The Top 10 Head Coaching Decisions of NFL Week 1

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIISeptember 14, 2011

The Top 10 Head Coaching Decisions of NFL Week 1

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    Each week for the duration of the 2011 NFL season, I will write a weekly column where we analyze the top 10 head coaches' decisions from the prior weekend. The decisions in question don't always have to be about in-game strategy moves. It could be about player personnel decisions, specific game plans, or a host of other potential topics that could lead to a coach winding up on the list.

    These decisions can either be judged as good ones or bad ones. Some weeks there could be more than five good or five bad candidates, and in those cases, we will do our best to go with the most obvious choices. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a coach could actually appear for both a good decision as well as a bad decision in the same week.

    Since everyone is an armchair quarterback, I am looking forward to the weekly challenge, and we will see what you think of the choices each week. If you feel strongly that some coaching decision should have made this list, but it didn't for some reason, then feel free to include your thoughts in the comments section.

Worst Decision No. 1: Todd Haley, K.C. Chiefs

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    Todd Haley, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs wasn't pleased that Dexter McCluster fumbled the opening kickoff, which led to a quick seven points for the visiting Buffalo Bills.

    So, considering that the Chiefs had the No. 1 running attack in the NFL in 2010, and they were going up against the Bills, who had the worst run defense in the NFL last year, it would make sense to test them out and see if they had improved or not.

    It is probably also a good time to remind our readers that just the week before, quarterback Matt Cassel suffered a cracked rib in the final preseason game, which meant that he would be physically limited in his ability to throw the ball, since the throwing motion would require him to put some torque on his torso, which is never really a good thing for someone with a cracked rib to do.

    Nobody would expect the Chiefs to ignore all of the obvious logical reasons as to why the Chiefs should focus on running the ball, right? I mean just last year, Charles rushed for 177 yards against this same defense, averaging eight yards per carry.

    Well, Todd Haley crossed everyone up in the first drive with one run and three passes. In the second drive, one run and two passes. In the third drive, you guessed it, one run and two passes.The score was still Buffalo 7-0, but for some reason Haley pushed the panic button.

    For the day, the Chiefs wound up calling only 18 rushes and 36 passes. In the 18 rushes, the Chiefs gained 108 yards, good for an average of 6.0 yards per rush. For the 36 passes, the Chiefs averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per pass.

    The Chiefs could have really used a really good offensive coordinator, maybe somebody like Chan Gailey. Oh sorry, I forgot. Haley had Gailey for a coordinator and fired him in 2009. Haley wins the Week 1 award for biggest coaching idiot game plans and moves.

Worst Decision No. 2: Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

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    I really like Sean Payton as a head coach. The New Orleans Saints proved to all that he is capable of making the gutsy calls when he needed to in the Super Bowl victory. But, for Week 1 of the 2011 season, Payton laid an egg when it was time for him to come up with the right call at the right time.

    Against the Green Bay Packers in front of a national audience, Payton had four different chances to make the right call when the situations were very tense, that could have changed the outcome of the game, and he came up with the wrong call all four times.

    The first time was a third-and-two at the Green Bay 7. This was the opening drive of the second half. The play resulted in quarterback Drew Brees being sacked for a loss of 13 yards.

    The next key calls were on back-to-back plays on a drive that began with 5:57 left in the third quarter. The Saints had the ball again on the Green Bay 7, with a third-and-one. Payton called for a handoff to rookie running back Mark Ingram who was stoned for no gain.

    Then on fourth-and-one, he called for a pass to Pierre Thomas that went incomplete. The Saints got no points from this crucial drive.

    The fourth and final key call came on the very last play of regulation, where the Saints had the ball at the Green Bay one-yard line. A touchdown and two-point conversion would send the game into overtime, but the Saints decided to place the game in the hands of the rookie back Ingram again.

    He was stopped short and it almost looked like the Packers knew what play was coming. Ingram never appeared to have a chance.

    To read what Payton had to say after his decisions after the game, here is a link to his comments from New Orleans

Worst Decision No. 3: John Fox, Denver Broncos

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    One of the key decisions in the Denver Broncos vs.Oakland Raiders game happened rather late in the second quarter. The Broncos were trailing the Raiders by a touchdown, 10-3, with 4:12 left in the first half. The Broncos were faced with a fourth-and-10. The field was wet from a steady downpour and the ball had been slick due to the moisture.

