My Top 10 Super Bowl Coaching Decisions
I know it is only June, but I still have Super Bowl fever. Going through some of my collection of Super Bowl memories, I have created a Top 10 list of great coaching decisions that took place during the game.
Some of these examples are just one play. Some are the game plan as a whole. The criteria I used was, "How did it change the game?" The coach's team did not necessarily have to win the game.
Two that did not make the cut came from the same game. Super Bowl XXXII between the Broncos and Packers had two very good coaching decisions.
First was Mike Shanahan's decision to use Terrell Davis as a decoy on a play where he was suffering from a migraine and had virtually no sight. The Packers went after Davis, but the ball went to the right and into the end zone for a Bronco touchdown.
Second was Mike Holmgren's decision to let Denver score a touchdown to take a 31-24 lead so the Packers could get one last shot at tying the game. The Packers could not stop Denver's running game, and this was their only shot.
The reason Holmgren does not make my list is because he made the decision on second down. He thought it was first down at the time.
I am sure I missed a few, and I would love to hear your feedback on what I left out or what I rated too high or low.
I will be back next week to write about 10 coaching decisions that were not so great.
10. Hank Stram—“65 Toss Power Trap”—Super Bowl IV
This maybe the most famous named play in Super Bowl history. Thanks to NFL Films, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Hank Stram became the first Super Bowl head coach to wear a microphone.
Facing third down and goal with the Chiefs leading 9-0, Stram would call a rarely used play. The play was “65 Toss Power Trap." You can hear Stram say, “Sixty-five toss power trap, it ought to bust wide open, boys."
Mike Garrett’s five-yard touchdown run gave the Chiefs a 16-0 lead, which, as Stram said, busted the game wide open.
The Chiefs’ defensive game plan was excellent as well. The Vikings led the NFL in points, averaging a little more than 27 per game. The Vikings ended the game with five turnovers and only seven points.
Super Bowl III gave the AFL legitimacy with the Jets' upset over the Colts. However, it was Super Bowl IV’s dominating win by the Chiefs that cemented the AFL’s legacy as a league that could not only compete with the National Football League, but could beat it consistently.
Super Bowl IV was the final game played by an AFL team.
9. Tom Flores—Won’t Get Fooled Again—Super Bowl XVIII
The 1983 Redskin offense set an NFL record for points scored in a season with 541 points. Washington, the defending Super Bowl Champions, found themselves trailing the Los Angeles Raiders 14-3 late in the second quarter of Super Bowl XVIII.
After Ray Guy punted the Redskins back to their own 12-yard line with only 12 seconds to play in the first half, conventional wisdom says to take a knee and regroup.
The Redskins thought differently. The Raiders and Redskins met in Week Five of the 1983 NFL season. Joe Theismann hit running back Joe Washington on a screen pass that went for 67 yards. The Redskins tried to repeat history.
There was only one problem: The Raider coaching staff had a good memory.
The call did not come directly from Flores, but from linebacker coach Charlie Sumner. Sumner put linebacker Jack Squirek in as a last-second replacement for Matt Millen to cover Washington and to watch for the screen pass.
Squirek read the play perfectly to intercept Theismann’s screen pass and walk in for the easy touchdown.
The Raiders went up 21-3 and would finish off any chance of a Super Bowl repeat for the Redskins by scoring 17 more and winning by a final count of 38-9.
Marcus Allen's amazing 74-yard touchdown run is what everyone remembers from the game, but the game was already 28-9 at that point.
Squirek's play handed the Lombardi Trophy from the Redskins to the Raiders.
8. Bill Walsh—When Accident Becomes Design—Super Bowl XVI
Bill Walsh may be known as one of the best offensive minds that ever coached football. His development of the West Coast Offense is still felt throughout the NFL.
However, it was a play that has nothing to do with offense that makes this list. It was a special teams decision.
The 49ers had kicked a field goal to go up 17-0 over the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the 1981 season, 49ers kicker Ray Wersching had suffered an injury that prevented him from kicking the ball deep. In a game at the same Pontiac Silverdome against the Lions, Walsh noticed the odd bounces that the ball would make off the turf on a squib kick.
Wersching’s squib kick hit off of Bengals running back Archie Griffin, who could not recover it, and the 49ers fell on the ball at the Bengal four-yard line with just 15 seconds to play in the first half.
Wersching would boot a 26-yard field goal that gave the 49ers a 20-0 halftime lead.
What makes this field goal even more significant would come late in third quarter.
The Bengals scored a touchdown early in the third quarter to cut San Francisco’s lead to 13.
Later in the quarter, the Bengals drove the ball again and would have it first down and goal to go at the 49ers’ three-yard line.
The Bengals would get four shots at a touchdown and were denied all four times on the best goal-line stand in Super Bowl history.
