Michael Elkon and I exchanged a few observations on Twitter yesterday as the debacle unfolded. I was kind of amused to see that he was more angry about the outcome than I was (he’s got more invested in MSU than I do, but then, again, Beyond Crompton resonates more with me than with him). That being said, it’s hard to argue with his logic here:
… I feel no such compunction this morning after referring to Georgia’s decisions in the first overtime against Michigan State as “the dumbest playcalling of all-time,” an episode of “epic stupidity,” and Georgia “voluntarily castrating themselves.” Mark Richt’s course of action was just that bad. College football implemented its new overtime rules in 1996 and over that 15-year time period, I cannot recall any team getting the ball in the bottom half of an inning and settling for a field goal without making any attempt to get the ball any closer than 25 yards out. And the funny thing is that there have been plenty of college coaches who did not have kickers who finished dead-last in their conferences in field goal percentage and those coaches have all said to themselves “you know what, a 42-yard field goal is not a gimme for a college coach; maybe I should try to get 15 yards or so so that the odds of making this field goal go up significantly.”
Richt’s decision just reeked of timidity. He was so scared of a turnover that he chose to put Blair Walsh in a difficult position. Coaches do this all the time, knowing on a conscious or subconscious level* that if a kicker misses, the fans and media will usually blame the kicker instead of the coach. In this instance, Richt should and probably will get the vast majority of the criticism. Walsh missed 12 kicks this year on 31 attempts. Georgia lost 22 turnovers in 945 plays. In essence, Richt was so concerned about the 2.3 percent chance of a turnover on a given play that he chose the 38.7 percent chance of Walsh missing a field goal. I may have been a liberal arts major in college who dropped Statistics 402 within a week, but even I can figure out that Richt’s decision was obviously bone-headed by a wide margin.
As I’ve already mentioned, the odds for a successful Walsh field goal improve dramatically once Georgia moves inside the 23, but Michael’s point is still well taken. Richt was way too passive at that point, and it backfired on him dramatically.
But that takes me to his bigger point: “Mark Richt made an indefensible decision in the overtime period against Michigan State. How much weight should we give to that mistake in evaluating Richt?”
Judging from some of the comments I’ve seen, there are some folks who think the answer to that question is plenty. You can shoot me, but I’m not nearly so convinced. Deferring to the field goal is what Mark Richt does and what he’s done since he set foot in Athens. He’s a conservative game manager, come hell or high water.
He’s also the head coach, come hell or high water. Which means the issue isn’t about changing his tactics/approach to the game – because that’s not in the cards, folks, no matter how much you may wish otherwise – but rather, it’s about what other steps he takes to offset the downside to his game management skills.
Elkon says as much with this:
Richt’s shockingly [Ed. note: not really] conservative disposition during the end-game of the Outback Bowl was and remains indefensible, but the passage of time reminds me of one truism: we all overrate the importance of late game decisions when evaluating a coach. When it comes to determining whether a program wins or loses, late game strategery is the easiest factor for fans to judge. We can put percentages on various courses of action, such as the odds of a turnover versus missing a 42-yard field goal. Additionally, because late game play-calling is the last impression that we have of a team for a week (or, in this case, for eight months), it sticks out in the memory and the recency effect takes over. However, this factor isn’t nearly as important as the other things that a head coach does.
Recruiting is much more important and Richt has done a very good job in that department such that we can have the sense that Georgia had too much talent to go down the way it did yesterday. Managing a staff is more important and Georgia fans are pretty much united in their affection for Todd Grantham (and well they should be in light of the defense’s performance this year). As the demises of Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno have shown this year, the CEO functions performed by a head coach are also critical. Dawg fans should have no concerns about Richt making the right decision if he were confronted with a potentially incriminating e-mail or a (alleged) pedophile assistant coach. Making timid decisions at the end of a close game is annoying, but in the grand scheme of things, it is only a small portion of the pie chart when evaluating a head coach.
And that’s the issue we really ought to be addressing. If we have to hold our noses and take the dumb moment in a tight game as part of the price, what should we hold Richt accountable for such that the program can succeed in spite of that? I’d argue the following:
- Consistently excellent recruiting. As we’ve seen, talent doesn’t always overcome, but I’d rather take my chances with it than without it. Georgia needs the highly skilled talent and the overall depth that comes with top classes year after year.
- A top-notch defensive staff. It’s the one area of the program that Richt doesn’t directly involve himself with, and it has to be there to carry the weight. It’s one of the sure ways to offset Richt’s innate conservatism on offense.
- Competent special teams. If you’re going to rely on your field goal kicker to save your bacon on occasion, best make sure he’s capable of doing that. Good punting and coverage teams allow Richt to play the field position game that’s part of his conservatism.
- Dominant offensive line play. This one almost goes without saying.
- Emphasis on fundamentals. If your team is fundamentally sound, there’s that much less of a chance it will beat itself.
Georgia’s problem over the past five years is that it hasn’t always been strong enough in these other areas.