    The smart or obvious call would have been to punt the ball and pin the Raiders down inside their own 10-yard line. But, for some mysterious reason, Broncos head coach John Fox decided it was a better idea to trot out kicker Matt Prater for a 56-yard field goal try.

    Prater missed badly on the kick (wasn't close to being good) and the Raiders were handed a great starting field position at their own 48-yard line. Predictably, they were easily able to drive down the field and kick a Sebastian Janikowski field goal to increase the lead to 13-3.

    For good measure, Janikowski kicked a field goal on the last play of the half, from a NFL-record-tying 63 yards away to add another three points.

    The final play of the half would have an appropriate time for Fox to ask Prater to try that kick. But with that much time left, and those weather conditions, it was a bad idea. The ironic part is that the Broncos lost the game 23-20, and that three-point margin of victory could have easily been eliminated.

Worst Decision No. 4: Tony Sparano, Miami Dolphins

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    There was nothing easy about the job that Tony Sparano had to do on Monday Night Football, as he attempted to find a way to defeat Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots. The fact that Brady was having one of the top-five passing nights in NFL history, meant that it was incumbent on Sparano to maximize every scoring opportunity that they had.

    The decision that made me scratch my head happened in the fourth quarter. There was 5:57 left in the game, and the Dolphins were trailing by 14 points. The Dolphins had the ball on the Patriots one-yard line and it was fourth down.

    If you score the touchdown, you are only down one score with six minutes to play. Anything could still happen with that much time left. The only thing that you couldn't do was come up empty. The Dolphins had to go with the one play that had the best chance to succeed.

    The next topic is what is the identity of the Miami Dolphins? For many years they have been known as a power-running team behind Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Those days appear to be over now, because with the ball sitting on the half-yard line, Sparano ordered quarterback Chad Henne to lob a pass over to Brian Hartline in the far corner of the end zone, that didn't come close to connecting. 

    It will be interesting to see how Sparano handles other chances like this down the road, with the 2011 version of the Dolphins. To be sure, Henne had a very strong game with over 400 yards passing and over 50 yards rushing. We would be surprised if he calls the same play again next time.

Worst Decision No. 5: Jason Garrett, Dalls Cowboys

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    Jason Garrett is now the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It didn't take him long to make an entry in the Cowboys' history books. In the entire history of the storied Cowboys franchise, no Cowboys team had ever had a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost the game. As in never. Until Monday evening, that was. Welcome to the NFL, Jason!

    It wasn't so much that Garrett made terrible decisions, as much as he was guilty of terrible coaching. From the way that Tony Romo was playing in the fourth quarter, you weren't sure if he was playing with the lead or was trying to play from behind. The mad scramble towards the goal line and the subsequent fumble could have easily been avoided with just sliding down to the ground at the two-yard line.

    The reason to allow Dez Bryant to continue to stay in the lineup in the fourth quarter after it was obvious that his legs were shot is one thing. Allowing Romo to even think of throwing the ball his way is something else. Two key situations in the fourth quarter Romo went Bryant's way, and nothing good happened either time.

    The interesting thing is that Romo completed passes to seven different receivers during the game, but when it came to crunch time, the only receiver he looked for was a less-than-100-percent Bryant.

    The fact that Romo was willing to challenge Jets CB Darrelle Revis with the game on-the-line is admirable to a degree, but it is also usually a losing proposition. Garrett needed to do a better job of coaching Romo on what to do in crunch time, and for that he appears on our list.

Worst Decision No. 6: Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis Colts

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    Jim Caldwell, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, makes our list for having his team so unprepared to play in Week 1. Including him for Week 1 is also taking into consideration the entire preseason, as the Colts organization was basically out to lunch with regards to having a contingency backup plan for life without Peyton Manning.

    Whatever knowledge Caldwell had of Manning's neck surgery, it was no excuse to have all of the backup quarterbacks so unprepared to play. Watching the Colts play in the preseason, it was clear that the team had some issues, but this has to fall back on the head coach for not having a better fall back plan.

    But starting out the 2011 season against a division rival in the Houston Texans, the Colts came out flat on Sunday. They went 1-for-9 on third downs. The Texans passed for more yards, they rushed for more yards, they thoroughly were outplayed. One of the mantras for the Colts is: "no excuses, next man up."

    Well, Coach Caldwell, since there are no excuses, we are going to say that you just laid an egg. You need to improve this team and fast.

