Monday, January 19, 2009

Eagles game - coaching mistakes

Even though the game is a week and a day old, the conference championships have been played and the Super Bowl teams have been set, I am still not finished talking about the Giants game and their loss to the Eagles. This is going to bother me for a long time. Looking at the championship games and how mediocre I thought all 4 teams were, I am more pained at what a good chance the Giants had to take it all the way. The team with the best chance to beat the Giants was the Eagles, because of match ups and style of play, as I said in previous posts. Giants beat all four of the conference finalists during the year. They had a real good chance to get back to the big game. Truthfully, without Burress, the Giants big passing weapon, Eagles were free to attack and blitz all game long. Look how they played the Cardinals - much more conservatively - because of the weapons that the Cardinals had at the WR position. I think the Giants coaching has been very good all year, but one of my big misgivings is that they did not develop Moss or Manningham at all as a weapon. Toomer was a non-factor down the stretch. Truthfully, once Burress was out, the Giants passing game went south. Eli played poorly against the Eagles, that's for sure. But a qb needs weapons to throw to and Eli did not have a lot of open WRs. I'm not giving Eli a free pass on that game - it was probably his worst game of the year - I am just saying, he wasn't helped out by having lots of open WRs to throw to.

Just to emphasize this point once more and really ruin your off-season: Giants beat all four teams that were the conference finalists during the season and had a 5-2 record against all of the 11 other teams that made the playoffs this year - including that meaningless season-ending loss to the Vikings. I think the Giants were up there as one of the best teams in the league and if Burress had not been off the team, they would have had a good chance to go deep in the playoffs.

I am going to highlight a few questionable coaching decisions from that Eagles game and i recognize that some of it could sound like second-guessing and making decisions with the benefit of retrospective analysis (aka hindsight). Nevertheless, take them for what they're worth and consider them on their merits.

It seemed like Gilbride moved away from Jacobs and the power running game too early. In most games this year, Jacobs was the main back, got about 2/3 of the carries and Ward came in as a change of pace or when the defense was softened up. In this game, Jacobs and Ward alternated series. Jacobs had only 9 carries in the first half and he seemed to be carrying the ball effectively in that half - I am not clear why he did not get to carry the rock more often. Ward was certainly great against the Panthers and played well against the Vikings in the season finale, so I can understand why they wanted to get him some touches. Furthermore, they may have wanted to make some big plays in the running game, knowing that the Giants best deep weapon in the passing game was about to be indicted, and Ward has better breakaway ability than Jacobs. But still - the formula most of the year has been - start with Jacobs, pound the defense, get Ward some touches late in the first half and then go with the hot hand. Jacobs was hot and Gilbride put him on the bench. This is a close call, because Ward can certainly be effective, but it was also the type of running plays and the formations that the Giants used. Eagles have a quick smallish defensive front and the Giants should have tried to pound them straight ahead especially when they showed they were able to attack the Giants outside runs, by bringing safeties up to the provide run support on those Giants outside stretch runs. Giants were effective running between the tackles and did not stick with that enough. Of course, the Giants got stopped on those 4th down plays on runs up the middle, so who's to say that they would have stayed effective running there.

In the Panthers game, Giants ran often out of shotgun formation and this was very effective. It was a change of pace for the running gameand it gets the Giants personnel match ups that is favorable to them. The Giants hardly did this against the Eagles and their play calling was very predictable.

The biggest coaching mistakes happened at the end of the half and it had a profound impact on the game. Giants had moved the ball very well down to the Eagles 26 with a first and 10. They had several bad play calls and bad clock management that ruined this possessions in the waning moments of that 1st half. With the clock running down to the 2:00 minute warning, Giants ran Jacobs up the middle for 5 yards for a 2nd and 5 on the 21. However, it turns out that the Giants did not get the play off before the clock hit 2:00 and so the play was called back, reverting to 1st and 10 on the 26 with 2:00 minutes left. This clock mismanagement was indicative of bad coaching but did not hurt the Giants because on the first play after the 2:00 minute warning, Eli drew the Eagles off side, giving the Giants 1st and 5 on the Eagles 21. Giants had run the ball well on this drive, so it seems to me that they should have run the ball 3 times and probably would have gotten a first down inside the Eagles 15. Instead, Eli went into a shotgun on 3 straight plays and threw 3 straight incomplete passes, leading to a FG. If they wanted to pass and catch the Eagles off guard, they should have run play action pass instead of advertising a pass with shotgun formation. Giants felt that the Eagles have excellent goal line defense (I heard Coughlin and the coaches mention that several times during the regular season) so they must have felt that their best chance to score from the red zone was to throw it in from just outside the 15, and this was obviously in their game plan. I disagree with that evaluation, but I certainly respect the Giants coaches judgment. But where I think the Giants coaches erred, is that this theory applies only to a 1st and 10. When you have a 1st and 5, instead of 1st and 10 at the 21, and the Giants running game was moving the ball well, running the ball should have been the call. This is the problem I see with Gilbride - he is capable, but not that nimble or able to think on his feet and change directions quickly.

