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The Top 10 Worst Coaching Decisions in a Super Bowl

Michael IelpiCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2017

The Top 10 Worst Coaching Decisions in a Super Bowl

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    A couple of years ago, I wrote a column called My Top 10 Super Bowl Coaching Decisions. Today is the sequel to that, where I examine the flip side.

    The pressure of the biggest game of the year can have some very smart men make some very poor decisions that will be remembered for all-time.

    To quote Jack King, "Few [poker] players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career."

    You could easily replace poker player with head coach.

    You may be surprised to find a few Hall of Fame coaches have made this list. You may also be surprised that some of the coaches who made some of the best decisions are also on the list.

10. Mike Holmgren, Super Bowl XL: Bad Officiating, Poor Planning

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    Mike Holmgren could have made a great politician.

    His play-calling and time management during the game was worse than the officiating. Seattle Seahawks fans still blame the officials. Their head coach ducked most of the blame for the loss.

    While there were a few ticky-tack calls in the game that would not be called on other nights, they were called and you have to play through adversity to win a championship.

    Nearing the end of the first half, the Seahawks trailed the Steelers 7-3 with 1:46 remaining in the second quarter. The Seahawks had the football on their own 27-yard line and drove to the Steelers' 40-yard line with 54 seconds left in the half. On first down, the Seahawks threw an incompletion. With 48 seconds left, they handed the ball off to Shaun Alexander for a four-yard gain. It took the Seahawks 30 seconds to get another play called. The third down pass was incomplete and Josh Brown would miss a 54-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.

    The lack of urgency most likely cost the Seahawks three points.

    The fourth quarter began with the Seahawks trailing 14-10. After a controversial holding call, the Seahawks faced 3rd-and-18 at the Steelers' 27-yard line. Instead of calling either a safer pass or a draw play that could have made a field goal attempt a shorter distance, the Seahawks gambled and Matt Hasselbeck’s deep pass was easily intercepted at the 5-yard line and was returned for 24 yards. After the interception, Hasselbeck was called for a low block that put the ball all the way up to the Steelers’ own 44-yard line.

    The Steelers scored a touchdown just four plays later and took a 21-10 lead.

    Very late in the game, the Seahawks moved the ball to the Steelers’ 26-yard line with just 35 seconds left in the contest. Needing two scores to extend the game, the Seahawks could have tried a field goal and then hoped to recover an onside kick.

    The Seahawks tried to find the end zone and ended up turning the ball over on downs and the game was over.

    Either way the Seahawks would have needed an onside kick along with their effort to try and score a touchdown, and they simply never got the opportunity.

    The officiating was not its finest that Sunday in Detroit, but neither was Holmgren’s game plan.

9. Lovie Smith, Super Bowl XLI: Rex Grossman Is Our Quarterback

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    The Colts could have been had on a rainy Sunday night in Miami, but Lovie Smith had to have Rex Grossman as his quarterback.

    The Bears had scored 14 points in the first ten minutes of Super Bowl XLI, thanks to an opening kick return for a touchdown by Devin Hester, and 53 rushing yards by Thomas Jones on the Bears’ second drive of the game.

    The Bears would score just three more points in the final 49 minutes of the game. The Bears longest drive of the game was eight plays. Ten drives by the Bears lasted for four plays or less. The longest single drive by the Bears was only 2:22 in terms of time of possession.

    While Rex Grossman did not throw the game away until the fourth quarter, he had done little to help the Bears on the scoreboard.

    Grossman had just 19 passing yards after the first half and only 44 yards through three quarters of play. Lovie Smith believed in Rex Grossman right down to the bitter end.

    The Bears defense and special teams had done enough to hold Peyton Manning and the Colts offense to only touchdown and three field goals and the game was up for grabs with the Colts holding a 22-17 to start the fourth quarter.

    With 11:44 to play in the game, the Bears had a first down on their own 38-yard line. Grossman threw up a lazy pass that was easily intercepted by Kelvin Hayden and his spectacular run down the sideline for a touchdown pretty much ended the competitive portion of Super Bowl XLI.

    2006 would be Rex Grossman’s final season as the full-time starter for the Chicago Bears. He would win just two more games as a Bear after the loss in Super Bowl XLI.

    Staying with Rex Grossman did not cost Lovie Smith his job, but it may have cost him his best opportunity at winning a Super Bowl.

8. Forrest Gregg, Super Bowl XVI: Stuck at the One

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    The Cincinnati Bengals may have had the worst first half performance in Super Bowl history against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. The Bengals trailed 20-0 at halftime, despite having the ball twice in the red zone

    The Bengals had cut the 49ers lead to 20-7, and with 6:53 left in the third quarter they started a drive at midfield that would take them to first-and-goal at the 49er 3-yard line with under three minutes left in the quarter.

