So asks Gregg Easterbrook, in an article titled “Coaching is Overrated”:
Changing the playcaller sure helped the Redskins!
In the cult of football, surely few things are more overrated than play calling. Much football commentary, from high school stands to the NFL in prime time, boils down to: “If they ran they should have passed, and if they passed they should have run.” Other commentary boils down to: “If it worked, it was a good call, if it failed, it was a bad call,” though the call is only one of many factors in a football play. Good calls are better than bad calls — this column exerts considerable effort documenting the difference. But it’s nonsensical to think that replacing a guy who calls a lot of runs to the left with a guy who calls a lot of runs to the right will transform a team.
One factor here is the Illusion of Coaching. We want to believe that coaches are super-ultra-masterminds in control of events, and coaches do not mind encouraging that belief. But coaching is a secondary force in sports; the athletes themselves are always more important. TMQ’s immutable Law of 10 Percent holds that good coaching can improve a team by 10 percent, bad coaching can subtract from performance by 10 percent — but the rest will always be on the players themselves, their athletic ability and level of devotion, plus luck. If the players are no good or out of sync, it won’t matter what plays are called; if the players are talented and dedicated, they will succeed no matter what the sideline signals in. Unless they have bad luck, which no one can control.
Yes and no. I wholeheartedly agree that playcalling is overrated, and he is right that much of the commentary after games involves a lot of second-guessing full of hindsight bias. Few ever pose the “should he have done X?” question in terms of the probabilities and tendencies at the time, or in the context of the 10 or so seconds available to make such calls. Indeed, I have even argued that there’s a case to be made that the best playcalling might be a controlled but randomized “mixed-strategy.”
The other coaching bogeyman is the aura surrounding “in-game adjustments” or “halftime adjustments,” both of which are supposed to be the “hallmarks of good coaching.” This is another thing where there’s a kernel of truth surrounding by a lot of speculation. Yes, a good coach will not do the same thing over and over again if it isn’t working, or if the other team has figured it out. And yes, coaching a game involves an ongoing process of what the other team is doing (this is one reason why I think, even if adjustments are part of the game, “halftime adjustments” are very much overrated). But if you want to see a bad coach then I’ll show you one who tries to “adjust” to everything the other team is doing with new schemes and ideas built-in midgame. Instead, teams with good coaching pretty much run only things within their plan — i.e. stuff they had practiced during the week. Indeed, much of what fans or commentators will pick out as an “adjustment” was something in the original gameplan that just didn’t get called until the second half because of the flow of the game. Yet how can good coaches both “adjust” throughout a game and also not deviate from what they have practiced?
This brings me to where I depart from Easterbrook, that coaching is minor. (I don’t really know how to judge “overrated” — in relation to what? overrated by whom?) While playcalling is definitely overhyped (hey, the talking heads get paid to talk about something), preparation is extremely important, and much of a gameplan involves contingency planning. It also means that the “base stuff” should have the counters built in, the constraint plays are already there, and the defensive adjustments are easy to make because they are a part of the system. A good offense “implies the counter,” meaning that if a defense adjusts in some way, then playcalling is simple because there’s an obvious counter play to be called. On defense you take away the other team’s best stuff, and focus on other things as it comes, though by dictating to the offense through aggressiveness and by trying to confuse it. Unlike Easterbrook I can’t hang a number on how many wins or losses “coaching” is responsible for (and if I could I’d imagine it varies by level), I can safely say that I think weekly preparation is underrated, because it is rarely talked about — other than platitudes like “we had a great week of practice” — has a long-tail in terms of continual refinement of technique and effort that can only improve incrementally, and that everything run in the games is stuff that has been practiced over and over and over.
Two final points on the Redskins situation.
Finally, Easterbrook accurately points out that the Redskins are about a bizarre an example as possible, as the whole Sherm Lewis switch seemed to be about much else apart from playcalling:
In the Redskins’ case, there is an added dimension — the rumor is Chainsaw Dan took away coach Jim Zorn’s play-calling authority hoping that Zorn would blow a gasket and quit. If Zorn quits, he gets nothing; if he’s fired, he receives the balance due on his contract. No doubt to Chainsaw Dan’s dismay, Zorn held his ground.