On ESPN, Bill Barnwell reviews the decisions of NFL coaches after the weekend. This week, at the beginning of his column, Barnwell opens the discussion of the end of the Green Bay Packers’ game by writing, “You have to evaluate the decision based upon the process that went into the call without evaluating it based upon its one outcome.”
If you read the comments after the article, almost all of the comments center on this idea. The analytical or statistical-minded people agree with this idea of evaluating a decision based on the process, or the statistical probability of success, whereas others believe only in the result. Later in his article, Barnwell appears to admonish the media, and conservative coaches, because they judge decisions solely on the result, which he seems to suggest, leads to emotional thinking and mistakes.
Which side is correct? Should we evaluate coaches solely on the process that leads to the decision or is the result the only thing that matters? Yes. In professional sports, ultimately the result is the only thing that matters. However, to reach the desired result, we should evaluate a coach based on the process.
As Barnwell points out, anything can happen on one individual play. In the Packers game, Jonathan Franklin fumbling and the Bengals returning the fumble for the game-winning touchdown was not a likely outcome. If the Packers have that exact situation in every game for the next three seasons, it would be unlikely to happen again. But, that’s the thing about sports: it did happen. And since it happened, does that make the coach’s decision incorrect?
In discussing the Eagles failed two-point attempt to start the Thursday night game, Barnwell wrote:
“[Chip] Kelly put his team in a situation in which it could gain a competitive advantage, and his players rightly recognized that they had the opportunity to exploit it. That’s exactly what you want your coach and his decisions to do.”
Doesn’t that correctly explain coaching, especially at the professional level? At the developmental level, there are more variables. Winning every game is not as important as teaching players certain lessons or developing players skills, so gaining a competitive edge may not be the appropriate decision for a coach in every situation. For instance, my team last season probably would have won more games if I had picked an 8-man rotation and only played those 8 players, but I decided that developing and playing all 14 players was more important than an extra couple of wins. Now, that may or may not have been the right decision in terms of process or results. The point is that at a developmental level, there are more variables, objectives, and goals for coaches, whereas the goals for professional coaches are pretty clear: win and put fans in the seats (of course, this brings up the debate over what is a developmental level vs. professional level, since college coaches, and increasingly high-school coaches are fired for not winning enough games, which suggests professional expectations).
At the professional level, isn’t providing a competitive advantage the goal? Ultimately, a coach cannot complete the pass or make the shot. As I have written previously, in the 2010 NCAA Championship Game, if Gordon Hayward’s heave had gone in the basket, would it make Brad Stevens a better coach or tarnish Coach K’s resume? It would be absurd to view Stevens differently as a coach based on a half-court heave at the buzzer going in or missing. However, that is often how coaches are evaluated.
There are two parts to Barnwell’s comment that I like. (1) Kelly put the team in position to have a competitive advantage. Again, that is coaching at the professional level. (2) His players recognized the advantage and tried to exploit it. This shows that Kelly (a) has taught his players to think the game, (b) empowers his players to make decisions, and (c) trusts his players. Regardless of the outcome, this reflects positively on the coach. Over the course of a season or a contract, as the sample size grows, I would expect the empowerment and trust in his players will have positive benefits far more pronounced than the loss of two points in one game.
That is probably the most persuasive reason for evaluating a coach based on the process, and not the results. On any given play, a player can miss a block or fumble the ball. However, the coach’s trust and belief in his players goes beyond a single play and can have ramifications for a season or even a career. Outcomes are easy to see and easy to discuss, and for that reason, the media, athletic directors, general managers, and fans tend to stick to the results in coach evaluations. At the end of the day, however, the coach cannot make the plays. He only can put the players in a position to have a competitive advantage and trust the players to do their best.