Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Meddle Management: Don't Knock Out the Champ!

With the Meddle Management series, I'll analyze what a coach should or could do, while trying to avoid the "hindsight is 20/20" flaw of such columns. You'll see this feature Monday/Tuesday during the week. I decided to give my Posterized series a break for now.

By now, you've read many a story about how Brian Billick's Ravens came so agonizingly close to knocking out New England. I wanted to analyze how an underdog can defeat a strong, championship-level team based on my own experience as an athlete and coach.

To begin, a coach needs to have enough skilled pieces on your team to still be "dangerous." The best type of skilled pieces are veteran players with years of play-off experience, who won't be intimidated by a strong team like the Patriots. The Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens, despite having rather poor W/L records, still have plenty of play-off veterans.

As for gameplan, a coach must use an unconventional strategy to jar the champion team immediately, even if it puts your own team at risk. Philadelphia was not afraid to let AJ Feeley throw the ball. Baltimore came out with a very aggressive defense, that was flagged early and often. Yet that was key, because in a nationally televised game, officials don't like to make a lot of calls. Billick had every reason to believe that by the fourth quarter, referees would let those Baltimore holds in the secondary go; Baltimore was playing at home. The Patriots used those same techniques themselves for years against the Colts.

Finally, a coach must let the players finish the game without excessive interference. Too often, an underdog coach thinks "You have to knock-out the champ!" as if the sport were boxing. Such a coach selects a new, risky strategy or calls many late time-outs. However, this is a mistake. The players are already tired and nervous about hanging on to the lead. Instead, stick with basic strategies for the team. This has the added advantage of being the opposite of the unconvential strategy with which you started the game.

The Ravens coaching staff did well, I thought, to resist dialing up exotic blitzes in the last few minutes. However, the time-out on 4th and 1 was a mistake, and the players themselves started to fall for the Patriot mystique. Too often, a Ravens player held a Patriots WR when the pass was out of reach. Once the Patriots were forced to play from behind, the Ravens should have been able to finish them off. But at the worst possible time, the Ravens started trying to do too much as coaches and players. Similarly, AJ Feeley should have been given a conservative game plan to finish the Patriots game; no passes over 15 yards. I think the Ravens had nothing to be ashamed of, and executing 90% of the blueprints for upsets is impressive. But that last 10%, that ability to coolly finish off a staggering champion without wildly swinging for a knockout, is where the Ravens fell short.


  1. Oh, man. This post has me so lost.

  2. What if teams had inexperienced players who "didn't know any different" instead of experienced players who had been there. could go both ways.

  3. Cobra, I was wondering that too for the first part. My only problem is, nowadays most young teams aren't tightly knit enough to ignore the outside world's coverage and knock off a strong team. It still can happen in college, but in the pros, the Charlotte Bobcats/LA Clippers/etc. teams of the world can't quite do it. Even the Warriors in the play-offs last year had more experience than people realized (Stephen Jackson had a champ. ring, Baron Davis over 30, etc.)

  4. It's tougher to do in the NFL and NBA but I was thinking about how Josh Beckett manhandled the Yankees when he was with the Marlins and how Andruw Jones did it when he first came up for the Braves...more times than not though, your theory holds true. Nice job