Last Sunday afternoon, in the NFC Championship Game, we saw two different coaches make two different decisions at crucial moments of the game. One coach’s more bold approach vaulted his team into the Super Bowl, the other’s, far more, timid left a franchise in question. These calls, one at the end of the first half, the other at the end of the game, not only affected who went to the Super Bowl but demonstrated how important game-planning, chutzpah, age, experience and confidence are when it comes to coaching, and more importantly winning, big time NFL games.
Bruce Arians is the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is 68 years old and has been coaching football, both college and pro, since the late 1970s. For years, he’s been known for his relatively aggressive “no risk it no biscuit” mentality. He is a two-time Super Bowl champion as an assistant head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and now, as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is one win away from the franchise’s second Super Bowl win ever and his first as a head coach.
With his Buccaneers clinging to a 14-10 lead and time expiring in the first half, with a fourth down and three yards to go, Arians decided to punt the football away, giving Packers possession of the ball. Special teams marched onto the field. Brady had put on his overcoat. Then… Arians changed his mind, or perhaps he never intended to punt at all.
His offense, led by first year quarterback Tom Brady (that just sounds funny) was sent back on the field. They converted a crucial first down then scored a touchdown on the very next play, a Brady-thrown bomb to a downfield-sprinting Scotty Miller with one second left on the clock.
Just like that it was 21-10 Buccaneers.
“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,” said Arians about the decision. The aggressive series of play calls was a huge momentum swing for the Bucs and a monstrous blow to the Packers, who had been keeping the game tight until that one mistake. It was a gutsy, yet probably no-brainer, call for Arians and company. With little to lose, it made perfect sense and it paid off.
The Packers made things interesting in the second half and why wouldn’t they with the league’s likely MVP at quarterback? The Packers narrowed the lead to within eight points, 31-23. With time winding down in the final quarter, the Packers would need a touchdown and a two-point conversion with the hopes of forcing the game into overtime.
Enter the other coach in the mix. His name is Matt LaFleur. He is the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. He is 41 years old, 27 years younger than Bruce Arians and only four years older than his quarterback Aaron Rodgers. LaFleur has been coaching college and pro football since the early 2000s, a considerably shorter time than his opponent.
After driving down the field on their final possession and three failed red zone attempts to score a touchdown, with two minutes left and the possibility of getting the ball back slim, LaFleur decided to kick a field goal. Down by eight, he hoped his defense, that had been playing well, could force a stop. The Packers had all their time outs remaining, plus the two-minute warning to stop the clock but all the Buccaneers needed, with Tom Brady at quarterback, was one perhaps two first downs to seal the game, to ensure Aaron Rodgers never touched the ball again.
The decision to kick that field goal instead of trying one final time for the touchdown had all those watching scratching their heads and left a stewing Aaron Rodgers wondering what could have been. With one’s season on the line, it was a conservative, if not indefensible, call. If you were a Buccaneers fan, you rejoiced. If you were a neutral fan, you questioned it. If you were a Packers fan, you shouted “What the fuck” at the top of your lungs.
To be clear, I’m not here to laud Arians and blast LaFleur. I am merely pointing out the differences between these two men and their particular approaches to this game. If anything, Arians has tempered his “no risk it” policy this season, relying far more wisely on the run than his aging quarterback’s arm but in the words of the immortal Herman Edwards, you play to win the game. LeFleur never got that memo.
Again, the Packers still might not have made the touchdown and the ensuing two-point conversion they needed to tie the game… but at least the coach would have signed off on putting forth the effort. That’s what football players want; that’s what football fans need. Never in the history of the game has there been a more meaningless, yet more meaningful field goal.
Aaron Rodgers has long had a testy relationship with his head coaches. LaFleur’s predecessor, Mike McCarthy was fired two seasons ago in large part for his inability to peacefully coexist with Rodgers. After going 26-6 in his first two seasons, all seemed cozy between LaFleur and his MVP, up until Sunday afternoon.
The reactionary Rodgers was understandably upset after the game. His post-game press conference suggested that his future with the franchise was uncertain. All this because of one, albeit pretty bad decision.
Back in Buccaneers camp, the venerable Arians has admitted he has allowed Brady to call plays. Such a thing is not entirely uncommon. Quarterbacks call audibles all the time, especially time-tested ones like Brady and Rodgers. It wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility for Aaron Rodgers to plead his case with LaFleur and convince his coach to go for that fourth down conversion. No one would have minded, with the season on the line and all.
So what’s the best recipe for success when coaching in the NFL? To be sure, experience matters but most coaches with any modicum of time calling plays are either still with their teams or in a broadcast booth no longer wanting the stress of the job. It’s rare that the coach still wet behind the ears wins games unless his roster’s talent far exceeds the team he’s playing.
Mike Tomlin is the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl. When he led his Steelers to Super Bowl victory in 2008, he was only 36 years old. The only other coach to win a Super Bowl before turning 40 was Jon Gruden who led a ready-made Buccaneers team to glory. Other than that, it’s a whole lot of grey hair (or none at all) that gets you there. That and brass balls. No one said coaching in the NFL is easy. It’s the only sport with a nickname for the day after the season where its head coaches get fired. It’s a fickle gig. Bill Belichick went from being the greatest coach ever to missing the playoffs altogether once his quarterback left town.
This is by no means a fire-able offense for Matt LaFleur, despite his deer-in-the-headlights decision. He and Rodgers will eventually move on but what makes the call all the more devastating is Rodgers’ ticking clock. The NFL head coach must walk the fine line of tempering his players’ egos yet showing confidence in them. That afternoon, LaFleur failed to do both.
By no means am I suggesting that old white guys continue their monopoly on the NFL head coaching carousel. To paraphrase, Public Enemy, everyone can use a little color in their family tree. But experience matters. LaFleur will be thinking about that decision for a very long time. Hopefully, for Packers fans at least, he’ll learn from it.