    The Bengals were just nine feet away from making Super Bowl XVI a much closer game, but the Bengals never touched the end zone. On first down, fullback Pete Johnson gained two yards to the 49ers’ 1-yard line. On second down, Johnson ran to the left but was stopped for no gain by Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds. On third down, a short pass to running back Charles Alexander was stopped at the 1-yard line. Alexander did not make his cut into the end zone and was corralled by 49er linebacker Dan Bunz for no gain. The Bengals were then forced to exhaust a time out.

    The Bengals decided to go for it on fourth down and the hand off went to Pete Johnson and once again it was Reynolds stopping Johnson for no gain.

    The Bengals had squandered six minutes of the clock and one timeout and came away with nothing. Bengals head coach Forrest Gregg’s insistence on running the ball at the situation—when it was clear that the 49ers game plan was to stop Pete Johnson—was baffling. Johnson was held to just 36 yards on 14 carries, and his longest run of the game was a mere five yards. Gregg could have taken a page out of his former head coach, Vince Lombardi’s playbook, and had quarterback Ken Anderson try a sneak from the 1-yard line on one of those opportunities.

    The Bengals had a first-and-goal twice in the fourth quarter, and on both occasions it only took the Bengals one play to score via the pass. They learned from their earlier mistake, but there was not enough to time to get one more score and the 49ers won Super Bowl XVI by a count of 26-21.

    In Super Bowl XVI, the Bengals became the first team in Super Bowl history to out gain their opponent and lose. The Bengals just needed about three feet more.

7. Bill Belichick, Super Bowl XLII: 3 Points May Have Saved the Perfect Season

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    The heavily favored and undefeated New England Patriots came into Super Bowl XLII with the highest scoring offense in NFL history.

    Super Bowl XLII was an entirely different story for the Patriots’ offense. The New York Giants defense was the story of this game. The Giants defense pressured Tom Brady the entire evening and the vaunted Patriot passing attack’s longest play was just 19 yards.

    The Patriots held on to a 7-3 lead with 6:49 left in the third quarter. They had held the football for the first eight minutes of the third quarter and were now faced with fourth down and 13 yards to go at the Giants’ 31-yard line. The Patriots decided to go for it. Brady’s pass down the sideline to Jabar Gaffney was thrown out of bounds and the Giants took over on downs.

    In a game where points were at a premium, you have to wonder why Bill Belichick decided to try a much higher risk play to pass than a field goal attempt. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was a career 9-for-10 in the playoffs and certainly had the leg for the kick distance. Gostkowski’s career long in the playoffs was a 50-yard field goal he made in his rookie season in San Diego in the 2006 AFC Divisional round.

    One also has to wonder, if the Patriots still had Adam Vinatieri on the roster, would this even have been a question?

    But, if Gostkowski had taken and made that kick, the Patriots would have took a 10-3 lead, and had the game played out the same way, then the Giants' final drive of the game would have only tied the game at 17, instead of destroying what could have been the greatest season in NFL history.

    Bill Belichick’s fourth down gambles are now the stuff of legend after a missed fourth-and-two on his own 28 against the Colts in the 2009 season. That decision made more sense than the one he chose in Super Bowl XLII.

6. Jim Caldwell, Super Bowl XLIV: Do You Know Who Your Kicker Is?

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    The Colts had an 11-play drive that started at their own 11-yard line with 2:01 left in the third quarter and would last until 10:44 left in the fourth quarter. The drive went for 66 yards, but stalled at the New Orleans Saints’ 33-yard line. The Colts were faced with 4th-and-11 and could either go for it, punt to the pin the Saints deeper or try a 51-yard field goal by Matt Stover to extend the lead to four points.

    To me, the field goal was the least logical choice. Stover was kicking due to an injury that sidelined all-world Adam Vinatieri. At 42 years old, Stover had not made a field goal of over 50 yards in three years.

    The Saints would take over on their own 41-yard line and in nine plays without ever needing a third down scored and added the two-point conversion to lead 24-17.

    While Drew Brees was extremely accurate during the game, the Saints had only one touchdown on offense through three quarters. That touchdown drive came off the surprise onside kick at the start of the second half that gave New Orleans the ball at their own 44-yard line. 

    Had the Colts punted and the Saints had started at the 20-yard line or even further back, the Colts defense, who had managed to keep the vaunted Saint offense out of the end zone on six of their previous seven drives, could have done so again. But the momentum after the missed field goal carried all to New Orleans and the Colts drive to potentially tie the game went the other way, and it was the Saints who ran off with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

5. Andy Reid, Super Bowl XXXIX: What’s the Rush?

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    It had been over 40 years since the Philadelphia Eagles won an NFL championship. Their best opportunity came in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Florida, against the New England Patriots. The Eagles would squander it, partially due to doing absolutely nothing at all.

