5 worst NFL coaching decisions from Week 8

Here were five poor coaching decisions from Sunday’s Week 7 NFL games:

1. Lions go limp late

The Detroit Lions ran 16 plays in the red-zone in Sunday night’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Zero resulted in a touchdown. It’s the most red-zone plays run by a team in a single game this season that didn’t result in a TD. That certainly suggests a proper lack of execution on that part of the field. And if you watched it, the plays run down there were at times … just strange.

But there should have been a 17th play. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell felt that kicking another field goal was the right call instead, and he was wrong about that.

As we’ve done every week this season in this space, we remind you: The end result never justifies the decision at the time. Meaning, had the Lions come down and scored a touchdown on their final possession of the game and tied it up with a two-point score, it would not have justified Caldwell’s poor calls on prior trips down there.

Here was how it all unfolded: The Lions were down 20-12 with most of the fourth quarter remaining. It was 1st-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 4-yard line. After a Matthew Stafford incomplete pass to Eric Ebron on first down, the Lions ran twice with Dwayne Washington on second and third down. Both failed. Caldwell opted for a field goal, and it was a 20-15 game.

Yes, the old turn-a-one-score-game-into-a-one-score-game deal. We hate it.

Perhaps Caldwell had been stung by his own curious decision the prior trip there. It was another 1st-and-goal from the four situation late in the third quarter. The Lions trailed 13-12 and were stopped on first, second and third downs — the last two from the one-yard line. That’s clearly horrible execution.

But there was a coaching error, too, as the Lions brought in Nick Bellore — a linebacker who masquerades as a fullback — on third down. He sometimes comes in on run plays, so the Steelers were ready. Bellore would play exactly one snap on offense in the game. That play was telegraphed; it might have been better served to run that package on second down and leave the Steelers guessing on third.

Then Caldwell passed up the field goal there, clearly trying to make it a touchdown lead and go up eight (assuming he would have gone for two). The fourth-down pass failed when Stafford was sacked. The Lions were in shotgun a few ball lengths from the end zone, and the whole operation felt rushed and confused.

Three plays later, Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 97-yard TD to make it an eight-point Steelers lead. None of it made any sense. But the Lions still had their shots to win.

And yet more strangeness. Still down eight, the Lions ran a draw play on 3rd-and-5 from the Pittsburgh six-yard line. That also was snuffed out. Stafford said after the game the Lions checked to the draw because the Steelers played a light box. You think maybe they were inviting the run there?

Stafford finished the game 2-of-10 passing for six yards in the red zone. The Lions handed off five times for four yards down there. Stafford also took a sack. So on the surface, asking Caldwell to run another red-zone play seems foolish, eh? But had the Lions attempted it early in the fourth, perhaps they’d have realized what they needed to do to win later. That was where they lost the game.

2. 49ers fail at math

We admire the job San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has done to this point, despite still awaiting his first victory. Really — there have been positive steps, if you know where to look. But despite all the early positives in Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, we can’t overlook one really bad late mistake.

The 49ers had kept the game close for the first 28 minutes of the game before a stunning two-touchdown haymaker in a matter of 27 game seconds. Still, the 49ers hung tough and were down only 20-7 late in the third quarter. But the Eagles scored another touchdown, and the 49ers suddenly were in desperation mode early in the fourth, trailing 27-7.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan in action during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Philadelphia,. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

They drove to the Philly nine-yard line and missed three straight passes on 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-and-goal with just over 14 minutes left. So Shanahan attempted a field goal. What in the name of Mike Singletary was he thinking? There is virtually zero difference between a 20-point lead and a 17-point lead at that point. You’re still counting on your offense scoring three times in the final 13 or so minutes.

Poetic justice, however, had the last say. The attempt was blocked and recovered at the 38-yard line. The Eagles scored a touchdown to ice the game eight plays later, and they ran off almost four minutes of clock in the process.

To be clear, the 49ers likely were not going to win this game. But scoring a touchdown there would have improved their chances to win from about 0.4 percent to about 1.8 percent, according to Pro Football Reference. (Or as much as 2.7 percent had they scored and converted a two-point try.) Kicking a field goal? Had they made it, the 49ers’ win probability actually would have gone down — from 0.4 to 0.3 percent. Having it blocked ended their realistic chances altogether.

In a losing season, Shanahan had everything to gain in that desperate situation but chose poorly by playing it unreasonably safe. It didn’t cost the 49ers the game, we assume, but it’s the kind of thing a coach who has lost five close games needs to think about. Like Bob Dylan once sang, “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

3. Eagles also got passive

From the same game, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson also made what we think was a judgment error. Far be it for us to question much of what he has done this season, with a 7-1 record and a quarterback in Carson Wentz who is playing at an MVP-caliber level. The Eagles now are in a position to earn a first-round playoff bid, with a 6-0 record against the NFC.

