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A playoff lesson for Cowboys Nation: Coaches everywhere are bad

A bevy of bad coaching in the divisional round illustrates how things go awry at times for almost everyone.

Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers
What do these two have in common? Calls for their dismissal, for one.
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

As the Dallas Cowboys continue with a fairly major remodeling of their assistant coaching ranks, there is still a lot of discontent among their fans and some in the media about the fact that head coach Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli are all expected to come back to lead the team into the 2018 season. The argument goes that the failures of 2017 should be laid at their feet, and they should pay the price. Of course, the calls for Garrett’s dismissal have been going on for years. The lack of playoff wins and inability to put two quality seasons back-to-back are cited as evidence that he is a bad head coach.

The disgruntlement is especially noticeable while Dallas is sitting out the playoffs. Last week, they had to see what should be the eight best teams in the NFL fight for the chance to advance.

And how was the coaching in those four divisional round? These were the top 25% of the league, after all, and you’d expect these to be among the best coached squads.

Guess what. In two of the four games the coaching for the losing side just flat out sucked. And in a third, the head coach basically made a fool of himself seconds before seeing his team eliminated.

We are of course not even addressing the blowout win by the New England Patriots over the Tennessee Titans - which led directly to the firing of Mike Mularkey by the latter. It’s almost unfair to dump a head coach after he is beaten by the most respected and revered football mind in the league. That’s not to say that Bill Belichick never makes mistakes. He just makes so few of them, and is by any imaginable standard the best in the NFL. It’s not even close.

The problem for the Cowboys (and for 30 other franchises) is that their fans/critics/media keep asking “why can’t the team find a Belichick?” Well, maybe that is because there isn’t one out there. As you are probably aware, Belichick’s current offensive coordinator is widely expected to become the next head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Josh McDaniels is seen as the next best thing to Belichick.

Which is exactly what the Denver Broncos thought when they hired him away from New England in 2009. What followed was a bungled and controversy-filled two year stint. McDaniels only managed an 11-17 record before being fired for arranging to have the upcoming opponent’s practices secretly videotaped - which does sound an awful lot like Belichick, just without the success on the field. But Belichick got fired from the Cleveland Browns, too. So maybe McDaniels is poised to become the next ubercoach - but be careful about betting too much on it.

Meanwhile, as the Patriots juggernaut continued to roll on, the other games were all marred by some really questionable decision making on the sidelines. Let’s start with the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles. The defending NFC champion Falcons came in as the favorite to beat the Nick Foles-led home team. They had Matt Ryan, the ninth-best defense in the regular season, and a running game that was clicking during the playoffs. It did indeed look like a favorable matchup in the cold of Philly.

But things did not work out so well, as the Falcons offense continually sputtered. Still, the Eagles were unable to pull away late, only opening up a five point margin with just over six minutes to go. And after receiving the kickoff, it finally looked like Matty Ice and company were going to come back to take the game. They marched down the field, escaped a fourth and six with a 20-yard completion to Julio Jones, and with 1:19 left they had a first and goal on the Eagles’ nine yard line.

They proceeded to throw the ball four times, only completing one pass for seven yards. Sound familiar?

The game effectively ended on a rollout by Ryan that many thought was poorly conceived.

That was just the opening act in coaching futility for the weekend. From a botched onsides kick to multiple head-scratching offensive plays, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mike Tomlin pretty much coached themselves right out of the AFC championship game.

Mike Tomlin called one of the worst playoff games in recent history (apologies to Andy Reid). Nevertheless, he said after the game that he “stands by the calls we made.” He probably shouldn’t.

It was so bad at times . . .

It’s almost as if Linehan has become the new standard for bad play-calling in the NFL.

And that is not the only Dallas comparison that can be made about the Steelers. There are now reportedly influential voices calling for Tomlin to be fired - despite him having a Super Bowl win, a .659 win percentage and an 8-7 playoff record.

The old saying about “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind here.

The parade of coaching faux pas was not over, either. In what may be the wildest, most exciting end to an NFL playoff game ever, the Minnesota Vikings stunned the New Orleans Saints with a touchdown to win the game as time expired. In case you just emerged from a fallout shelter in Hawaii after not seeing the game, here is a quick recap of the situation before what is now being called the “Minnesota Miracle”.

It’s third-and-10 at the Minnesota 39-yard line with 10 seconds on the clock and the Vikings down 24-23.

All the Vikings really needed to do was to get the ball down the field far enough for a reasonable field-goal attempt, say inside the Saints’ 35-yard line, for a long one. That meant get it to a receiver, get out of bounds to stop the clock, and send out Kai Forbath and the kicking team.

Minnesota has a sad history with game-winning field-goal attempts. But it was the smart play, the play that the Vikings were attempting when they called the “seven heaven” play, something they’ve practiced many times before.

One receiver on the outside runs seven route, down the field and near the boundary. The “heaven” part comes from the idea that if the receiver on the seven route catches it, good things will happen.

Stefon Diggs was the angel designated for heavenly things on that play. He’s lined up in trips on the right side of the Vikings offensive formation with tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Jarius Wright.

Rudolph runs a short route down the sideline, and Wright runs a little deeper, but not as far down the field as Diggs. It’s their job to look for the throw, catch it, and get out of bounds, which is the safe thing to do on that play.

Of course, that is not what happened. Case Keenum heaved it to Diggs, and rookie Marcus Williams had one of the worst and most viewed whiffs ever trying to tackle him. Diggs almost fell down before he realized he was not hit and had a clear path to the end zone and victory.

It was incredibly stunning. It certainly was a huge surprise to Saints’ head coach Sean Payton.

While it was not as egregious as in the case of the Falcons and Steelers, there were also certainly some issues with the Saints’ offensive play-calling.

There aren’t any calls for Payton to be fired at the moment. But there were during the season when it was uncertain if they would even make the playoffs.

Here is the truth that so many fail to acknowledge about pro football: Sometimes, it comes down to one player making a big play, or another blowing an assignment. In the thrilling end of the Vikings win, we had a lot of both, with Keenum and Diggs hooking up and Williams now immortalized as a symbol of football futility. The Saints clearly had the better quarterback in Drew Brees, but a multitude of things, most certainly including the determination of the Vikings, kept him from getting another chance at a ring.

Coaching makes a difference, of course. But there are no infallible geniuses (as stated, even Belichick makes an error or two at times). A coach can have skins on the wall and still look like a fool. Remember, Payton and Tomlin both have championships, and Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn was an incredible Patriots comeback (aided by his own huge mistakes) from winning one himself a year ago.

Making calls from the sidelines of an NFL game is incredibly difficult. It has to be, given the evidence week in and week out. Cowboys fans are of course focused on their coaches, but others are not. (Well, maybe Linehan is a bit of an exception.) This is not to say there is no reason to criticize what the coaching staff does. You should just not automatically think that the Dallas staff is the worst out there.

Changes are coming, after all. We just need to hope they lead to improvement.

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