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How NFL coaches try (and sometimes fail) to master the end-of-game chaos

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John Harbaugh is in his fifteenth season coaching the Baltimore Ravens, and he has developed a fame as one among the league’s best tacticians in pivotal moments. But even for him, the pressure during close games takes on a virtually physical manifestation. When the sideline tenses and the stadium erupts and the play clock ticks and the voices crackle in his headset and he considers his next move, he can feel the load.

“Everybody’s effort is in your shoulders,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not a lot about what the smart move or what the numbers decision is. It’s what’s going to achieve success. It’s what’s going to provide help to win. That’s never certain.”

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In a league designed for parity, any decision made in a split-second from the sideline could determine the results of 60 minutes of physical combat on the sector — and game management has grown more crucial this season than any in recent memory. Twenty-five games have been decided by six points or less, and 18 of those had a margin of three or less, each the very best in NFL history through three weeks.

Through the opening week, Denver Broncos Coach Nathaniel Hackett’s doomed alternative to engineer a 64-yard field goal in the ultimate seconds of an anticipated “Monday Night Football” showdown created easy calamity and prompted a deluge of criticism. The 1-2 Detroit Lions’ record is likely to be transposed had Coach Dan Campbell gone for a fourth and 4 last Sunday somewhat than try a 54-yard field goal with 1:14 left, a choice he said he “hated” within the immediate aftermath. Following kicker Austin Seibert’s miss, the Minnesota Vikings stormed for a go-ahead touchdown and victory.

“Should you have a look at the NFL over the past variety of years, two-thirds of the games are inside one rating within the fourth quarter,” said former Dallas Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett, now a “Sunday Night Football” analyst. “The teams that go to the playoffs, they play the identical variety of those games. They only win more of them.”

Within the abstract, any teenager who’s played enough Madden can optimize timeouts and knows when to go for it on fourth down. In practice, amid the chaotic duress of an NFL sideline, easy decisions turn into complicated. At pivotal moments, without the suitable preparation or required nerve, an NFL head coach can turn right into a stressed dad attempting to tie his crying toddler’s shoe while the toast is burning and he’s about to be late for work.

“You bought to be calm in a s— storm,” said former Latest York Jets Coach Rex Ryan, now an ESPN analyst. “It’s not on anybody else. It’s on you. You bought to be calm, and also you got to be considering ahead of the sport. It’s like playing chess.”

Head coaches operate with more information than ever before, as publicly available statistical evaluation has drastically shifted how they operate. Coaches must synthesize all of the insights gleaned from beefed-up analytics departments, and though the spread of knowledge has allowed for smarter decisions, it’s also made those decisions more scrutinized and, at times, difficult to act upon.

If coaches get it unsuitable, a sea of analytically driven web sites, Twitter accounts and podcasts are lying in wait to amplify their mistakes. But that understanding of analytics goes each ways. When Washington Commanders Coach Rivera went for 2 after a touchdown brought his team to inside eight two weeks ago, many fans nodded with approval on the once-unconventional, now-routine call meant to spice up a team’s win probability by avoiding additional time (even when it by some means still mystifies broadcasters).

Asked Wednesday how he approaches endgame scenarios, Harbaugh at first provided a deadpan look. “Flip a coin, normally,” he said, breaking right into a grin.

Harbaugh has developed a progressive fame amongst analytics devotees. In 2019, he pushed other coaches to eschew punts due to his extreme aggression — and frequent success — going for it on fourth down. Still, Harbaugh navigates the endgame much more through feel for the moment than dogmatic faith in probability.

“I do know the analytics people would love to let you know they’ll measure all the things, but they’ll’t measure exactly how the sport goes, or the circumstances, or the emotions, or the texture of the stadium or simply luck,” Harbaugh said. “Ultimately, you simply to try make the choice that offers yourself the most effective probability to win. I all the time return to this: Do I believe it’s going to work?”

Even analytically inclined coaches must operate without black-and-white assurance. The NFL bans all devices that may transmit data — cellphones, FitBits, Apple Watches and more — on the sideline and in coaches’ booths. Coaches can study two-point conversion charts and win probability models throughout the week, but neither they nor the staffers they’re in touch with can seek the advice of the real-time models fans peruse online.

“They’re flying slightly bit blind relative to what those of us on the skin are doing when second-guessing,” football analytics expert and the Athletic contributor Ben Baldwin said.

The prohibitions make preparation paramount. Twice every week, Rivera meets with Commanders analyst Doug Drewry to review situations that arose within the previous game: timeout usage, close fourth down decisions, two-point conversion opportunities. One morning every week, Rivera also meets with three members of his coaching staff to debate the identical topics and look ahead at how they may handle those moments on game day.

“There’s lots of that you are attempting to retain and remember,” Rivera said. “When all heck is breaking loose — you bought a pair players missing, momentum swinging, all that form of stuff — you’ve got to do it.”