Best Decision No. 1: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

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    The Miami Dolphins had just scored a touchdown in the Monday Night Football game against the New England Patriots to cut the lead to 38-24. There was 3:39 left in the game, and the Dolphins came out for the ensuing kickoff.

    But while the Dolphins were lining up to kick, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was still on top of the game to realize that the Dolphins had brought out two kickers for the expected on-side kick. They were prepared to kick the ball to either side of the field based on whichever way the Patriots confused special teams hands-team opted to line up.

    But Belichick calmly called a time out, and brought his special teams unit over for a quick crash course on how to handle the special alignment. I must admit that I have never seen the two-kicker arrangement before and I thought it was an ingenious arrangement.

    For what it is worth, the Dolphins wound up kicking the ball out of bounds, and the Dolphins fate was sealed. For keeping his cool under pressure, Belichick makes the list for a good decision.

Best Decision No. 2: Hue Jackson, Oakland Raiders

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    In the second quarter of the Monday Night Football game between the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos, the Broncos ran the ball with 13:23 left in the half.

    Knowshon Moreno was the ball carrier, and it appeared that he fumbled the ball. The referee ruled that Moreno was down by contact, and then he signaled second down.

    The Broncos might have sensed there was a problem, because they seemed to hurry up to the line. Hue Jackson, talking to his staff up in the booth, caught the play and felt a challenge was warranted. Jackson had to act fast because the Broncos wanted to eliminate any challenge.

    Jackson threw his challenge flag out on the field, once he got the word from up top, and the referees halted play to check out the replays. Sure enough, Moreno had fumbled the ball before he was ever down and the Raiders were awarded the fumble.

    The Raiders from there went on to kick a field goal, increasing the lead from 7-3 to 10-3. Since three points was the margin of victory, you could look at this play as a decision that led to the Raiders victory.

Best Decision No. 3: Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans

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    As we discussed in the opening slide, not every coaching decision we select will always have to be about a specific play or a decision in the game to be deemed as especially good or especially bad. There are plenty of strategy decisions that are made, and sometime they are made for the long-term success of a team.

    Such is the case with Gary Kubiak of the Houston Texans. Coming into the 2011 season opener, Kubiak was leading his team up against division rival Indianapolis Colts, who were playing the game without starting quarterback Peyton Manning.

    Manning has been a thorn in the Texans' side for too long, so the pressure is on Kubiak to take advantage of Manning's absence and try to build a lead in the early going so that the Texans can finally reach the playoffs.

    It is also fairly well publicized that if Kubiak does not take his team to the playoffs this year, his job could be on the line. So with all of that pressure on him, wouldn't he want to start his best players against the Colts, to make sure they win. NFL rushing leader Arian Foster has been bothered by a hamstring injury for the majority of the preseason.

    Foster was holding out hope that he could play against the Colts, but Kubiak stepped in and told him that he wanted him to sit out, rest, rehab and heal. Although this was the logical reaction, to keep Foster's ultimate health in mind for the rest of the season, and hopefully the playoffs as well, Kubiak did the right thing by his player and by his team.

    We are not convinced that other coaches in the same scenario would have encouraged Foster to suck it up and take one for the team.

Best Decision No. 4: Rex Ryan, New York Jets

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    The New York Jets were trailing to the Dallas Cowboys 24-17 with five minutes left in the game. Things were not looking that great at the moment for the Jets, as Dallas was on their own 41 and getting ready to punt the ball away to the Jets. The Jets would then have to drive the length of the field to attempt to score a touchdown and force overtime. 

    But that was when one of the best coaching decisions of the week popped up. Between Jets head coach Rex Ryan and Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff decided to come up with a play that would allow Joe McKnight to come right up the middle and hopefully reach Cowboys punter Mat McBriar in time to hopefully block the punt.

    The first wave of Jets at the line of scrimmage were able to occupy all of the Cowboys blockers in the middle of the line of scrimmage. The camera then showed McKnight streaking right up the middle untouched, as he was able to sprint up to the punter and caught the punt flush with one extended arm and hand.

    The ball bounced right for the Jets, as it started heading directly to the Cowboys goal line. Isaiah Trufant was able to scoop the ball up at the 18 and waltz in for the tying touchdown.

    As it turns out, the Jets were able to win it thanks to a Tony Romo interception and a 50-yard field goal by ex-Cowboys kicker Nick Folk. But without the special teams call, I suspect that Dallas would have escaped the Week 1 contest with a win. That is why they play the game for 60 minutes.