Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review of season: coaching

There are several measures that you can apply to evaluate a coaching staff and in some ways that evaluation indicates what the coach's job requirements are. The HC responsibility has changed greatly over time. At one time, the HC was involved in every facet of the offense and defense, usually called the plays at least on one side of the ball, installed the schemes and had the player management responsibilities around cutting, motivating and determining the depth chart. Parenthetically, I always said that the most important thing a coach in any sport did was to fill out the lineup card. Sounds trivial and obvious, but a coach can really mess up the team by playing the wrong guys. (More on that in later posts). In today's NFL with the complexity of both offense and defense brought on at least in part by the benefits of technology and the much wider amount of data that can be interpreted, manipulated and analyzed, the HC can not be in charge of every facet of the game. Every HC delegates more and more responsibility to his coordinators. Some HCs do none of the play calling and some retain the play calling for one unit while giving it up for the other. I haven't really seen a pattern as to which method works best - Coughlin, Bellichick, Tomlin, Shanahan, Fox and Reid are examples of successful coaches that seem to have given up the in-game play calling. McCarthy in Green Bay, Jason Garrett and several others still call the offensive plays (though some could validly question how successful a coach Garrett is). The coaches that retain play calling completely outsource the other side of the ball to the coordinator and sometimes have almost nothing to do with that unit. That sure seemed to be the case with Rob Ryan in Dallas and with Sparano with the Jets and it didn't work out well for either of them. Regardless, the point is that with the coordinators taking on more responsibility, perhaps the most important job that a HC has is to build a capable staff that can effectively manage this wider load.

Everyone always glowed about the Bill Walsh coaching tree in Frisco - many successful coaches came from it. I have to say it is pretty impressive. It included Dennis Green, Holmgren, Gruden, Shanahan, Dungy, Mariucci, Lovie Smith and a few others. Perhaps no less impressive is the Parcells coaching tree which includes Bellichick, Coughlin, Payton, Crennel, Weiss, and a few others. If I count right, there are 6 Super Bowls among those Parcells trained coaches. My point is that while these coaches are icons, perhaps the best things they did was to pick talented staffs and train their coordinators to be great. You have to say that across town, Rex Ryan has not showed himself to be a good talent evaluator in picking coaches and Coughlin's record in this area is very spotty also.

Coughlin had a few successful picks: Spagnola was probably his best pick, though his record after he left the Giants in St. Louis and now in New Orleans has been weak. Gilbride, with all the complaining we do, is a solid though certainly not spectacular OC. But let's not forget that Gilbride replaced John Hufnagel who didn't make it through an entire season with Coughlin. He left the Giants and never got another coaching job in the NFL. Coughlin's first DC was Tim Lewis who was also overmatched for his job and let go after two years. He also never got a DC job after leaving the Giants. He grabbed a job as a DB coach somewhere and was gone after that gig never to return to the NFL. Spags replaced Lewis and was a good hire, but when he left for the Rams, Coughlin promoted as DC the completely overmatched Bill Sheridan who was fired after a year. Sheridan hung around for a while as a defensive position coach elsewhere in the NFL, but never achieved DC again. As far as Fewell, who replaced Sheridan, his record has been very weak. The Giants have a Super Bowl on his watch, but the defense was ranked last in the league and near last in the league the last 2 years. They won the Super Bowl with this defense, which shows that they have the talent to reach the heights. But constant blown coverages and a scheme that fools absolutely no offense has to be put on the DC. The ST coach has also not been a gem - Giants do a little better when they play the starters on ST and they spring Wilson as a kick returner a few times, but they also lost the Steelers game by being overwhelmed on punt returns. Thye also got fooled on a few on-side kickoffs in the past year or two, also on the ST. Many of the position coaches are good - Pope is a legendary TE coach and you can look at the productivity Kevin Boss had as Giant and his complete invisibilty when he left and at least give some credit to Pope. Ingram (RB) and Flaherty (OL) also do a great job, but too many mistakes in the DB-field tarnishes the reputation of Merritt and Giunta who I always thought were good coaches. The position coaches work is greatly influenced by the DC, so it's hard to tell how they did.  In summary, Coughlin has not had a very good record picking his coordinators and this may be the most important part of his job. I also get the feeling that Coughlin is a little too hands-off in letting his coordinators come up with the game plan; his influence and fingerprints should be more evident in the strategy. Coughlin is a good in-game decision maker and clock manager, but the game plan, strategy and schemes, especially on defense need to be better.