Had the game been only 17-7, instead of 20-7, Bengal coach Forrest Gregg may have not gone for it on fourth down and kicked a field goal that would have cut the game to only a seven-point lead for San Francisco.
The Bengals continued to come back and would cut the 49ers’ lead to 26-21 in the game’s final minute. The Bengals would try an onside kick, but there were no odd bounces as the hands of Dwight Clark recovered the ball, and the 49ers got their first Lombardi Trophy.
Few coaches understood the tiny intricacies of football like Bill Walsh.
7. Tom Coughlin—Don’t Let Him Breathe—Super Bowl XLII
The Patriots and the Giants met in the regular season finale of the 2007 NFL season. It was a game that the Patriots won 38-35. Tom Brady was hardly pressured and sacked only once.
The Giants secondary was torched for 356 yards and gave up many big plays to the Patriots’ record-setting offense.
Five weeks later, Coughlin learned from the mistakes in the first meeting and knew what his team would need to do to be competitive in the Super Bowl—not let Tom Brady get comfortable in the pocket.
The Giants' front four was able to maintain consistent pressure on Brady with the linebackers rushing in through the holes that the front four was able to create.
Brady was only sacked 21 times in the 2008 regular season. He was sacked five times in Super Bowl XLII, and in the times when he was not sacked, he was hurried and could not hook up with Randy Moss for any long plays down the field.
It was reminiscent of the movie Rocky, where Mickey is telling Rocky to keep hitting Apollo Creed in the ribs so he can’t breathe.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive game plan was, um, perfect.
6. Chuck Noll—Trust the Steel Curtain, Not the Kicking Game—Super Bowl X
The Steelers led 21-17 with a little less than two minutes to play in Super Bowl X. How the Steelers got to 21 points was very unconventional. The Steelers obtained 21 on a touchdown, an extra point, a safety, two field goals, and another touchdown with a missed extra point.
In addition to getting to 21 the hard way, place kicker Roy Gerela also missed two field goals during the game. Steeler punter Bobby Walden fumbled a snap and nearly had two of his other punts get blocked.
The Steelers had the ball at the Cowboy 41-yard line and were faced with fourth down and nine to go. Terry Hanratty, who filled in for Terry Bradshaw who was knocked out of the game, handed the ball to Rocky Bleier. Bleier got only two yards.
It was a play that really had very little chance to gain a first down and left many very skeptical of the coach's decision.
Steelers head coach Chuck Noll had zero confidence in his special teams. But he had a ton of confidence in his Steel Curtain defense.
The Cowboys would take over on their own 39-yard line with 1:22 left to play. Roger Staubach would get the Cowboys to the Steelers 38. The Cowboys would get no closer. Glen Edwards intercepted Staubach’s Hail Mary pass as time expired.
Special teams was a like a box of chocolates, but the Steel Curtain was a lead pipe lock.
5. Weeb Ewbank—Turning Broadway Joe into Joe Cool—Super Bowl III
After Joe Namath’s “guarantee” during media week, you would have to believe that Namath’s adrenaline was pumping at an all-time high before kickoff. From a Baltimore Colts perspective, you would have to think that Namath was going to try to play the role of a hero and take risks down the field.
Jets’ coach Weeb Ewbank thought differently. Ewbank turned Namath into a game manager. Ewbank knew if the Jets did not turn the ball over, they would have a chance
Only two passes by Namath were for more than 14 yards.
Future NFL Hall of Famer Don Maynard was on the cover of the Super Bowl III Program. Maynard did not make one catch in the Super Bowl.
Maynard caught six passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the AFL Championship game. He was thrown to five times in the game. He had a hamstring injury that had flared up during the game.
Namath would find his other wide receiver, George Sauer, eight times for 133 yards. The most important stat for Sauer was that five of his catches led to first downs.
Matt Snell would run for the Jets' only touchdown. Snell had 30 carries for 121 yards as well as four receptions for 40 yards.
Joe Namath was named Super Bowl MVP. He is the only quarterback to be named Super Bowl MVP without having thrown a touchdown in the game.
The Jets defense was the real MVP. The Jet defense forced four interceptions and recovered a fumble to hold the Colts to only seven points in the game. The Colts did not play a game where they scored fewer than 16 points during the 1968 NFL season.
In the game that changed football, it was a brash statement and a conservative game plan that made all the difference.
4. Joe Gibbs—“70 Chip to the Diesel Goes for 43”—Super Bowl XVII
The Redskins would hold on to the ball for over 36 minutes. John Riggins would gain 166 yards on 38 carries, but it was one carry that stood out from all the rest.
The Dolphins offense had been completely shut down since the second quarter. The Dolphins’ “Killer Bees” defense kept Miami in the lead. The Dolphins finished the game with fewer than 200 yards of total offense.