During games, Rivera can press an intercom button on his headset to access those coaches and Drewry for input on whether to punt or go for it, to kick or go for 2, to call timeout or reserve it. (With a tone that suggested he’s delved for a solution, Rivera noted that analytics have provided no insight on the most effective time to call for a fake punt or fake field goal.)

Just as there’s a difference between practicing and performing for players, there’s a difference between planning and motion for coaches. Some remain poised under pressure. Some choke.

When Baldwin studied coaches’ worst decisions when it comes to win probability, a disproportionate number occurred in playoff games. Coaches usually tend to make a poor decision when it’s close and late, Baldwin said, and to be conservative when a bold-yet-optimal decision could lead on to criticism.

“I’ve seen guys that couldn’t call a defense when a team went no-huddle,” Ryan said. “It’s the damndest thing you’ve ever seen. There are some guys that don’t do as well.”

When he coached the Cowboys, Garrett would visit with Navy SEALs in an effort to learn how one can make crisis feel routine. Garrett continually tested his players, his coaching staff and himself with different situations. During walk-throughs, he went through a nine-play script with different scenarios and variables — running the sector goal team on the sector with the clock ticking down, but with one among the members out with a pretend injury. The more he rehearsed, the more he could eliminate panic from any contingency.

“You’ll never duplicate each situation perfectly,” Garrett said. “But hopefully you’ve done it enough so those situations feel quiet and slow.”

Garrett created a situational football handbook each offseason, revising the last yr’s edition based on recent insights or changing personnel. He included best practices for two-minute drills when trailing and four-minute drills when ahead.

He also called his own offensive plays, which forced him to delegate. He put two staffers answerable for assisting him with challenges, one for offense and one for defense. His special teams coach walked through fourth-down calls with him. During games, he encouraged constant chatter on his headset. An assistant might indicate he needed to arrange his two-point conversion play, and he might indicate that the hands team needed to be ready — and never to forget that a key player was injured and his alternative needed coaching up.

But even the best-laid plans can implode. With the Jets, Ryan made it a priority not to depart Tom Brady time on the clock. In a single close game against the Latest England Patriots, Ryan told his offensive players to not call timeouts, to let him manage the clock. “Sure as s—, boom, my quarterback calls timeout,” Ryan said. “I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”

The Jets kicked a field goal, and Brady answered with a winning touchdown within the waning seconds. Ryan’s ensuring cursing spree prompted a $50,000 nice.

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Ryan never relinquished calling his own defensive plays. “Why the hell would I turn it over after I got the job for this reason?” he said. Hackett took the identical approach, continuing to call offensive plays, as he had done because the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator.

For an inexperienced head coach, the attempt at multitasking can result in disaster.

Last week, in response to the failed 64-yard field goal attempt in Week 1 and his clock-management fiasco in Week 2, Hackett hired former Baltimore Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg to help with in-game decisions. On Sunday night, Hackett said, he learned on Rosburg’s counsel when he punted on fourth and inches from his team’s 34-yard line. Hackett initially had desired to go for it, but Rosburg talked him right into a punt, arguing that the defense was playing well and would win back possession with less risk than a fourth-down try. It unfolded ideally for the Broncos: They forced a three-and-out and went on to attain the game-winning touchdown.

“All coaches, we wish to grow,” Hackett told reporters. “[Rosburg is] a man with a ton of experience that’s run game management before. And after talking with him, he was all for it, enthusiastic about it.’’

The funny thing about Rosburg’s advice: In a vacuum, he was unsuitable. Based on the highly regarded Fourth Down Bot, which Baldwin designed, punting reduced the Broncos’ odds of winning by 4.6 percent in comparison with going for it, making it a “strong” suggestion to go.

—> SF (10) @ DEN (5) <---
DEN has 4th & 1 on the DEN 34

Suggestion (STRONG): 👉 Go for it (+4.6 WP)
Actual play: 🏈🦵 C.Waitman punts 53 yards to SF 13, Center-J.Bobenmoyer, fair catch by R.McCloud. pic.twitter.com/3O5LQYGBGX

— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) September 26, 2022

Did Rosburg read the sport perfectly, separating variables that a probability model built on reams of historical data couldn’t account for? Or did the Broncos’ players make their coaches lucky by overcoming their mistake?

“I might more lean on the latter,” Baldwin said. “… Your defense being good doesn’t only provide help to if punt the ball. Should you trust your defense, it is best to trust your defense to forestall the opponent from scoring after you go for it. It’s not just like the defense is barely relevant within the situation where you’re punting.”

The Broncos’ victory underscored the vagaries of coaching. Coaches could make the unsuitable call and win or the fitting call and lose. They’ll botch the clock only for his or her players to avoid wasting them, or they’ll plan for one precise moment for years just for a player’s error to cost them a victory. Their decisions can mean all the things, or they’ll mean nothing.

Wednesday afternoon, on the Ravens’ facility, after Harbaugh explained the method he’s honed for nearly 15 years, he paused and seemed to comprehend he may not have been completely joking in spite of everything.

“It’s almost like flipping a coin,” he said.

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