We’re at it again. Every year, as soon as the playoffs begin in every sport, it starts in earnest. The fact is brought up time and again that the playoffs mean everything and; if you don’t win in the playoffs, you must literally hide in a hole and be embarrassed at your existence.
During yesterday’s CBS broadcast of Bengals-Colts, Jim Nantz asked Phil Simms, the former quarterback if he remembers the scrutiny being this severe when he played. Naturally, Simms said no, that he doesn’t remember and moreover, doesn’t remember when the threshold was crossed and the scrutiny-mobile was alive and well.
Many of us love sports. For us, it’s an escape, something to look forward to after a tough day or week of work, balancing life, family and home and all things in between. Nothing better than sitting down in front of the TV with a cold beverage in one hand, and the remote in the other and clicking through the channels looking to escape for a few hours, or more. But, for some reason, in this win-or-you’re-nothing society, it has become paramount to win it all or stay in your room.
Despite all the rankings, critiques and circumstance, there is one truth that is evident.
These are games.
Games. That’s all they are. Games are supposed to fun, games are supposed to provide entertainment; games are intended to be a relief, an outlet, something to be enjoyed.
But, everything has changed, including the way that they are coached. The scrutiny is so severe that the head coaches are tighter and are genuinely afraid to be aggressive and to go for it when the time comes.
Take Jim Caldwell, the head coach of the Detroit Lions. His team came out firing, built a 14-0 lead and defensively was having its way with the vaunted Dallas Cowboy offense. Rather than step on the Cowboys’ throat, Caldwell took his foot off the gas and tried to massage the lead, and the end result was a tough 24-20 loss.
The non-penalty on 3rd and 1 will be talked about for years in Detroit and the fans will yell the old refrain "We Wuz Robbed," for years to come. But, Coach Caldwell forgot that these are games. After the flag was picked up, the Lions had a 4th and 1 at the Dallas 46. If they go for it, make it, they, at the very minimum run another three minutes off the clock, but Caldwell acted as if he was on the verge of deciding to ask Congress to declare war on North Korea or Cuba. He lined up, and had quarterback Matthew Stafford use the hard count in an attempt to draw Dallas offside. When the Cowboys didn’t bite, he sent out his punter, who promptly shanked a 10 yarder.
Why not go for it there, Coach? You’re at the Dallas 46, it is one yard. Make it, and you’re likely on your way to Seattle for another opportunity to make it the Super Bowl, something that the Detroit Lions have never done in their long history. Caldwell took the moment too seriously and forgot that football is just a game. Of course, I don’t want to minimize what Caldwell does for a living. He is a coach of an NFL team and there are only 32 of these jobs in the world. Too many losses get coaches fired. So, Caldwell punted and believed that his defense could hold down the fort. Unfortunately, the defense didn’t do the job and the Cowboys head to Green Bay this Sunday for an NFC Divisional Playoff Game.
Take Andy Dalton and his Cincinnati Bengals. For four straight years, Dalton has led them to the playoffs. In 64 career stats, he has 40 wins, 23 losses and 1 tie. However, in four playoff games, his Bengals are 0-4 and he hasn’t played well. The Bengals have been to the playoffs for four straight years, something that the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and many other teams would kill for. But, because Dalton has struggled, there are some that think the Bengals should trade him or at the very least, find another starting quarterback.
These are games. Down 26-10, the Bengals continued to have Dalton dink and dunk his way down the field. Why? Why not throw the ball deep on every play and at least try to score. Does it matter if Dalton gets intercepted one time or four times? The Bengals never looked desperate; never looked like they had the sense of urgency to at least try to go downfield. What’s there to lose? The Bengals are good enough to make the playoffs every year, but because they can’t win in the playoffs, many deem them, their quarterback and their coach a failure.
Herman Edwards once said, that "you play to win the game," yet it was the same Herman Edwards who would see his team reach the red zone, and then run three conservative plays to make sure that he came away with the cheapie field goal. Coaches would rather be conservative and lose, then be risky and lose. If you don’t believe me about Edwards, google the 2004 New York Jets with kicker Doug Brien and the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Pittsburgh. In that game, Edwards ordered his offense to practically kneel down for three plays and settle for a 43 yard field goal try. At the time, nobody had ever made a field goal over 40 yards at Heinz Field, but Edwards, ever the conservator, kicked it—and missed. Edwards did this three times and Brien missed two of three kicks, and of course, the Steelers won 20-17 in overtime.
These coaches do not get these jobs by accident. They have forgotten more about football than most of us will ever know, but sometimes, they appear lost in the moment, or at the very least, lost in their scripts. Doug Flutie once said that football is simple. Make your read, find the open guy, throw the ball, but today’s coaches spend hours trying to make it harder than it should be. And, they’re succeeding.
These are games. And, true to form, teams play not to lose them rather than by trying to win them. You can point to the officials, the penalties and the poor quarterback play, but in the end, these are games and games are supposed to fun, full of risk and full of reward and joy. Yes, football and sports is a business—a big business—but in the end…….
These are games.