 1st thing which jumps out at me is that the 2014 Chargers were much easier to predict than they were in 2013, as they won every game against opponents with an Expected Win total of less than 8.0. Every opponent they lost to in 2014 had an Expected Win total of at least 8.34. This stands in stark contrast to 2013, where the Chargers were generally good against good teams, and generally bad against bad teams. I also think it's likely this reversal reflects opponents having a year's worth of game tape to study from the Chargers.
  • Based on Expected Wins, the 2014 Week 2 victory against the Seattle Seahawks is the best win of McCoy's 2 year career. The 2014 Seahawks finished with an Expected Win total of 11.82. The best win of 2013 was at Denver, against a Broncos team with an Expected Win total of 11.67.
  • McCoy's performance in close games underwent a reversal of fortune in 2014, although I can't point to any specific change in strategy which would account for it. At the very least, this supports the idea that performance in close games tends to be random for most coaches. Particularly good coaches tend to win more than they lose, while particularly poor coaches tend to lose more than they win. This, more than anything else, should suggest an adjustment in game–management tactics.
  • For the second–straight year, the Chargers are getting the better of blowout wins, but they're still not posting as many of them as they did from 2004-2010. Blowouts tend to be strong indicators of overall roster quality, which underscores there's still work to be done by General Manager Tom Telesco to improve the roster.
  • The drop-off in offensive production from McCoy's 1st season to 2nd season can be explained by a multitude of factors: injuries to the top 2 running backs, a revolving door at center, below average play at guard, and a first–year Offensive Coordinator who (unwisely, in my opinion) adopted a more vertical passing attack. Last year, I praised McCoy for allowing his coaching staff latitude to do their jobs — this season should teach McCoy a valuable lesson in not giving too much leeway to coaches who are struggling to generate consistent results, especially considering the adverse circumstances.

Conservatism on 4th Down.

Most NFL Head Coaches are for more conservative than they should be in situational decision-making. Here's what McCoy called on 4th downs throughout the 2014 Regular Season:

4th Down Decisions in 2014
Punts 75
FG attempts 23
Go for it 11
Total 109

Of those 11 "Go for it" attempts, only 2 occurred in a situation which didn't involve the following conditions:
  • The Chargers were trailing AND the game was in the 2nd half.
These were the 2 plays:
  • Eric Weddle's failed fake punt on 4th and 24 against the Raiders in Week 6 (this occurred in the 3rd quarter).
  • Branden Oliver's failed run on 4th and 1 against the Dolphins in Week 9.
After eliminating situations where the Chargers had possession on their side of the field, and had more than 10 yards to gain for the first down, McCoy called for a punt 13 times. This was the average field position, and distance to gain for those 13 attempts: Opponent's 44 yard line, 5.2 yards to go. A successful conversion in these circumstances occurs about 33% of the time.

These decisions included the following:
  • Week 11 - Punting on 4th and 1 from the Raiders' 45 with 3:32 in the 3rd quarter, leading by 10.
  • Week 14 - Punting on 4th and 4 from the 50 yard line vs. the Patriots, with 6:28 in the 4th quarter, trailing by 9.
Now, let's look at Field Goal attempts. In this case, we'll eliminate any Field Goals which tied, or gave the Chargers the lead at the time. We'll also eliminate any situations where the Chargers had 10 or more yards to gain. Lastly, we'll eliminate any FGs which McCoy called for in the 4th quarters of the blowout wins against Jacksonville and the New York Jets. That leaves 9 situations where McCoy called for a Field Goal on 4th down.

These decisions included the following:
  • Week 4 - Attempting a Field Goal on 4th and 2 from the Bills' 2 yard line, with 10:21 in the 2nd quarter, leading by 7.
  • Week 17 - Attempting a Field Goal on 4th and 8 from the Chiefs' 34 yard line, with 0:31 in the 3rd quarter, trailing by 12.
It's not to say that McCoy should always go for it on 4th down. However, McCoy clearly could be more aggressive, and should be more aggressive when these types of opportunities present themselves. His conservative approach nearly cost the Chargers a playoff spot in 2013, and certainly didn't help them reach the playoffs in 2014.

Wrapping Up

Mike McCoy has a lot of work to do to become an elite NFL Head Coach. To take a step toward the NFL's elite coaches, McCoy needs to enforce his team's identity, be more aggressive on 4th downs.

While McCoy has been able to establish an identity for this team (ball control offense and a bend-but-don't break-defense) which is consistent, his conservative strategy, and his reluctance to enforce it among his coaching staff has undercut it. That said, McCoy has shown a knack for hiring solid assistant coaches - among them Ken Whisenhunt and Joe D'Alessandris, and now Mike Nolan as the new Linebackers Coach.

Mike McCoy has had 2 full years to grow into his job. It's time for that growth to begin bearing fruit.