It’s only natural for fans to blame certain individuals when their favorite team falls short of their goals. It’s this criticism that fuels turnover in the NFL. Like it or not, fans pay their hard-earned money to watch their favorite team play, hoping to see their team win a Super Bowl.
The Denver Broncos are lucky enough not to be in a position where the fans are blaming coaches for a poor season, but one where the fans are simply questioning a few key decisions in a playoff game. No one thinks John Fox should be fired over any of his decisions, but that doesn’t mean some weren’t troubling.
If Fox came out and said that he made a mistake on one decision in particular, the fans in Denver could start the healing process. Fox could provide his reasoning for making the decision, but none of that really matters. All fans really wanted to hear is Fox to say he made a mistake.
What’s concerning is that Fox insisted that he’d make the same decision to take a knee with 31 seconds left, two timeouts, Peyton Manning at quarterback and needing only about 40 yards to attempt a game-winning field goal in the thin air of Denver.
"It didn't seem to be the right time to go for the jugular. I'd do that again 10 times out of 10 if faced with that situation,” Fox said in the team’s season-ending press conference.
Fox compared the 70-yard touchdown the Broncos allowed and its impact on his team to a fighter on the ropes. If that’s the analogy he wants to use then he should learn a little bit about boxing. Not every fight is won with a knockout punch, sometimes the other fighter simply lands one more punch than the other guy.
In other words: play the odds by trying to throw a punch even if your team is the one on its heels because you miss 100 percent of the opportunities you don't take. Taking a shot to score there might not have worked out, but there's also a decent chance the Broncos could have won the game and not gone into overtime.
The decision to take a knee was also very unlike the decision Fox made just a few minutes earlier when the Broncos chose to run the ball on 3rd-and-7 and then punt the ball away. It was a conservative choice, but one that is also the safer play and one that usually leads to a positive outcome. The odds favored Fox’s decision.
Rahim Moore changed everything when he let Jacoby Jones get behind him for a 70-yard touchdown that allowed the Baltimore Ravens to tie the game. Fox decided to run out the clock because his team was so devastated. Basically, Fox wanted to regroup between the end of regulation and the start of overtime.
The biggest problem with that line of thinking is that the Broncos had two timeouts, which means they would get a chance to regroup with the clock stopping twice. If regrouping was so important, throw a pass down the middle of the field, hope to complete it and call a timeout. Better yet, don’t worry about regrouping.
Who was Fox worried about? It couldn’t be Manning, who has 49 career game-winning drives according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, second to Dan Mario in NFL history. You could ask for no better quarterback to get 40 yards with 31 seconds and two timeouts.
Denver averaged a league-high 7.6 yards per pass attempt in 2012, according to teamrankings.com. Which means the Broncos would have needed just about four plays to get into position to attempt a long field goal. The Broncos also had 64 pass plays over 20 yards in 2012, fourth-most in the NFL.
While Fox based on odds his decision to run it on 3rd-and-7, his decision to take a knee was totally against all odds. Manning’s interception percentage (interceptions divided by pass attempts) in the regular season was just 1.9 percent. If there was a greater than a two percent chance that Manning could position the Broncos for the game-winning field goal, kneeling was the wrong decision.
It goes without saying that Fox screwed up and just isn’t willing to admit it or he truly believes he made the right decision. It would seem odd to be so convinced that you made the right decision even though everything points to it being the wrong one. That seems to be the case here unless you buy into the idea that the team was too devastated to try to win the game.
Even Fox’s decision based on the team’s mental state was a poor one. Think about how team’s ice kickers to make them feel the pressure and how often players want to get right back on the field to atone for their mistake. Dwelling on a mistake can actually be worse than just forgetting about it and starting again. Having a short memory is part of the game and coaches preach it constantly.
Fox had a 50 percent chance of getting the ball first in overtime, but he would have to score a touchdown to deliver the knockout blow instead of simply a field goal. It’s obviously more difficult to score a touchdown and the Ravens happen to be a tough defense to score on in the red zone. The Ravens allowed touchdowns just a shade over 44 percent of the time, the second-hardest defense to score a touchdown on in the red zone in 2012, according to teamrankings.com.
The Broncos were lucky enough to hold the Ravens twice and get two opportunities in the overtime period to win the game with a field goal and just couldn’t make it happen. The odds were against them getting so many chances to win the game in overtime and for that Fox should be grateful. Manning throwing the interception took some of the criticism off of Fox’s decision to not let him try to win it at the end of regulation.
What also shouldn’t be understated is that the Broncos had to face the regular Baltimore defense in overtime, instead of a boundary-control, prevent defense they would have been playing at the end of the fourth quarter. There’s no telling if the Broncos wouldn’t have been more effective at chewing up yards against a defense that is only designed to prevent the Broncos from getting into range for a field goal.
Letting Manning try to get in field goal range at the end of the fourth quarter is just a logical decision. The thin air in Denver has produced two 63-yard field goals out of the four on record. Bronco kicker Matt Prater has made 75 percent of his field goals over 50 yards including two from 59 yards. One of the two 59-yard field goals Prater hit was with eight seconds to play in Week 14 of 2011, and he was perfect in the postseason before chunking a 52-yard field goal toward the end of the first half against the Ravens.
The Broncos had the game won until Moore’s big mistake, but they didn’t lose it because of him. For that the responsibility rests with Fox and Manning. Moore and Manning owned up to their mistakes, Fox should have done the same.
Fox has done a good job in Denver and that shouldn't be lost in all of this, but his insistence that he'd make the same decision is concerning. What if Fox makes a similar error next postseason? Fox's game-management skills will now be closely monitored by the fans, and they have reason to be concerned if he follows through an makes a similar decision again.