Josh McDaniels: Great Coach, Questionable Game-Time Decisions

Rob BursonCorrespondent IDecember 15, 2009

DENVER - NOVEMBER 22:  Head coach Josh McDaniels of the Denver Broncos paces the sideline as he leads his team against the San Diego Chargers during NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on November 22, 2009 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Game 13 in the NFL.

It's an away game in perhaps the most savvy stadium environment in the NFL.

The crowd is hushed when the home team has the ball, up against a team looking to clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Against a team boasting the best quarterback in the league; a quarter back that opposing coaches fear so much, they are willing to go for a 4th down conversions on their own 40, just to keep the ball out of his hands.

After winning the coin toss, the election is to give Peyton Manning the ball to start the game.

Later, with Indianapolis stuffing Knowshon Moreno time and again on short yardage, he is once again handed the rock and asked to run into a brick wall.

The problem with some two-bit amateur commentator, (such as myself) bringing up such issues is that often all the great things Josh McDaniels has done get tossed to the side.

Let me be clear; Josh McDaniels is a great coach, if not an elite one. He rebuilt one of the worst defenses in the league last year, and turned it into a top 5 one this year.

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Initially he was criticized heavily for his methodology. No big name defensive linemen taken in the draft? A washed up Dawkins is going to anchor the secondary?

The offensive is steady, safe, and sometimes explosive. It's not spectacular, but there is always that feeling the this offense can take off at any moment. It gets the job done for the most part. People said that without Cutler, Brandon Marshall would just fade away, and yet, on Sunday Marshall and Orton combined to set a new NFL record.

But when the casual observer can see the obvious, one begins to wonder exactly what it is the coach is seeing.

McDaniels explained the decision to give Manning the ball right out of the gate this way; The plan was for the Broncos to have the ball at the end of the second quarter, score, and then have the ball at the beginning of the third quarter, and score again. In addition, giving Indy the ball to start the game and then stopping them with a 3 and out would have been a huge psychological boost for the Broncos, and a humbling set back for the Colts.

Of course things didn't work out that way.

Listening to McDaniels explain his decisions provides quite a bit of insight into his psyche.

The first thing that strikes me is; the man does not believe in random happenings. Anyone who believes he can make a precise blue print for his team to have the ball at the end of the second quarter, is thinking in the realm of formula and equations.

It's apparent that McDaniels sees the game as a mathematical problem, and solving it is only a matter of crunching the right numbers and sticking to the formula.

It's interesting to note that McDaniels was a math major in college, and his understanding that deferring the ball at the beginning of the game can be of benefit, statistically, can not be overlooked.

The downside to this kind of mindset is that it can lead to dogmatic and rigid thinking.

Yes, theoretically, deferring would give the Broncos two extra possessions, and lo' and behold, it almost worked—except the Broncos went ultra-conservative as the half winded down.

Imagine that what you see unfolding on the field is literally Josh McDaniel's mind at work; calculating theories and computing probabilities.

In all that mathematical mojo, McDaniels over-calculated and tried to slow things down and burn time off the clock, postulating a steady march ending in a Broncos score with 2 seconds left in the half.

Instead, the team bogged down, and gave the ball back to Manning.

The math was off.

The theory works, the statistics hold up, until you throw in reality.  Before you know it, you're down 21-0.

This Monday morning coach understands the logic, but still thinks it was a bad idea. It was an example of McDaniels thinking too much. It was also an example of how self-assured—perhaps even cocky—he is about this team.

It's important to note that last year McDaniel's Sensei, Bill Belichick, was one of the first coaches to laud deferring the opening kick-off at the NFL level.

What about Knowshon Moreno being sent time and again into a defensive line that was stuffing him at each and every turn?

Moreno, for all his positives, is not a short-yardage-obvious-running-play kind of back. The Bronocs have such a back, a bruiser, in Peyton Hillis. Where was he?

McDaniels, in the post game press conference, explained that since blocking back Spender Larsen was injured early in the game, Hillis had to fulfill the role of a blocking back.

It makes logical sense. Buckhalter also went down with an injury. Lamont Jordan was inactive for the game. That literally left only two backs on the field: Moreno and Hillis.

Hillis is the better short yardage back. He apparently is also the better blocking back. It seems, when McDaniels weighed his options, he picked the lesser of two evils: Hillis will block, Moreno will run. Rigid thinking? Maybe. In hindsight, if this was the given situation, why was Hillis not blocking for Moreno as the seconds ticked down at the end of the first half. For five straight plays - even in short yardage - the Denver Broncos power back Hillis was no where to be seen. The rock was given to Moreno, with the clock winding down, and no blocking fullback was in sight. Might the ball have been handed to a bigger, stronger, and more mucking "down-hill" runner for better effect? Perhaps.

Still, let us consider some other issues that effect short yardage situations.

As play calling goes, the Broncos rarely go to play action and put Orton in roll out opportunities even less. Both of these issues, along with quarterbacking from shotgun, make short yardage running plays stand out and much more obvious and defensible.

This is also an offense that leans heavily toward a conservative philosophy.

We saw the results Sunday, as the Colts defense lined up and tee'd off on Moreno mercilessly. It's a predictable outcome to a predictable offensive scheme. 

Also consider the Offensive Line this year.  There are injuries and demotions going on. Though the line coach is the same as last year, the scheme has changed some.

Statistically the team is below average in 3rd-and-short situations, and near last on 4th-and-short.

It's not mentioned much, but the O-line is not the same this year.

Something is missing. 

So it just doesn't boil down to one thing; not the decision to run the smaller back into a staunch defensive line, the sputtering short yardage offensive line play, nor the surprisingly predictable and conservative scheme of the offense.

McDaniels is a rookie head coach. Sometimes we forget that. He's destined to be one of the elites someday. As he has shown a few times this year however, some of his play calling and game time decisions aren't fully matured yet.

There is a time and a place for "statistics".

There is a time and a place to punch the other team in the mouth with power running and vertical plays.

McDaniels is still learning.

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