Taking a closer look at the defense, it might be instructive to compare the Giants strategy to others in the NFL. When you look at opposing defenses and how creative they are - how they always show one defense presnap and switch out of it right before the snap to confuse the offense; how they will switch between man and zone; how they will play different types of zones; how they will fake a blitz and pull out of it; how they will use deception and change so that the offense can't get a read on what they're doing, you realize how weak Fewell is. He plays mostly zone, rarely blitzes, and relies on the simple philosophy that the defense will be fine if the Giants strong DL gets a pass rush. When the opposing offense goes to quick 3-step drops to blunt the pass rush or comes up with creative blocking patterns to stop the pass rush, he does not have an answer. I know that the read-option running game with the fast QBs caught the NFL by surprise this year. I know that many defenses had trouble stopping it, but the Redskins took the Giants apart twice with it - running for around 200 yards in both games. Fewell with his read-and-react defense is exactly the wrong scheme for that style offense. I am not upset that it worked the first time against NYG. But when they used the exact same defense with no adjustments by Fewell the second game and it was just as effective, it is a sign that he is an uncreative, unimaginative DC. He did not give his players any advantage to handle the opposing offense. If they dominated physically in a game (Packers, 49ers) the defense looked great. If not, they had no answers for the opponent. Giants front has to be aggressive and attacking, more risk taking, and Fewell could not see it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Season in Review

I don't want to make this post sound like a Giants fan whining, but it's really hard to take the fact that the Giants are not in the playoffs. Looking at the season and the team's record dispassionately and coldly and just analyzing the final results, one could argue that the season was not a total disaster. After all, the Giants did have a winning season, the last game they played had relevance and playoff meaning though of course they did need some help from other teams. Furthermore they did discover some weapons that unfortunately lay dormant for too much of the season. (More on that in later posts.) In addition to that, this 9-7 record was built on what could surely be considered the toughest schedule in football. Very often, the schedule looks difficult coming into the season but turns out otherwise. This is because you evaluate strength of schedule coming into the season on the basis of last year's playoff teams and last year's record. This doesn't always translate into a hard schedule in the current year, because there are always some teams that rise and fall from last year's performance. However for the Giants in 2012, the schedule was rough coming in and even in retrospect was among the hardest in the league. Specifically, the way the NFL schedule is constructed, the maximum number of current year playoff teams that could be on one team's schedule is 7 and the minimum number is 2. This year, the Giants had 6 playoff teams on their schedule and no team had the theoretical maximum of 7. Of course, the Packers also had 6 of the team's that made this year's playoff on their schedule, and they won more games than the Giants and amde the playoffs in a tougherr division. But it doesn't diminish the fact that the Giants had a rough schedule. By comparison, the 49ers and Redskins had 4 current-year playoff teams on their schedule and the Falcons had only 2.

Those are the facts, and I don't want to sound like a Giants apologist, because the raw numbers certainly must be taken in context. The music surrounding these facts is that the Giants won the Super Bowl last year and should be expected to follow up with a better season. They were 6-2 through the first half, sank to 3-5 in the second half  and kicked away several winnable games that doomed their playoff hopes. They beat badly 2 of the teams that are still in the NFC playoffs in the Packers and 49ers, which certainly rubs more salt on the wounds of a playoff-less season. If Giants beat them, they should have done better against some of the weaker teams. The Giants showed no grit, no toughness and lost to teams they should have beaten. The most painful defeats were the loss to the Eagles, particularly painful in retrospect when we see what a bad team the Eagles really were; the loss to the Redskins when the Giants showed a complete inability to adjust their defense from the first Redskins game and allowed the Skins to trample the Giants running defense. The other two bad losses were the opener to the Cowboys, where the Giants just assumed that the Cowboys would give the game to them and did not play tough at all and the game against the Steelers, when the Giants were winning by 10 going into the 4th quarter and fell apart on special teams and defense to give the game away.

The flip side of these 4 losses was the fact that the Giants got one gift from the Cowboys in the game in Dallas and won a close game against the Redskins on a last minute TD to Cruz. Giants were 2-4 in close games and winning those close games is about doing the little things right, not having the mental mistakes and having the coaches giving the players a slight advantage in the game deciding plays. Giants did not have that this year. Perhaps after a Super Bowl season, where everything falls into a place, the players subconsciously feel that the same will happen the next year. The games will come to them and they don't have to go and get it. Giants did not fight hard enough in those close games and let them get away from them. When they fell behind against good teams (Bengals, Ravens and Falcons) they showed no fortitude, no grit in mounting a comeback of any kind. They did come back against the weak teams of the league - Browns, Buccaneers and they were even trailing the Saints early - but in those games they washed over them in talent and got some turnovers. They didn't display toughness. Wait until next year.