Jim Caldwell, Conservative Coaching, And Avoiding Shutouts

By Jason Lisk
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Well, on Sunday, Jim Caldwell kicked a field goal from the Tennessee 4 yard line on 4th and 4, with the Colts down 20-0, halfway through the 3rd quarter. This move is so ridiculously conservative and wrong it’s unbelievable. If there was a basic entrance exam for head coaches and this scenario was offered as a hypothetical, missing it would qualify as grounds for failure. The team is only 4 yards from a score, where it can cut it to 2 scores, or leave the opponent pinned. The field goal leaves it at a 3 possession game with little more than 20 minutes left.  If it was 16-0, I would still go from that distance, but at least the decision would be defensible as cutting it to a 2 score game.

The only rationale has to be avoiding embarrassment, by insuring that the team gets points on the board to avoid the shutout. It certainly wasn’t to maximize the remaining chances of getting back in the game. And I don’t get that. Embarrassment is a powerful motivating tool for anyone, and especially for NFL players. Avoiding shutouts by kicking a field goal down big is like putting lipstick on a pig. It didn’t make the performance any better, it was just a little less embarrassing. I’d rather my team get shutout than kick a late field goal. Coaches love motivation ploys. Well, getting embarrassed in a shutout, being ripped on the radio and in the local media, is a pretty strong one.

To look at this, I checked the last decade, and found all games where a team was already down by 14 or more at halftime and getting shutout, and then looked at those where the team either scored 3 points in the second half, or ended in a shutout. Obviously, some of the teams that kick a field goal first can go on to score later in the game, but this was just a quick and dirty test to see if shutouts were so bad compared to getting a meaningless field goal.

In the next game, the teams that scored a second half field goal to avoid a shutout went 4-14, getting outscored 17.8 to 28.3 (-10.5 score margin).

The teams that went on to get shutout, in their next game: 19-21, with a 17.5 to 18.2 score differential (-0.7 score margin).

It’s a small sample size, and I didn’t control for quality of opponents. Whether you believe shutouts can be a motivating factor driving those better performances by teams that were shutout the week before or not, it certainly doesn’t look like a negative. A coach that has to kick a field goal in those situations tells his team he thinks they are mentally weak, and avoiding embarrassment is preferable to trying to win. Take it away, Herm: You . . . play . . . to win . . . the game.

The Colts are a dreadful 0-8. Jim Caldwell cannot control the injury to Peyton Manning and the depth on the roster. He can control, though, making decisions that give the team an optimal chance to win with what they have. If he’s just going to kick field goals down 20-0 near the goal line, I’m not sure what he’s good for. A robot lacking in motivational skills could be programmed to do that.

[photo via Getty]

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