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Exhuming McCarthy

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Mike McCarthy

Above: Congratulations to Seattle’s MVP in the NFC Championship Game!

Barnwell has an excellent analysis of Mike McCarthy’s hideously bad in-game tactics, putting it in the proper context of McCarthy’s extensive history of hideously bad in-game tactics. (There’s also some great stuff about how fans always assume that a late game offense that fails is a prevent defense even when there’s blitzing.)  But for whatever reason, lots of fans and most announcers love the kind of old-school bullshit that unnecessarily throws away football games like Murray Chass loves pitcher wins. So it’s worth addressing some of the more common illogical arguments used to defend McCarthyism:

  • There are some calls that are such close percentage plays that the general data doesn’t do much to inform the specific case, and it’s appropriate to defer to the coach’s assessment of the relevant factors. 4th and goal from the 1, or the 1/2, is not one of them. I linked to the 4th down bot yesterday, but again in these particular cases the odds overwhelmingly favor going for it. Only in very unusual circumstances should you kick a field goal, and the burden of proof weighs strongly against McCarthy’s apologists.
  • At this point, like Chass telling people who analyze the wrong statistics go get their nose out of their slide rules and watch the games, it is de riguier for the Phil Simms type to inform us that football games are played by human beings, and the general rule does not not always determine specific cases.  Well, duh.  But the arguments that proceed from this tend not to actually be arguments about the specific facts of a case but rather just meaningless cliches or useless tautologies.  “YOU HAVE TO PUT THE POINTS ON THE BOARD IN THE NATIONAL. FOOTBALL. LEAGUE.” is just a bunch of words next to each other. “I trust my defense” doesn’t tell us anything, because if you trust your defense why are you so terrified at the prospect of the other team getting the ball at their own 1/2 yard line?  “Rules” with no content and arguments that cut both ways aren’t reason to make bad percentage calls.
  • Was yesterday one of the extremely rare cases in which it’s correct not to play the overwhelming percentages? I can’t see that.  Yes, the Seahawks have an excellent run defense.  But the Packers have 1)an exceptional offensive line, 2)decent runners, and 3)the best QB in the world. Moreover, going up against the best team in football on the road should logically make you less risk-averse, not more.  The idea that the Packers were unlikely to get 18 feet on the ground doesn’t make any sense, and without that assumption you can’t defend McCarthy.
  • There’s a superficially more persuasive argument made by McCarthy apologists, namely that despite his horrible decisions Seattle had to have a large number of things go right to win the game at the end, and hey the odds of recovering an expected onside kick are a lot better than scoring on 4th-and-goal from the 1.  And, yes, after the Burnett interception Seattle’s win expectancy was south of 5% and a lot of things had to go right for them to win.  But the logical fallacy here should be obvious: it treats your good breaks as inevitable and knowable, while the other team’s good breaks are contingent and lucky.  McCarthy had no way of knowing at the time he screwed up the game that a QB long established as above-average would spend 3 1/2 quarters playing like Ryan Lindley’s less talented younger brother.  Nobody has ever confused Jermaine Kearse with Jerry Rice, but I don’t think expecting to get picks on 80% of his targets — two resulting from deflections directly into the hands of Green Bay defenders  — is realistic.  If all of this stuff had to happen for McCarthy’s decisions to be sound, then they were dumb.  The fact that coaches win all the time despite of making bad tactical decisions doesn’t make them less bad.  And, sometimes, those marginal decisions just do make the difference.
  • It’s also worth comparing McCarthy with Pete Carroll.  If Carroll went with the “YOU HAVE TO PUT THE POINTS ON THE BOARD IN THE NATIONAL. FOOTBALL. LEAGUE. YOU HAVE TO TAKE THAT ZERO OFF THE SCOREBOARD. IT’S ABOUT THE JIMS AND JOES NOT THE XS AND OS JEEM” mentality and takes the 3 points at 16-0, as many coaches would have, the Packers almost certainly win.  And, as djw said in comments, I have less than no patience with claims that this was “luck.”  It was good coaching and good execution, and that McCarthy’s team wasn’t prepared for it is instructive.
  • As Barnwell says, we also shouldn’t overlook McCarthy’s conservatism also manifesting itself in taking the ball out of the hands of the best player in the world for much of the 4th quarter.  I know I’m supposed to be upset about Belichick “running up the score,” but leaving aside the fact that I think this is always nonsense in professional football, better that that playing not to lose.  There’s a reason that Belichick is 21-9 in the playoffs while McCarthy — with a quarterback at least as good as Brady — is 7-6.  And it ain’t inflated footballs or surreptitious videotapes.
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