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Coaches: Ways to Lose a Football Gameby: Dan Weil
© December 2006
Everyone knows that brilliant coaching strategies, like those of Bill Walsh on offense and Buddy Ryan on defense, can win teams games. But the opposite is also true. Coaching mistakes can cost your team games. We talked to as many coaches as we could about what the key mistakes are that can cost you games, real world examples of the mistakes and how to avoid them. Here is what they had to say:
Jerry Schmitt, head coach, Duquesne University
“One thing that stands out is clock management, especially at the end of a half and the end of the fourth quarter in a close game. There are places where you can make mistakes on game day, but to avoid them it takes preparation in practice, putting the team and coaching staff in situations that might occur.
“We try to get as many as we can in, so kids and coaches are familiar with any situations. We do a lot of it in spring ball and camp. During the week, we do 10 minutes of two-minute drills for defense and offense on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Often it’s an issue of not using your timeouts correctly. It happened to us once this year before halftime. We had a few timeouts. We were driving the ball. I made the decision not call a timeout, because I wanted the play to go because of what the defense was in. I didn’t want to give them a chance to substitute.
“We ended up wasting time and reduced our options in the last 20 seconds. We scored a field goal, but we would have had two more opportunities for a touchdown if we had used the timeout. I probably over-coached.”
Larry Kehres, head coach, Mount Union College, Alliance, OH
Many coaches cited special teams as an area where coaching can cost you a game, but Kehres was even more specific than that. “You have work hard to make sure that your punt return team is aware of the wind. The way it’s affected my team is that we have had our own blocker hinder an attempt to fair catch because the wind kept the punt from traveling its normal distance.
“Last year a blocker hit our returner, who fumbled the ball. We lose possession, and the opponent converted it into a score. I think it nearly cost us the game. We barely won the game, but had we lost, we would have pointed to that.
“To prevent it, we all plan when we practice punts and returns. When you get a very windy day at practice, you want to seize the opportunity to work on it. We’ll talk about is this as a 10-yard wind or a 15-yard wind in terms of helping or hindering the ball. Or is it a cross wind. The punt return team has to be well aware of the effects. We want the assistant coaches always talking about that when players take the filed on a punt. We also talk about it in pre-game talks and at halftime.”
David Bennett, head coach at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC
Bennett chose the opposite side of the ball from Kehres. He talked about a coaching mistake for his punt team. “We had one last game to clinch our conference last year. We were playing Charleston Southern with 10 seconds left. We practice putting in a wide receiver as punter. He catches the ball at the 20 and runs until the end zone to take a safety. We were up 7. Our kid catches the ball, runs to the goal line and steps out with 1.5 second to go. He was counting down in his head and thought the clock had run out.
“They had one play from our two and scored. We lost in double overtime. If I had it to do again, we would practice the play more, where it’s automatic for our players to react rather than think.” It takes time to train a player to actually score points for the opposition, because a player’s instinct is to avoid that at all costs. “It’s like in basketball, you don’t want to shoot at the wrong goal,” Bennett said. The solution: “Rather than practicing the play once early in the year and once in the middle, you have to practice it once a week. Now we do that.”
Mike Van Diest, head coach of Carroll College, Helena, MT
He too offered a specific special teams situation. When you’re going for a game-winning field goal, and you’re already within range, think about taking the kick on third down, in case there is a bad snap or hold, rather than trying to eke out one or two more yards.
“We had a great example in the championship game in 2005 to save the game. We elected to kick the field goal on third down. We had a bad snap and spiked it. We kicked a field goal on the next play and won 15-13. It was a heads up play by the holder. We talked about it during the week and on the sidelines before the play. There have been times when I’ve seen a team pound to get one more yard, and then they missed on fourth down.”
Another crucial mistake when driving for a crucial field goal is to call plays that will leave you at the right hash mark when you have a right-footed kicker, giving him a tough angle at which to kick, Van Diest said. “I think that happened in the Army-Navy game a few years ago. I think Navy missed the field goal. We had that in the middle of a game a few weeks ago. Fortunately it didn’t hurt us. I had a great play called that went to the right has instead of the left hash.”
Matt Kelcher, head coach at Christopher Newport University, Newport News, VA
He warned against getting too cocky in your play calling. “In our first league game in 2001 against Shenandoah, we went into overtime. Our defense held and forced them to kick a field goal. When we got the ball at the 25, I decided on a play that I’d seen was there and kept in my hip pocket. It was a one-shot deal – an option pass, where the quarterback faked the option and passed.
“I could already visualize the headlines in the paper about how we won our first league game on this brilliant play. Well I didn’t account for an outside linebacker blitz. They sacked the quarterback, and we lost the game. That came back to me this past year, when we were running the ball consistently on base plays. This time I decided we’d keep doing that, and we ended up popping one for a touchdown.”
John McKissick, head coach at Summerville High School, Summerville, SC.
“The biggest thing I see is you get guys working hard and get them emotionally ready for a tough game. Then they commit ego penalties – late hits, hits out of bounds. High school kids see their heroes in the pros celebrating with a spike or a hug. We get penalized if we celebrate at all. I preach that all the time, but a guy will block a punt or cause a fumble, gets all excited and celebrates anyway. The way to avoid it is to keep preaching to young people to avoid that.
“Players get emotional. Against a lot of teams that you play, if it’s a real big game, the kids know it. You don’t have to fire them up. If it’s a team you should beat, then you do have to fire them up. The games you have to be careful with are the high profile games. It’s a matter of controlling players’ emotions.
“We were playing a big game the week before last, with a crowd of 11,500 in a stadium built for 8,500. We blocked a punt, but instead of handing the ball to the official, our guy threw it down. It cost us 15 yards. This one didn’t cost us the game – we scored anyway – but it could have. “I stress it to my guys verbally not to do those things. I never threaten them with extra work if they make a mistake. I’ll take a guy out of the game and fuss at him a little bit. But I don’t use profanity. I constantly stress to the guys to stay under control. I tell them you get bored sometimes in practice, but football is repetition. You see guys in the NFL. That’s what it takes to be professional. You have to practice it every day and talk to them every day.”
Tad DePorter, head coach of Sherrard High School’s sophomore football team in Sherrard, IL.
Tad relayed most of his details to us by E-Mail. This is what he wrote, “We were playing Rock Falls High School and were losing 12-7 with around three minutes to go in the fourth quarter. We had the ball when my starting center had equipment issues and had to come out of the game, so I put in my backup center.
“While one of my assistants went to work on the equipment, I went back to calling the offense. I called a fullback trap, which gained around eight years, taking us inside Rock Falls territory. I called a wingback trap because they had been flowing hard to motion all night long. That play went for 26 yards, which took us down to the Rock Falls 21. “We had momentum, my players were excited, everything was going our way. My starting center came up to me and said he was ready to go back in. I sent him in with a play, a counter that I knew would be there, and congratulated my back-up center on a job well done.
“The starting center and quarterback fumbled the next snap, and Rock Falls recovered with less than two minutes to go. My quarterback told me that there was a large difference between the two snaps, and he hadn’t realized the starter was back in, so he didn’t adjust his hands.” Two coaching mistakes here, DePorter told us over the phone. First, “Since we were on a roll, my mistake was sending the regular center back in.” And second, he should have made sure the quarterback knew the regular center was indeed back.
As for the first mistake, the lesson DePorter learned is that when you have a hot hand, roll with it. It may feel counterintuitive not to put your starter back in, but you have to stop and think before you act.
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