The Miami Dolphins held a 17-13 lead with a little more than 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. The Redskins faced fourth down and one to go at the Dolphin 43-yard line.
You could easily predict and say that Riggins was going to get the ball and run behind “The Hogs,” the offensive line for the Redskins. What no one could predict was the result of the play.
The play was called “I-Right 70 Chip." Riggins would get the ball and run behind tight end Clint Didier. Riggins needed to get past Miami cornerback Don McNeal to get the first down. He got a little bit more than a yard—the Diesel drove it all the way home.
The image that is remembered from Super Bowl XVII is McNeal holding on to the bottom of Riggins’ jersey and Riggins pulling away for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Redskins later pulled away for their first Super Bowl Championship.
3. Bill Parcells—Clock Management—Super Bowl XXV
The Buffalo Bills K-Gun offense led the NFL scoring in 1990 with an average of more than 26 points per game. The Bills scored 44 and 51 points in their two AFC playoff games. The New York Giants scored five field goals in a 15-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
The Giants were content to let Thurman Thomas run wild, but it was Jim Kelly's wide receivers that the Giant defense targeted. None of the Bills' wide receivers had more than 62 yards. Only Andre Reed had more than two receptions.
The play clock was 45 seconds in 1990. The Giants soaked up every single one of those seconds to set a Super Bowl record for time of possession at 40 minutes, 33 seconds.
Three of the Giants' scoring drives took a combined 23 minutes off the clock, including a record drive of 9:29 to start the second half. There were four successful third-down conversions on that drive.
If the play clock was only 40 seconds as it currently stands, would the Bills been able to drive even further down the field and make the kick for Scott Norwood much shorter?
Bill Parcells does not even think about it for a second.
2. Bill Cowher—“Surprise Onside”—Super Bowl XXX
It is hard to think of a gutsier call in a Super Bowl than this one. The Steelers just kicked a field goal to cut the Cowboys' lead to 20-10 with 11:43 to play in the game.
Cowher was wired by NFL Films, and you could hear him talk to his assistants and say, “Surprise onside”. The onside kick gets recovered about 20 percent of the time. Cowher had put his entire season on a 5-to-1 roll of the dice.
If the onside kick ends up in the hands of a Cowboy or out of bounds, the game is likely over.
The Cowboys never saw it coming. Pittsburgh’s kicker Norm Johnson executed a beautiful angled kick that Deon Figures picked up at the Steeler 47-yard line.
The Steelers would go the next 53 yards and score a touchdown that cut the Cowboy lead to 20-17. The Steelers would have a chance to tie the game or take the lead getting the ball back with 4:15 to play in the game.
However, a costly Neil O’Donnell interception to Larry Brown sealed the Steelers’ fate that night in Tempe, Arizona.
Even though the Cowboys won the game 27-17, the “surprise onside” call is as good of a call as you will ever see. Had it not been for O’Donnell’s poor play, the Steelers may have stolen the game, and this play moves to No. 1 on my list.
A side note on the surprise onside play:
Bill Carollo was the side judge during the game and stood close to Cowher during the play.
Carollo told Cowher, “Great call." It was a great moment to see an official appreciate a play. Carollo was a referee in the NFL from 1996 to 2008.
Bill Cowher had to wait 10 more years for his chance at a title, but this call was his best in a Super Bowl.
1. Bill Belichick—In Tom Brady We Trust—Super Bowl XXXVI
The game plan against the St. Louis Rams’ vaunted “Greatest Show on Turf” offense was stellar for more than three quarters, keeping the Rams out of the end zone and forcing three turnovers.
The defensive strategy was simple: Hit Marshall Faulk when he has the ball, and hit him when he does not have the ball.
The St. Louis Rams had trailed the New England Patriots 17-3 at the start of the final quarter in Super Bowl XXXVI. The heavily favored Rams would find a way to score two touchdowns to tie the game at 17-17 with just 1:30 left in the game. Neither team had any timeouts remaining.
The Patriots returned the Rams’ kickoff to their own 21-yard line.
John Madden had said that the Patriots would be better off sitting on the ball and playing for overtime. Tom Brady was in his second NFL season and first as a starter. Madden’s reasoning was the common sense approach.
Bill Belichick and his offensive coordinator Charlie Weis must have seen something in Brady and decided to give the 24-year-old a shot to be the hero.
As his last duty as a Patriot, Drew Bledsoe said to Brady before he went on to the field, “Hey, Tom, just go out there and sling it."
Brady would do just that. Brady would complete five passes and take the Patriots 53 yards to the Rams' 31-yard line. Adam Vinatieri would split the uprights on the 48-yard field goal, and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl.
No one doubted Tom Brady or Bill Belichick after that.
The question on this would be, what if the Patriots did play for overtime and lost?