But on Sunday Pederson should have tried to step on the necks of a winless 49ers team, one whose shorthanded defense had been on the field for nearly 22 of the game’s first 34 minutes. The Eagles faced a 4th-and-3 from the Philadelphia 48-yard line, and they were up 17-0. This is where you show your trust in Wentz and go for it.

It ended up being a non-factor in the game, and the Eagles won handily because they were the more talented squad. But this would have been an excellent chance for Pederson to test his team that will face a tough schedule from here on out. Go for it and try to win right there in the third quarter. The Eagles had underachieved to that point and needed to make a statement.

Pederson chose to punt. It was by no means a horrible decision. But one quick glance at the New York Times 4th Down Bot backs up what any aggressive football mind would concur with: Going for it absolutely was the right call there. This is the kind of play that matters little now, in the big picture. But we might come back to it later in the season when the Eagles face a similar decision against a tougher opponent.

4. Anthony Lynn gets an ‘F’ in Foxboro

Coaches who have games at Gillette Stadium, we beg of you: Take your chances when you get them against the New England Patriots. Because you almost always will regret not doing so later. This was the fate of the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, but they had an opportunity to make an early statement — instead opting for the passive and the poorly conceived.

The Chargers drove to the New England 33-yard line on their opening possession of the first quarter. It was there they faced a 4th-and-1 when the Patriots went into a prevent defense and basically allowed the Chargers to gain 16 yards on 3rd-and-17. Yes, Bill Belichick seemed to invite the Chargers to get in field-goal range on a rainy, windy day in Foxborough.

Belichick was daring Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn to try a field goal in those conditions. Lynn took the cheese. He asked kicker Nick Novak, who had been missing his longer tries in pregame warmups, to attempt a 51-yarder into the windy end of the stadium instead of going for it. There was and never will be a debate over which coach had the edge in this situation.

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, center, watches from the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The 51-yard kick was short — it didn’t even make it there. It never should have been attempted in the first place. There is zero question Lynn should have gone for it. Don’t think these first-quarter decisions add up to much? The Chargers lost by one score and had ample chances to win or at least send it to overtime with a few more conversions.

Melvin Gordon had been taken down for a two-yard loss two plays earlier, so perhaps Lynn was stuck on that fact. So throw it, in that case. Philip Rivers had his chances all game. Why the Chargers ignored their tight ends in this game is a whole other issue. But it’s not as if the Patriots suddenly have some reborn and dominant defense. They just lost Dont’a Hightower leading up to the game and needed to be tested early. Teams lose to the Patriots when they don’t push the envelope in situations such as these.

That’s exactly how it played out. The Chargers left their fates on the foot of a kicker, which, um, hasn’t worked out consistently well this season. Gordon romped 87 yards for a touchdown the next time he touched the ball. The Chargers could and perhaps should have been up two scores early. Instead, they fell to 3-5 and have to be kicking themselves for not taking this early chance.

5. Deshaun needed one more chance

I had exactly one regret after watching the 41-38 Houston Texans-Seattle Seahawks thriller on Sunday: Deshaun Watson should have had a chance to win the game.

Instead, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien tried to run out the clock. Watson, who was mostly brilliant in the loss, had the ball and the Texans up 38-34. Houston had just intercepted Russell Wilson and taken much of the air out of CenturyLink Field. The two-minute warning hit when Watson ran eight yards for a first down.

The Seahawks called timeouts after each of the next three plays: safe handoffs to Lamar Miller for one, five and two yards. You don’t give Watson one shot there? You want the Seahawks to burn their timeouts, sure. But you also want to end the game with a first down. Miller had been held in check all game; Watson had not.

There’s a risk of a turnover at worst (Watson had thrown two picks that point, and he’d add another on a desperation throw in the waning seconds). So throwing the ball wasn’t without its drawbacks. But Watson on the move made perfect sense. Houston could have called a rollout or bootleg and got Watson into space. If the easy half-field read and safe throw weren’t there, then he could have taken off and likely gained more yards in open space than Miller would have slamming into a stacked box in an obvious run situation.

On third down, there was an option look and Watson handed it to Miller, who was stopped short of the first by a full two yards with four to go. That’s a first- or second-down call in our eyes, and a Watson keeper might have had more of a chance to get the first, which might have iced the game.

But O’Brien’s conservative series gave the ball back to Seattle, which, as you know by now, scored with 20 seconds left. They went through the Texans’ defense like butter — three plays, 80 yards in 78 seconds with time to spare.

Did O’Brien learn nothing from the Week 3 loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough? We ripped him then, and we are doing so again now. Watson has been brilliant, and what sets him apart from most mortal rookies is his late-game poise and his knack for making a play when he absolutely needs one. The Texans needed him to close out the game, but he never got the chance.

— Eric Edholm is an NFL writer for Pro Football Weekly.


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