Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Style Points

Coaches change their styles all the time. Bill Belichick's early New England Patriot teams relied more on a strong defensive unit than they did on Tom Brady and the offense. But as the league rules changed to make life easier for quarterbacks and for offenses in general, Belichick's M.O. became outscoring his opponent, underscored by this particular season, when despite having one of the NFL's worst defenses, so thin that they've been throwing wide receiver Julian Edelman out there as a defensive back, they still managed to secure the AFC's top seed in the playoffs. Coach K at Duke has changed his style too. His first three championship teams revolved around excellent point guard play (Bobby Hurley & Jason Williams/Chris Duhon), multi-faceted wing players (Grant Hill & Shane Battier), and scoring big men (Christian Laettner & Carlos Boozer), complemented by shooters and various role players. His 2010 championship team, on the other hand, lacked a true point guard (both Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer were scorers) as well as a scoring big man, but K remade the team on the fly to take advantage of Brian Zoubek's excellent offensive rebounding skills and the long-range shooting of Scheyer, Smith, and Kyle Singler.

But while both of these particular coaches may have changed their styles, they did not fundamentally change who they are as coaches. Belichick has, throughout his tenure with the Patriots, been a calculating strategist who prepares his team exceptionally well and exploits every small advantage or mismatch that he can identify. Similarly, your typical Duke team during the Coach K era will play in-your-face defense and utilize a motion offense that emphasizes its three-point shooters and ability to get to the free throw line. Across the arcs of their careers, most successful coaches stay true to who they are, and it generates a remarkable form of consistency that shows through no matter who the players are out on the court or field.

Which brings us to last night's BCS Championship contest in New Orleans. What on earth happened to Les Miles? Did someone roofie him? Miles isn't called "The Mad Hatter" for no reason. It's not just because he eats grass and gives puzzling sideline interviews; he has built his very successful career in part on being a balls-to-the-wall risk-taker in tight games. He's had his holder throw a no-look bounce bass to his kicker on a fake field goal, or called a pass play into double coverage in the end zone down one with seconds left despite being in field goal range with a timeout remaining. There are dozens of times in his career, especially at LSU, where Miles has gone against "conventional wisdom" and made very bold calls, and it's helped give his teams a sort of swagger. But none of that was in evidence last night.

Why did a man who plays to win suddenly play not to lose? From start to finish, the Tigers were timid and conservative on offense, both in their play-calling and in their play. As my friend Wade, an actual football writer, pointed out, not once did they so much as target Reuben Randle, their best wide receiver. I think I counted four pass plays where the call was for a deep ball, and one of those turned into Jordan Jefferson's panicked interception when he and Spencer Ware were not on the same page about whether Jefferson was going to scramble or opt for the shovel pass. Not once on an option play did Jefferson, an excellent athlete and good option quarterback, take a defender out of the play by forcing him to make a choice between the quarterback or the pitch man (and, I believe, on every option play, said defender wound up making the tackle, often for a loss). Even when it became clear that something different was needed against an outstanding 'Bama defense, Miles neither changed the play-calling nor the clearly overmatched and rattled quarterback. True, Jarrett Lee has never exactly been thought of as a potential Heisman candidate, and his career numbers against Alabama were ugly (1 touchdown and 7 interceptions), but Jefferson was unable to engineer the Tigers past midfield until the middle of the fourth quarter. There were no fakes, no tricks, and no bold moves.

None of this is to take away from a tremendous performance by the Crimson Tide (it should be noted, also, that the LSU defense did a pretty good job, considering the myriad short fields and 'Bama's dominance of possession time), but it serves as a case in point to highlight a particular (and important) facet of coaching; you should never let yourself get away from who you are, especially not in such a big game. Trust your natural instincts and personal style, because it equates to consistency, which is paramount for leading young men and women in athletics. Les Miles failed to do that in preparing for this game (or maybe just at the game itself), and it cost his team a crystal football and marred an otherwise phenomenal season by the Tigers.