    After a Patriots punt, the Eagles had the ball at their own 21-yard line with 5:40 to play in Super Bowl XXXIX.

    The Patriots had a depleted and exhausted secondary, but the Eagles were throwing safe passes that were only gaining a few yards at a time. Even worse, the Eagles were huddling up after every play and the clock was winding its way down to where even if the Eagles scored they would have more than likely had to recover an onside kick to win.

    There were reports that quarterback Donovan McNabb could not run the no-huddle offense due to him being too banged up during the game.

    In five plays, the Eagle offense went 15 yards and made their way to their own 36-yard line. That 45-foot journey took two minutes off the clock.

    The Eagles would reach the Patriots 43-yard line on their eleventh play of the drive. That 21-yard journey chopped another 1:42 off the clock and the game had arrived at the two-minute warning.

    After the two-minute warning, McNabb finally threw deep and found an open Greg Lewis for a 30-yard touchdown.

    The Eagles did have two timeouts, but their last hope was to recover the onside kick, which they did not. If there was a minute or two more on the clock, they could have kicked the ball deep, then would have only needed a field goal to tie the game—the finish of Super Bowl XXXIX could have been one for the ages.

    Perhaps Reid should have taken a timeout and settled the team to see why the hurry-up offense looked like a team that was playing with a lead instead of a team that needed two scores and the clock was just as much the enemy as the opposing team.

    From my perspective, you cannot just stand on the sideline and watch your team’s fate go down the tubes due to a lack of urgency.

4. Bill Parcells, Super Bowl XXXI: You Kicked It to Him?

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    The two-touchdown underdog New England Patriots had just scored a touchdown on an 18-yard run by Curtis Martin to cut the Green Bay Packers' lead to 27-21 with 3:27 to play in the third quarter.

    Just 17 seconds and 99 yards later, the Packers ended the competitive portion of Super Bowl XXXI. Desmond Howard had been dangerously close to taking a couple of kicks back for scores during the first half, in the second half he perfected it.  Howard took Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff 99 yards and the Green Bay Packers had their first Super Bowl title since Super Bowl II.

    There is no telling that if the Patriots either did a squib kick or kicked it out of bounds the game would have changed (the ball only went to the 35-yard line in the 1996 season), but it likely would have been a contest that would have been decided in the fourth quarter and not the third quarter. The Patriots found their running game with Curtis Martin in the third quarter, and their defense was able to stymie the Packers offense twice in the third quarter and seemed to have seized the momentum of the game away from the heavily favored Packers.

    Would Brett Favre have turned into the Brett Favre we have seen in the last few years throwing poor interceptions in conference championship games or would Favre lead the Packers to the put away score and add a Super Bowl MVP to his three consecutive NFL MVP trophies of the mid-1990s? Instead, that award went to Desmond Howard, thanks in part to a coaching decision by a coach who may have already been gone.

    The two biggest stories of Super Bowl XXXI were of Brett Favre and Bill Parcells. The first was Brett Favre’s opportunity to come back to the Gulf Coast where he grew up and win his first championship, which he did. The second was Bill Parcells being courted by the New York Jets leading up to the game. Parcells did not even fly back with the Patriots to Massachusetts, and he never flew back to another Super Bowl as a head coach.

3. Don Shula, Super Bowl XVII: Woodstrock

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    Even a coach with the most career wins can make a bad decision. In Super Bowl XVII, the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins battled in the only one of two Super Bowls of the entire decade of the 1980s in which the lead would change hands in the fourth quarter.

    In the first quarter, David Woodley completed a pass to Jimmy Cefalo who took the pass and ran 76 yards for the opening score.

    He would complete just three more passes the entire game and those three passes went for a total of 21 yards. Only two receivers caught passes in the entire game for Miami—Cefalo had two and wide receiver Duriel Harris caught the other two.

    Woodley had come off an AFC Championship performance against the Jets where he went 9-for-21 for 87 yards and threw three interceptions in a muddy Orange Bowl.

    Woodley threw only one interception, but it was the only one of his eight passing attempts in the second half that was caught, and it was costly. With just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Dolphins held a 17-13 lead after a Redskin interception put the ball at the Washington 47-yard line. The Dolphins ran for a first down and on second down and twelve yards to go from the Redskin 39-yard line, Woodley was intercepted at the 5-yard line and Miami could not add any points to their lead.

