"OK, fine, maybe that was a bad decision," they will say. "But it DOESN'T MATTER."
They're right, of course. It doesn't matter. But I can't help it. I can't stop thinking about it. I still remember a blown timeout by former Kansas City head coach Gunther Cunningham more than a decade ago. The Chiefs had one timeout left, and they used it with something like 2:42 left.
You realized right away why this was a spectacularly bad decision, right? The NFL clock is 40 seconds. So, if you do not call the timeout, the opposing team has to run one play before the two-minute warning.
However, if you do call a timeout -- four or five seconds will run off the clock, and the opposing team STILL has to run only one play before the two-minute warning. It was a complete waste of a timeout, it cost the Chiefs 40 or so seconds on the other side of the two-minute warning -- 40 seconds that I recall being very important in the game. Everyone conceded that it was a bad timeout (except Gunther, one of my favorite people in sports, who offered some convoluted reason why it was the right decision -- one that required him to mistake the 40-second clock for a 35-second clock). But most people wanted to move on to the next thing (which was the complain about other things the Chiefs did).
And I simply could not let go. There's a great series of Peanuts comics in which Peppermint Patty believes she's an angel (after a butterfly rests on her nose) and she decides she must spread her message to the world: "If a foul ball is hit behind third base, then it's the shortstop's ball." I sort of get that same feeling about particularly inane sports blunders.
There were two that drove me insane this weekend.
The first was part of an astonishing series of lurches and bumps in the USC-Notre Dame game. It has pushed well past the point of overkill to point out just what a dreadful coach Lane Kiffin is. In his short but diverse career, he became the head coach of the Oakland Raiders (the youngest head coach in the NFL since World War II) went 4-12 his first year, refused to resign, went 1-3 the next year, got fired by the shell of Al Davis who had some really nasty things to say about him. He promptly was hired by Tennessee (youngest head coach in college football) and then hired away a Raiders assistant in the middle of the season, which caused a bit more fury. His deal with Tennessee was for six years, but he left for USC after one -- and right in the middle of the recruiting season, saddling poor Derek Dooley with a wreck of a team. Dooley didn't even make it three years -- he was fired two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Kiffin had his own problems to deal with as he worked to rebuild USC after Pete Carroll ran off to the NFL one step ahead of the Reggie Bush investigation that would result in NCAA sanctions. (Though there are signs that the NCAA didn't exactly handle that investigation well. Ah, the NCAA). Still, coming into this year, improbably, many people thought USC had the most talented team in the country. And USC might have the most talented team in the country. But they haven't played well. Many people blame Lane Kiffin. Then again, many people have been waiting to do this to Lane Kiffin for a long time:
In any case, late in the game between USC and Notre Dame on Saturday night, the Trojans were in position to score trailing by nine points. What followed was an astonishing display of ineptitude -- so much so, that even though I really did not care who won, I found myself screaming at the television.
To review: USC had the ball at the Notre Dame 2 with about 5:30 left. Plenty of time. Score here, stop Notre Dame in relatively short order, USC still had a great chance to win the game.
And then -- it was just painful to watch. First, a false start. Then, for some reason, a run -- incredibly, USC was huddling up between plays too, like there was all the time in the world. Then USC's freshman quarterback Max Wittek lofted a pass to receiver Marqise Lee, whom announcers Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit both referred to as "perhaps the best player in the country." Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell all but wrestled Lee to the ground with the ball in the air, drawing the end zone pass interference penalty, which in college places the ball at the 2 yard line.*
*Why the 2? Why not the 1 like the NFL? Doesn't this seem like college football is just being different from the NFL only to be different? The 2-yard line thing makes no sense at all. You want to DISCOURAGE a player from committing pass interference in the end zone. Personal opinion: This is a dumb little rule that should be changed immediately.
Next play, Wittek again threw the ball to Lee, and again Russell felt he had no choice but to interfere. This time, it put the ball at the 1. The next three plays were, well, you hope they show them at Lane Kiffin's firing press conference, whenever that happens to be. You saw what happened when Wittek threw the ball to Lee, right? Notre Dame essentially acknowledged: They could not cover him. So what did USC do? They had Wittek -- a freshman making his first start -- try to sneak in twice. When that bit of genius failed, on third down they threw a lob to Lee, who made a dazzling catch and … no, that didn't happen. They handed the ball to Curtis McNeal, who was stopped short of the end zone. And, of course, they huddled up before each snap, letting minutes just POUR off the clock. It was like watching a coach have a nervous breakdown right in front of us on national TV.
