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How Much Merit Does Play Calling Criticism Have?

Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Let me preface this by stating the obvious: NFL head coaches and play callers make mistakes. There, happy now?

Sometimes they call the wrong play at the wrong time. Sometimes they come up with a bad game plan for the wrong team. Sometimes their entire scheme and philosophy is wack. Some can’t evaluate talent to save their own life, let alone their season.

The point is, there are a million, billion, trillion variables that go into every decision a coach makes at any given moment in time during a game. Run vs. pass; attack short or deep; spread the field or ground n’ pound - and so on.

As fans, we want to see our teams do well. We want, nay, expect to see a touchdown on every play. We expect the players to execute perfectly. We expect everyone to be in the right place at the right time. We expect our coaches to always make the right call. We will not tolerate excuses, and we certainly don’t tolerate losing.

It’s no surprise, then, that all these outsized expectations turn us fans into such a miserable bunch by the end of the season!

Let us not forget, the savvy, brilliant, forward-thinking, creative offensive play caller on our team is directly opposed by a savvy, brilliant, forward-thinking, creative defensive play caller on the other team. Our team has dynamic, electrifying game-breakers. So does their team.

The NFL is hard. This is obvious. Do you know what else is obvious? How inane play-calling criticism is.

Think about Zac Taylor, head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, for a minute. He was hired from the Los Angeles Rams after spending the previous season as the Rams quarterbacks coach. In total, he was with the Rams just two seasons, and was eye-poppingly just ten years into his coaching career overall. In terms of NFL coaching candidates, Taylor was about as green as you could find.

Now, he calls plays for the Bengals, though, by his own admission, it’s a collaborative effort with offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and the rest of the offensive staff. That’s a pretty meteoric rise. So, with that in mind, is it really so surprising that he has flaws as a play-caller? Shouldn’t we still be expecting him to grow and improve?

The fact that Taylor has accomplished as much as he has with as little experience as he has is a testament to his abilities as a head coach - just maybe not as a play-caller, specifically. He obviously has the loyalty and trust of his players, he gets the most out of his coaching staff, his teams have shown a knack for rising to the occasion, and they’re an awfully resilient bunch, capable of withstanding multiple knockout blows.

This Bengals team under Taylor is kind of like Rocky. They have the speed, quickness, and power to be champions, but their true superweapon is their toughness. The Bengals are uniquely able to withstand body-blows, haymakers, upper-cuts, you name it. Then, they go into the locker room at halftime, regroup, sometimes scrapping the previous game plan all together, setting fire to the clipboard, whiteboard and any other board within reach, and come out with a second-half vengeance. That’s precisely what happened against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

And what about the Bengals most recent game against the Carolina Panthers? The Bengals ran the ball with such an effectiveness that Joe Mixon was shapeshifting between prime Eric Dickerson and a peregrine falcon. It was one of the most dominant offensive performances in Bengals history - doesn’t Taylor get credit for that?

Now consider Nathanial Hackett, the head coach of the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are an abject disaster on offense right now, even if they managed to defeat an equally-hapless Jacksonville Jaguars squad across the pond in London. Their newly-acquired, nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson looks dazed and confused when he isn’t putting out bizarre Subway advertisements on TikTok. Hackett is feeling the heat right now, but is it really all his fault?

Before he was hired by Denver, Hackett spent the last three years as the offensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers. In that span, his offenses finished in the top half of the league in points every season. They never finished below 18th in yards gained. In 2020, the Packers were the highest scoring team in the league.

I can already hear your objections - but he had Aaron Rodgers, the recipient of the last two NFL MVP Awards, and Davante Adams, widely considered to be the greatest wide receiver in the NFL today. Okay, okay, I’ll grant you that. Hackett was uniquely positioned to be successful in Green Bay.

But let’s not forget, Wilson is no slouch. He’s a Super Bowl champion, and he led the NFL in passer rating in 2015 and passing touchdowns in 2017. He’s probably going to be voted into the Hall of Fame.

And the receivers are pretty good, too. Jerry Jeudy is a former first-round pick and supposedly has loads of potential. Courtland Sutton has a 1,000-yard season to his name. Sure, jump-ball artist Tim Patrick went down with a pre-season ACL-injury, but 2020 second-round pick K.J. Hamler is around to pick up the slack. What’s going on? Is it the players, the coaching, or both?

Little column A, Little column B. Hackett is not blameless, and neither are his players. But to sum up everything into a nice, neat, easy play-calling issue is beyond reductive. It’s plain incorrect.

Think about what goes into every play call. The coach has a litany of concerns to consider: field position, time remaining, score, player performance, weather conditions, his own tendencies, and the tendencies of the defense. Oh, yeah, and by the way, whenever he’s done factoring in all those variables in a split-second and getting a call like, “Green Right X Shift to Viper Right 382 X Stick Lookie,” to his quarterback before the 40-second play-clock runs out, now it’s up to the players to execute.

Quick question: if a coach calls the right play in the right situation and the players can’t execute, is it still a good play call? And in the same way, if the coach calls a dumb play in the wrong situation, but the players make something out of nothing, was it a bad play call? And furthermore, how would you even know?

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes these guys make bone-headed calls. Hackett seems oblivious to clock management and Taylor can be too conservative. That makes them completely, totally, entirely not unique.

Even the great Andy Reid, Super Bowl champion head coach of the Chiefs, is prone to flubbing his timeouts on occasion. Kyle Shannahan, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is considered one of the great offensive coaches and play-callers of his generation, and yet even his quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was caught on camera mouthing the words, “All your plays suck, man,” during the team’s Week 3 loss to the Broncos. Heck, even Bill Belichick, winner of six Super Bowls, isn’t immune to criticism.

I don’t mean to suggest that play-call criticism is off-limits - just that we should all be a little more discerning in the future. Coaching in the NFL is a Sisyphean task: all the progress they make is offset by the information gathered by their opponents. It’s a never-ending game of tug-of-war. Hopefully, at the end, when everyone is sore, injured and exhausted, our guy has enough awareness, strength, and vigor for one last pull.

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