    For a good portion of his time in Miami, Shula was not afraid to go to veteran backup Don Strock on days when Woodley did not have it together. While Strock did not have a good 1982 season—throwing just two touchdowns along with five interceptions—you cannot help but wonder why Shula did not take a chance with Strock when it seemed obvious that Woodley’s confidence was gone. Just a season earlier in the 1981 Divisional Playoffs, Shula replaced Woodley with Strock after the Dolphins fell behind 24-0 to the San Diego Chargers. With Strock in the game, the Dolphins put up 38 points and would lose a heart breaker in overtime, 41-38, in a game that is now called, “The Epic in Miami.” 

    Shula waited until there was just 1:55 left to put Strock into the game and the Dolphins were down 10. Strock threw three straight incomplete passes in obvious passing situations for Miami and the game was over with the Redskins pulling out a 27-17 victory.

    One positive that came out of this for the Miami Dolphins was that in the 1983 NFL Draft they drafted a quarterback named Dan Marino. Unfortunately, Shula and Marino only reached one Super Bowl together and were blown out by the San Francisco 49ers. Shula’s closest shot to win a third Super Bowl was this opportunity in the Rose Bowl and the vaunted Dolphin passing attack arrived a year too late.

2. Joe Gibbs, Super Bowl XVIII: One Unforgettable Screen Pass

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    The 1983 Washington Redskins set an NFL record for most points scored that would stand for 15 seasons. They were the defending champions, but even champions can get fall too much in love with their ideas. With only 12 seconds remaining in the first half, their vaunted offense had just three points. The Redskins trailed the Los Angeles Raiders 14-3 and had the ball on their own 12-yard line.

    The Redskins were to receive the football in the second half, so one had have to figured that it would be best for the Redskins to take a knee and regroup for the second half. One would have been wrong.

    The Redskins decided to try a play that worked earlier in the season against the Raiders. It was a screen pass that running back Joe Washington caught for a 67-yard gain back in October. In January, the Raiders remembered the play and linebacker Jack Squirek stepped in front of Joe Theismann’s screen pass and Los Angeles had as many touchdowns in the first half as the Redskins did total points.

    The Raiders led 21-3 at halftime, and while the Redskins did score a touchdown on that first drive of the second half, the 21-9 deficit was too much to overcome and they were blown out by a final count of 38-9.

    You have to wonder in this day and age of scrutiny, would any team ever try to call an offensive play with that little time and that much distance to go in the first half again?

1. Marv Levy, Super Bowl XXV: It’s Not Your Fault Scott Norwood

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    To me, there are two athletes in sports history that received way too much blame for their mistakes. One is Bill Buckner, whose error cost the Boston Red Sox a chance of playing in the 11th inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, and the other is Scott Norwood.

    The Bills had the ball on their own 10-yard line with 2:16 to play trailing the New York Giants 20-19. The Bills had one timeout and the two-minute warning available to them.

    The Bills only threw two passes on the drive and the longest completion was a mere eight yards.

    Fast forward eleven years to Super Bowl XXXVI. The New England Patriots faced a similar predicament, although the Patriots were not trailing the St. Louis Rams, the game was tied at this point.

    The number of plays called by the Patriots with no timeouts and 1:21 to play: Eight. The Patriots started the game-winning drive of Super Bowl XXXVI at their own 17-yard line.

    The number of plays called by the Bills with 2:16 left, one timeout and the two-minute warning: Eight.

    The Patriots called eight straight passes and had a kicker who had never missed a kick indoors with a penchant for making the big kicks in Adam Vinatieri.

    While the Bills' running game had been very effective during the game, they continued to rely on it even thought it was taking too much time off the clock. They never took a chance to get closer for an easier kick.

    Scott Norwood’s longest field goal of the 1990 NFL season was 48 yards. That kick came in Week 3 on an artificial surface against the New York Jets. Norwood was 6-for-10 on kicks of 40 yards or more. Norwood was more known for accuracy than distance. In his career, Norwood only made 59 percent of his kicks beyond 39 yards. He made 83 percent of his kicks of 39 yards or less.

    Could Scott Norwood have made this kick? Yes, and while I am sure Scott Norwood wished he made that kick, I wish there was a figure like Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting to tell him, “It’s not your fault.” Norwood was so concerned about the distance of the kick that his kick had too much power and therefore the ball could not bend to the left toward the uprights. Instead, the kick went fairly straight and was wide right.

    Had the kick been 40 yards or less, I think Norwood could have deserved much more of the blame that he received, but somehow Marv Levy escaped a good portion of the blame that should have been on his shoulders and not his kicker’s. The Bills were seven-point favorites in the game and they let the Giants dictate the pace of the game throughout the Tampa evening. That was the main reason why the Bills lost, not just some high-pressure 141-foot kick on a beat-up grass field that had less than a 50 percent chance of going through the uprights. I am not sure how many out of 10 Norwood makes, my guess is two or three.

    The Bills would return to the Super Bowl each of the next three seasons, but it was this opportunity in Tampa in 1991 that haunts them the most.

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