Mark Richt made an indefensible decision in the overtime period against Michigan State. How much weight should we give to that mistake in evaluating Richt?
Most of us say things during the heat of a moment of a close, emotional football game that we will later regret. Through the magic of Twitter, those intemperate statements now stay with us forever like luggage. (HT: Eddie Murphy.) For instance, last Monday night, I got so annoyed with the Saints running the score up on the Falcons that I started suggesting via Twitter that injuring Drew Brees would be an appropriate response. On the following morning, I re-read my increasingly angry tweets and thought to myself "good lord, I sound like a sports talk radio caller with slightly better grammar."
I feel no such compunction this morning after referring to Georgia's decisions in the first overtime against Michigan State as "the dumbest playcalling of all-time," an episode of "epic stupidity," and Georgia "voluntarily castrating themselves." Mark Richt's course of action was just that bad. College football implemented its new overtime rules in 1996 and over that 15-year time period, I cannot recall any team getting the ball in the bottom half of an inning and settling for a field goal without making any attempt to get the ball any closer than 25 yards out. And the funny thing is that there have been plenty of college coaches who did not have kickers who finished dead-last in their conferences in field goal percentage and those coaches have all said to themselves "you know what, a 42-yard field goal is not a gimme for a college coach; maybe I should try to get 15 yards or so so that the odds of making this field goal go up significantly."
Richt's decision just reeked of timidity. He was so scared of a turnover that he chose to put Blair Walsh in a difficult position. Coaches do this all the time, knowing on a conscious or subconscious level* that if a kicker misses, the fans and media will usually blame the kicker instead of the coach. In this instance, Richt should and probably will get the vast majority of the criticism. Walsh missed 12 kicks this year on 31 attempts. Georgia lost 22 turnovers in 945 plays. In essence, Richt was so concerned about the 2.3 percent chance of a turnover on a given play that he chose the 38.7 percent chance of Walsh missing a field goal. I may have been a liberal arts major in college who dropped Statistics 402 within a week, but even I can figure out that Richt's decision was obviously bone-headed by a wide margin.**
* - Richt is undeniably a good guy, so I'm going with subconscious here.
** - Richt's timid decision was trumped later in the day by Stanford's David Shaw, who laid up for a 35-yard field goal when he has Andrew F***ing Luck as his quarterback. Stanford would have been better off if they would have been down by four instead of tied. I had a sense when Stanford's last drive started that if I were an Oklahoma State fan, the one way out of jail would be a missed kick. That's exactly how the game played out.
Moreover, Richt's boner came on the heels of similarly scared play-calling at the end of regulation. Georgia got the ball on its own 30 yard line with 3:56 to go after John Jenkins of all people picked off a Kirk Cousins pass. Thanks to a classic case of "Sparty no!," Georgia got a first down through a Jerel Worthy offside penalty and a Johnny Adams pass interference call. The Dawgs sent Richard Samuel plunging into the line three times, concerned only with running as much time as possible on those three plays and depriving Michigan State of its last remaining timeout. It apparently never occurred to Richt that getting a first down would end the game and that ending the game was a better result than exhausting a minute and a timeout. Given Georgia's struggles running the ball (the Dawgs finished the game averaging 1.3 yards per carry on 39 attempts, as opposed to 9.0 yards per passing attempt) and the fact that Georgia's defense had struggled to generate pressure on Cousins in the second half, the decision to run three times and punt was especially galling. Sure enough, Michigan State arrived in Georgia's red zone in five plays, such that the clock did not play a role at the end of the game.
Richt's shockingly conservative disposition during the end-game of the Outback Bowl was and remains indefensible, but the passage of time reminds me of one truism: we all overrate the importance of late game decisions when evaluating a coach. When it comes to determining whether a program wins or loses, late game strategery is the easiest factor for fans to judge. We can put percentages on various courses of action, such as the odds of a turnover versus missing a 42-yard field goal. Additionally, because late game play-calling is the last impression that we have of a team for a week (or, in this case, for eight months), it sticks out in the memory and the recency effect takes over. However, this factor isn't nearly as important as the other things that a head coach does.
Recruiting is much more important and Richt has done a very good job in that department such that we can have the sense that Georgia had too much talent to go down the way it did yesterday. Managing a staff is more important and Georgia fans are pretty much united in their affection for Todd Grantham (and well they should be in light of the defense's performance this year). As the demises of Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno have shown this year, the CEO functions performed by a head coach are also critical. Dawg fans should have no concerns about Richt making the right decision if he were confronted with a potentially incriminating e-mail or a (alleged) pedophile assistant coach. Making timid decisions at the end of a close game is annoying, but in the grand scheme of things, it is only a small portion of the pie chart when evaluating a head coach.*
* - Take it from a Michigan fan. We all complained about Lloyd Carr making conservative decisions at the end of games that overvalued kickers, the clock and timeouts while undervaluing the possibility of winning a game with his consistently good quarterbacks. We didn't appreciate the fact that Carr was putting good teams on the field that were in position to blow close games in the first place. Three years of Rich Rodriguez were enough to bring Carr's positive attributes into full focus. For instance, the Big Ten Network had a timely showing of the 2000 Orange Bowl yesterday afternoon. In that game, Carr laid up for a field goal at the end of regulation. He could have put the game in the hands of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, throwing to future top ten pick David Terrell and protected by four future NFL starters on the offensive line. Instead, he put the game in the hands of the immortal Hayden Epstein and was only bailed out by Alabama kicker Ryan Pflugner one-upping Epstein by missing an extra point. Carr deserves lots of credit for assembling a great team and a smaller amount of criticism for relying on the wrong aspects of that team. College coaches should not rely on their kickers unless all other resources have been exhausted.
If you want a more substantive criticism of Richt, it is this: eleven years at the helm in Athens has shown that he is dependent on Florida having a bad coach in order to be successful. When Richt came to Athens, Steve Spurrier was putting one of his best Gator teams on the field in 2001, a team that should have played Miami for the national title in Pasadena if not for a pair of injuries to Ernest Graham. Spurrier then flew the coop for Dan Snyder's filthy lucre. He was replaced by Ron Zook and Richt enjoyed his heyday: three division and two conference titles. Urban Meyer then came onto the scene*, and Richt did not take another trip to the SEC Championship Game until Meyer had fled the stage. Now, the elite programs in the conference are in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, a point that was drilled home in the second half of the title game against LSU. Is Richt going to require regression from one or both of those programs in order to win a third conference title? Quite possibly? More generally, can we accept that Richt is a good, but not great coach? I certainly can, but it will be easier if days like yesterday become more frequent.
* - It does bear mentioning that Richt's second title came in Meyer's first year in Gainesville when Urban was going through the growing pains of De-Zookification.