Welcome to my weekly Game Management column. Each Wednesday, we will go over specific game situations and how coaches reacted. If it seems like a second-guess column, I refer you to what Browns owner Art Modell used to tell me: "Kid, I am not second guessing, I am first guessing." This will be a first-guess column.
Game Management is not just about when teams should call timeouts, or when teams need to run the ball instead of throwing. It is not that simple and involves much more that happens underneath the surface. Today, let's use the example of the play in Monday night's Patriots-Dolphins game that cost cornerback Benny Sapp his job: the 99-yard Tom Brady-to-Wes Welker touchdown pass.
For the record, I hate when teams cut a player the following day after he allowed a big play. This implies to the rest of the team that it was not their fault for losing, but rather the player who just walked out the door. Yes, Sapp allowed the big play to Welker, but he also made a big play, breaking up a pass resulting in Jared Oldrick's interception return that led to a touchdown. Shouldn't Sapp get a stay of execution for making a huge play? And don't forget that because Sapp is a vested veteran, his contract is guaranteed for the season and Miami has to pay him anyway. If he was good enough to make the team and get the guarantee, then how can one bad play cost him his job?
Back to the play. The Patriots held the Dolphins from scoring on their own half-yard line and had a commanding 14-point lead with just under 6 minutes left in the game. Not scoring there badly hurt the Dolphins, but it did not put them completely out of the game. Brady lined up the Patriots in a spread shotgun formation, doing so only to determine what Miami defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was going to call.
Initially, Brady did not have a play called as he wanted to determine first what the Dolphins plan of attack would be. Had they played a base defensive look, Brady might have thrown a short pass, or run the ball. When they showed a blitz, leaving Sapp isolated on Welker, Brady changed the protection, changed the play and took the free gift.
The only reason the Patriots ran the play was because Brady read the coverage early in the down and knew Sapp could not cover Welker. To make matters worse, Nolan also knew Sapp could not cover Welker. So why did Nolan take the chance? Did he think Brady would see the coverage and ignore the best matchup on the field?
Nolan's decision to match Sapp on Welker and ignore the fact that the matchup was not in the Dolphins' favor was poor game management. Nolan was just trying to get the ball back and took a calculated risk, but in hindsight it cost the Dolphins a chance to get back in the game. Miami still had a chance, albeit a small one, to get back in the game. A quick three and out followed by a score would have put the pressure on the Patriots to keep the ball away. I know it was a remote chance, but the possibility still existed. Once Nolan matched Sapp on Welker and blitzed, he removed any possibility of a comeback.
Nolan took a chance, but in reality he became desperate at a time when he should have managed the situation better. It was a poor call, it was poor game management and it was I am sure a call Nolan would like to have back.
This week's premier matchup will be the Chargers-Patriots game in New England. With two of the best QBs in the game under center, Brady and Philip Rivers, no lead will be safe and the game won't be over until the zeroes are on the clock. Managing the game and being on top of all situations ultimately will determine who wins.
I'll have much more on this game, and the rest of the Week 2 slate, in Friday's column.