Saturday, January 9, 2021

"Trusting the Defense"

We’re embarking on three NFL playoff games today, ten hours of football, a red-letter day for American sports fans.

At some point during this pigskin feast, a team is going to be faced with a decision on fourth down, maybe something easy, like fourth-and-nine from its own 38, or harder, like fourth-and-three from the opponent’s 46. When that team elects to punt, it may go without comment, but if one of the broadcasters does make a remark, you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll say something about the coach trusting his defense.

The thing is, he’ll have it all wrong. The coach isn’t trusting anyone. He’s trusting land.

The fourth-down conversation has come a long way since Bill Belichick went for it inside his own 30, 11 years ago. In the same way that baseball statheads can see their influence in the decline of the sacrifice bunt and the intentional walk, football statheads’ most visible imprint has come on fourth down. As Kevin Clark wrote in the linked piece, teams are going for it on fourth and short about twice as often as they did a decade ago.

When they don’t, though, we get the same tired refrain. In fact, there’s nothing a coach does that is less trusting of his team than punting. In that moment, he’s saying these things:

-- “I don’t trust you guys on offense to pick up the first down. You’re not good enough to advance the ball past the line to gain.”

-- “When the offense fails, I don’t trust you guys on defense to defend a shorter field. You’re not good enough to keep the other team from scoring from that spot.”

The coach is trusting land. He’s trusting the dimensions of the football field. He’s trusting, at best, his punter.

Consider, in contrast, what the coach who goes for it is saying.

-- “I trust my offense to get this first down.”

-- “If my offense doesn’t get this first down, I trust my defense to get us off the field, even from a disadvantageous position.”

The standard color guy’s analysis is just wrong. It’s the coach who goes for it on fourth down who is trusting his defense, not the one who punts.

As you’re gorging on football today, keep this in mind. Think about what actually happens when a coach orders a cowardly punt. When that ex-tackle chimes in to say that he’s trusting his defense, you’ll know the truth: He’s not trusting anyone. He’s trusting land.