Did Mike McCoy's Play-Calling Cost the San Diego Chargers a Win?

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistNovember 4, 2013

After 66 minutes, the Washington Redskins beat the San Diego Chargers in overtime with a touchdown from Darrell Young. Although Young's four-yard rush brought the game to a close and each team scored 24 points before that point, this game will be remembered for three plays that came at the end of the fourth quarter.

Trailing by three points, Philip Rivers found Danny Woodhead near the goal line. Woodhead ran towards the sideline and leaped into the air when he was hit by a defender. It appeared that the diminutive back was able to stretch the football out to knock down the pylon. He had scored what would surely be the game-winning touchdown.

When that play was reversed after being reviewed, the chain of events that decided the game began.

Even though Woodhead was ruled short of the end zone, he still got out of bounds to stop the clock at 00:21 and gave his offense a first down. The Chargers had two timeouts and needed just inches to score what would almost certainly have been a game-winner.

Even though the ball was so close to the goal line, head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt weren't overly anxious to try and punch the ball in.

It was an understandable reluctance considering how poorly the Chargers had run the ball up until that point in the game. Ryan Mathews ran for 34 yards on seven attempts, while Woodhead had six for 21 before this point in the game. In fact, Philip Rivers had been most successful for the Chargers on scrambles, averaging seven yards per rush.

With talented mismatch receivers in Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green in their arsenal, the Chargers had different avenues to explore in trying to get the ball past the pylon. Even with their inability to run the ball, their first thought was to give the ball to Woodhead to run between the tackles.

Woodhead isn't a typical short-yardage back. He's 5'8" and around 200 pounds, not 6'2" and 250 pounds. Even though Woodhead is small, he has proven in the past to be a respectable runner in tight spots and his size has actually worked in his favour before.

It didn't on this occasion.

The Chargers spread the field with three receivers and a tight end to the right side of the offensive line. Theoretically, this should spread the Washington defense out and give the Chargers a numbers advantage to run the ball. However, it doesn't.

Washington is very aggressive and has two linebackers pressing the gaps to either side of the center. This gives it eight potential defenders against just six blockers for the Chargers. Instead of spreading out the defense, the Chargers get single coverage outside.

Against this look, Rivers should have called an audible away from the run. Presumably, a veteran quarterback such as Rivers has that ability, so he deserves some criticism on this play too. However, putting Rivers in the shotgun wasn't a decision by the quarterback. The coaching staff is to blame for that.

Rivers is not mobile. He doesn't threaten the defense as a runner from this position. If the Chargers had Terrelle Pryor or Colin Kaepernick in this position, they could run the read-option and make the play easier for their back or give the quarterback a clear run into the end zone. 

Even though Rivers is not mobile, they could have put him in a position to score with his feet. If Rivers had lined up under center, then the defense would have to respect any potential sneak, and it would have given Woodhead a chance to build up momentum before he received the ball.

Before this season, Rivers had converted 86.2 percent of short-yardage runs. That's more than four out of every five. Had the Chargers lined Rivers up under center and tried to sneak him in behind his center or to either side, the chances were higher that they would score.

Instead, they gave it to Woodhead from an unfavourable position.

If the Chargers were simply playing the percentages, they would have quarterback sneaked three or even four times from inches out. However, they didn't run the ball again in the game after failing with Woodhead. That would make sense if they had no timeouts left, because they would have needed to save time so that they could kick a field goal, but they did have one timeout left after Woodhead's run.

On the second attempt, there are four key players, each of whom are highlighted in the below image.

Rivers is under center this time, but the play isn't a called quarterback sneak. Rivers deserves criticism here because he should have called an audible to the sneak or even any running play up the middle because of the depth that the linebackers were playing off the line of scrimmage. Unlike the last play, when both players were pressing the gaps to either side of the center, on this play the Washington defense has defensive linemen lined up directly over both guards and the center.

That is as good a formation as the quarterback could hope for in this scenario, because he would have the opportunity to slip through either gap for the touchdown.

Outside of the two linebackers, the other two key players are outside. Antonio Gates is matched up in press coverage against DeAngelo Hall. This is a straightforward best versus best matchup. Gates has the size advantage over Hall, but Hall is an aggressive player who jams him at the line of scrimmage immediately.

Even though the Chargers have just one receiver out wide, they do have other receiving options with tight ends on the line of scrimmage. However, if the Chargers want to throw to either of them, they need to run play action.

They don't run play action. Instead Rivers immediately looks to throw the fade route to Gates.

The fade route is a difficult route for quarterbacks to throw. The play's success hinges on one player. When Gates is jammed at the line of scrimmage, the timing is completely disrupted so he never has a chance to get to Rivers' pass that lands closer to the back pylon than it does to Gates.

Rivers had thrown for 341 yards to this point. If the Chargers had asked him to throw the ball that close to the end zone after spreading out the field like they had on first down, he would at least have had the option to go away from Gates when he saw he was initially jammed. With this play call, he didn't have that option. He was forced to try and make a perfect pass to a receiver who wasn't going to be open.

On their third and final attempt, the Chargers rolled the pocket to the right side of the field.

Again, the Chargers didn't give Rivers as many options as they could have.

They rolled away from one receiver, taking him out of the game, and used Gates, their best receiver, and a running back as pass-blockers. All of this gave Rivers plenty of time to throw, but the Chargers were trying to create a natural pick route with their two receivers outside so Rivers still had limited options.

While the play call was somewhat limited, this play primarily failed because of execution. The rub never occurs, so both receivers are fairly well covered as Rivers gets into the right flat.

Critically, the Chargers ran the rub route with two of their smallest targets, Allen and Eddie Royal. Therefore, when they can't create separation, Rivers has to try to force the ball into very tight windows if he wants to complete the pass.

Rivers is staring down Allen at this point of the play, but he needs to be letting the ball go at this point because there is a good window for him to throw ahead of Allen as the receiver comes out of his break.

Ultimately, Rivers keeps moving towards the sideline and throws the ball as his feet are moving away from the goal line. He is unable to connect with Allen in the back of the end zone on a very difficult throw.

The Chargers coaching staff will receive a lot of criticism for how they handled this sequence. They certainly could have given Rivers more options, but the quarterback himself didn't do enough to help his team score.

Rivers is a veteran, and he shouldn't be treated like a rookie, He shouldn't get the pass that rookies would get in specific situations. If he sees a formation at the line that could be manipulated with an audible, then he needs to make that audible.

Of course, if Gates, Allen or even the offensive line on the first running play executed better, none of this would be an issue.

As with any play, the actual call is only half of the story. How it is executed and how it is defended is also very important. Washington defended each of these plays very well, while the Chargers conversely will feel that each of them could have done more.

It's always dangerous to narrow down a whole game into one sequence. The Chargers obviously would have won the game at that stage if they had scored, but it's unfair to simply discount everything that happened before then to lead them to that situation or what happened in overtime, as the Chargers defense couldn't stop the Washington offense from scoring a touchdown to kill the game.


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