There was another side effect of throwing the ball all three times - it stopped the clock each time and gave the Eagles the ball back with more than 1:30 left and sufficient time to move down the field for a late FG at the end of the half. Giants should have run at least once to get the clock moving and prevent them from getting the ball back. This was very uncharacteristic of Coughlin, he is the best I have seen, since Parcells at clock management and game time decisions. This however, was not his best game.

The pass plays that were called were not deceptive at all. When Ward lined up on the outside on the 3rd down play, we (those at the game with me) immediately anticipated that they would run that bubble screen, which they did; it gained only 4 yards and never really had a chance to succeed. If we can anticipate it from the stands, and the Eagles sniffed it out and stopped it, then I guess it was too predictable.

After this Giants FG, the Eagles got the ball back and then it was Spaguolo's turn to make some bad coaching decisions. Giants had been pressing the Eagles the entire half and they did not move the ball at all. Giants often used 7-8-9 guys at the line of scrimmage and were mixing in some blitzes on the passing downs and completely neutralized the Eagles offense with this aggressive formula. Then when the Eagles got the ball back at the end of the half, Spagnuolo switched to a prevent defense, used only 3 DL-men to rush the passer and McNabb had lots of time to throw the ball. He moved the ball down the field way too easily and almost scored a TD on the drive; it was a real momentum changer. Eagles had done nothing in the first half offensively, were given a gift TD on Eli's INT and a gift FG at the end of the half and despite being dominated, were winning the game. Furthermore, it gave them the formula for success in the 2nd half - they went away from the run and started passing almost exclusively, mixing in a few runs to keep the defense honest.

It seems clear that the Giants decided to pass the ball when they got close to the end zone, instead of running it in, because they did the same thing each time they were there. In the first drive of the 2nd half, after Robbins intercepted McNabb and ran the ball down to the Eagles 33. Jacobs ran on first down for 11 down to the 22, then ran for 5 yards down to the 17. With 2nd and 5 at the 17, Eli threw twice and the Giants were forced to kick another FG. Was this bad game planning, bad coaching or bad execution? I think it was a little bit of all of them. The game plan may have been correct, but when the coaches saw that the game plan was not working and the Giants were unable to pass it in from just inside the 20, they failed to adjust and revert back to the running game.

The main components of the game plan that represented a shift from the Giants standard offensive patterns all failed: (1) when inside the red zone, try to pass instead of running the ball (2) put the bubble screen to Ward into the gameplan as a key play at the goal line (3) alternate Ward and Jacobs, limiting Jacobs normal load. I am not putting all of this on the coaches, because certainly Giants had a chance to win if Eli had played better and if a few key plays went the Giants way, but the coaches did not distingusih themselves with the offensive game plan.

In the second half, the Eagles realized that they were not able to run the ball and they came away from the run. McNabb threw the ball nearly the entire second half and the Giants did not adjust defensively to stop the passing game.

Coughlin made a really bad decision to challenge the spot on the 3rd down early in the 4th qtr and Giants could have used that time out later to stop the clock. Of all the referee's calls that get challenged, bad spots are the most difficult to overturn. It's probably because the spots are so arbitrary to begin with. If the line to gain is on a yard line, then the ref can see whether the runner crossed it and can possibly move the spot from the replay. But if the ball is between yard lines and the challenge is to move it forward, but still jeep the spot between those two yard lines, it is almost impossible for the ref to judge whether to move it forward, so they usually leave it. Again, this was uncharacteristic of Coughlin who is usually very good with his challenges.

I thought it was a bad move to let Eli carry the ball on the first 4th down try. Now - this could be considered a complete second guess, because there was only an inch or two to go for the first down, and you might think I am criticizing only because he didn't make it. Fair point, I guess, especially because my son, sitting next to me at the game, said that they should let Eli run the ball before the play was run. I disagreed - when you have a 265 pound RB, I would prefer to give it to him.

Finally, even Coughlin admitted that it was a bad move to go for it on 4th and 2 later in the 4th quarter. He did not get a good look at the sticks and thought it was less than 2. That's bad communication - I don't understand how that could happen.

I think the Giants coaching is good, but they were out-coached in this game by the Eagles. I think the Giants need to be a little more deceptive with their offense as they are on defense.

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