The NFL’s Overthinking Epidemic

It started at the end of last season’s Super Bowl. Pete Carroll elected to throw the ball on 2nd-and-goal from the 1-yard line, with arguably the best running back in the league standing in the backfield. We all know how that worked out for Seattle. It was a questionable decision that didn’t pan out and that happened to be made on the biggest stage the game has to offer.

The decision even surprised members of the team. “I think we all were surprised. We still had a timeout and felt we should take a shot. I don’t know, man. I’m just trying to make up an explanation,” said wide receiver Doug Baldwin.

The Patriots weren’t surprised, and getting too cute ended the Seahawks’ dream of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

A myriad of explanations were offered by members of the Seahawks staff, from clock management to personnel on the field to the element of surprise. The fact of the matter is the Seahawks had a relatively safe, high-percentage option to get the ball across the goal line, and they outsmarted themselves.

Fast-forward to Week 1 of the 2015 NFL season. We were provided with numerous examples of coaches overthinking and disregarding common sense. The Seahawks, seemingly learning from their experience in the Super Bowl, elected to run on 4th-and-1 while attempting to extend their overtime drive against the St. Louis Rams. However, they chose to run out of the shotgun, and Marshawn Lynch was stopped in the backfield. Insisting on running out of the shotgun has become somewhat of an epidemic in modern football in its own right, and it makes no sense, at least in short-yardage situations. Get under center, hand the ball off with your back already heading downhill and reduce the reaction time of the defense.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly made the same mistake on a critical 3rd-and-1 in the Philadelphia Eagles’ loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Kelly’s call was extra peculiar because he handed the ball to Ryan Mathews, instead of last season’s leading rusher DeMarco Murray, who was supposedly brought in specifically for those situations and because of his reputation as a more downhill runner than his predecessor LeSean McCoy.

And then there was the debacle near the end of the New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game where Tom Coughlin’s team inexplicably decided to pass the ball on 3rd-and-1 with a running clock and the Cowboys out of timeouts. Eli Manning did his coach no favors, as he threw the ball away when he couldn’t find an open receiver instead of simply going down and taking a sack — not to mention telling running back Rashad Jennings not to score. Of course, this left enough time for Tony Romo and the ‘Boys to march down the field and score the game-winning touchdown.

That’s three instances in a single week where high-profile coaching staffs seemingly threw common sense to the wind and outsmarted themselves. These aren’t rookie head coaches finding their way. Between the three of them, they have 12 playoff appearances and three Super Bowl championships. These are very smart men who are getting paid a lot of money but can’t seem to get out of their own way.

So how have we gotten here? How has the complete disregard of common sense and the penchant for overthinking become so pervasive in today’s NFL that it’s reaching epidemic proportions? There are several factors.

The Data Obsession

We have a societal trend that has seeped its way into every part of our lives, including football. The application of advanced analytics is commonplace, and scouting has become increasingly sophisticated. There are statistics for everything. Today’s coaches have data on every possible variable that could be presented to them.

If it rained yesterday but it’s sunny today, the wind is between 9-16 mph and it’s 2:31 in the afternoon, we’re 900 feet above sea level and the opposing quarterback had spaghetti for dinner last night, then we should run this play.

But seriously, they know every single player’s strengths and weaknesses. They have information on players’ and teams’ tendencies. They know how well play X performs against formation Y. I could go on and on. Mathematics and probabilities have become just as much a part of a coach’s life as X’s and O’s.

This tsunami of information can become a liability as much as it can be an advantage in providing insights. With so much data to process, it can be easy for a coach to overlook an important thing: his gut — that place inside him where his years of football experience reside, where he takes into account the feel and flow of the game he is currently coaching. All that information clouds his judgment, and he can’t see all that invaluable know-how he has gained through the years. He can’t connect with his instincts, where the numbers may say one thing, but the ebb and flow of the individual game tells him another.

Picture your favorite team’s head coach, standing on the sideline at a critical moment in the game. He has a strange look on his face, a cross between pained and bewildered. You can almost see the numbers swirling around his head as he desperately tries to sort through them. Meanwhile, you’re on your couch screaming, “RUN THE DAMN BALL!” or “CALL TIMEOUT!” or whatever other common sense reaction to the situation has presented itself to you.

This isn’t a knock on advanced analytics or on using available data to your advantage. At the highest level of athletics, where the margin of error and the difference between a win and a loss can be so razor thin, teams should obviously use every available resource to be prepared.

But ultimately, sports aren’t played on computers. Games aren’t won and lost through algorithms. They are decided on the field, by athletes playing and coaches coaching, and for all the help that data can provide, it can be a liability in that moment when a decision needs to be made quickly and in the heat of battle.

Ego

The second factor in this epidemic is a simple one: ego — the belief that one is superior and the insatiable need to prove it.

A bit of ego in sports isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a necessity. These are very high-paid, very smart men who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. They didn’t get to this point without some self-confidence and bravado.

Unfortunately, an ego left unchecked continues to grow, and just like with the data, too much of a good thing becomes a hindrance to progress. Many coaches today seem hell-bent on proving that they are the smartest, the most innovative and are ahead of their time.

They try to be so progressive that they go against the grain in drastic attempts to prove their wits, as if to say “look at me, no one else thought of this!” More often than not, the reality of making that decision means ignoring a safer, smarter option. The desire to be known as bold, innovative and smart, as well as the pathological need to stroke one’s own ego, overwhelms logical thinking.

No coach would admit to being an egomaniac to the point of unnecessarily risking the outcome of a game for his own self-aggrandizement. He probably wouldn’t even knowingly take such a risk. It just happens. Coaches can’t control it. All the successes, all the years of being told how great they are, it all starts to accumulate. It’s human nature to start to buy in to it a little bit. And then it suddenly sneaks up on them in a big moment, unbeknownst to them, and they find themselves going against better wisdom as their subconscious tells them that they are smarter than everyone else.

I love the chess-match aspect of sports. It is a joy to watch a well-developed scheme work to perfection. It’s fascinating to watch adjustments get made and then adjustments to the adjustments. Coaches constantly trying to out-maneuver each other and striving to be the side that dictates the action — all of this is a part of the beauty of sports. But modern sports, particularly football, have become sophisticated almost to the point of absurdity. Sometimes the simple, time-tested play is the right one. At a certain point, you have to just play.

Coaches making bone-headed decisions is nothing new. It has been happening for as long as there have been sports to coach. The amount of mistakes being made, however, is increasing at an alarming rate. They have been happening at critical junctures in games. And they have been happening when a simple, logical alternative is staring everyone right in the face.

You better hope we get this epidemic under control, or it could be your favorite team making the next Giant(s) blunder.

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