But none of those was the blunder I'm talking about.
No, as you know, the blunder I'm talking about is simply this: Fourth down from the Notre Dame 1, down nine, less than three minutes left, there is absolutely no doubt what you do. You kick the field goal. I realize it's a downer after wasting three downs and two minutes trying to get in (without throwing even once to "perhaps the best player in college football"). I realize that it's a huge letdown for your team and fans and everyone. But, well, sorry … you are the coach, you have to be bigger than those emotions. You need two scores to win -- a touchdown and a field goal. That's the only chance you have to win the game. Scoring the touchdown first increases your chances, sure, but not scoring at all ends all chances. It's a non-negotiable play. You need two scores. You have to get one. You kick the field goal.
USC went for the touchdown. It was inconceivable -- even if that word doesn't mean what I think it does. The fact that the Trojans failed -- this time on a pass play (not to Lee) that just wasn't quite executed right -- heightens the dreadfulness of the decision. But even if they had scored, it was still the wrong play. The goal is to win the game, not to prove a point. It seems that shortly after this astonishing bit of coaching bungling, Lane Kiffin's Wikipedia page was hacked to say:
"Lane Monte Kiffin (born May 9, 1975) was fired as the head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans college football team on 11/25/2012 after going for a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal against Notre Dame."
We severely frown upon such cyber graffiti … but you can't argue with the reasoning.
The other weekend sports blunder was much less involved. The Chiefs played Denver on Sunday and, improbably, were in the game throughout. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning seemed uninterested for much of the day, the Chiefs defense played well and so on. Even in this rather inspired effort, though, the Chiefs made numerous irritating missteps that reminded you one of the reasons why this has been such a dreadful season in Kansas City. Someone would false start on a key play. Someone would hold 10 yards away from the point of attack. A dropped pass. A missed tackle. And so on.
And the thing was that every time one of these mini-fiascos happened, the camera would focus in on Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel. On Twitter, I suggested that the busiest guy in America had to be that cameraman who has to find Crennel in every one of those "Ugh, the Chiefs screwed up again" moments. From everything I know, Romeo Crennel is a class act, a stand-up guy and a fine defensive coordinator. His head coaching record, however, is 27-51. Nobody seems quite sure how he got the Chiefs job in the first place.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Kansas City trailed by five points and got the ball at midfield. Here's what followed:
1st and 10: Brady Quinn pass incomplete. Yes, Brady Quinn is the Chiefs quarterback.
2nd and 10: Jamaal Charles 9-yard run (fumbled at the end but recovered by KC).
3rd and 1: Guard Jon Asamoah jumps early for a false start.
(Chiefs fans tear hair out.)
3rd and 6: Brady Quinn's deep pass to Dwayne Bowe falls incomplete. Chiefs complain about pass interference that isn't called. Meanwhile, Chiefs are also called for holding, which is declined.
OK, so it's bad enough that any Chiefs fan has to endure all that. But now, fourth down and 6, Denver 46-yard line, about six and a half minutes left in the game … what to do? It seems to me that you go for it. You're the Chiefs. You stink. The season is lost. You never expected to be this close in the game anyway. You have no reason to believe that you will get the ball anywhere close to midfield again. Why not go?
Of course, there's a counter-argument to be made. The Chiefs' fine punter, Dustin Colquitt, had just moments earlier pinned the Broncos at the 2 with a fabulous punt. Maybe you think the Chiefs best hope is to put it in the hands of their punter and defense. Maybe they force a turnover. Maybe they force a quick return punt and gain yards in the exchange. It's one of those arguments where I can easily see both sides. I'd go for it, but I can understand the reasoning behind a punt.
But here's what I will never understand, never, not in a million years: The Chiefs called timeout.
Um … huh? The announcers did not make a big deal about it except to express curiosity ("Does this mean the Chiefs are going for it?" Greg Gumbel asked. The answer was: No. The Chiefs punted.) But this is, to me, something so impossibly dopey that I think as a coach you would be better off holding up a giant "I don't know what I'm doing" sign. A timeout there? Why? What possible good does a timeout do for you there? You are down by less than a touchdown. The clock is running down. Your most precious possession are the two timeouts you still have (the Chiefs had already blundered away one timeout earlier in the half). The Chiefs spent one of those all-important timeouts to -- what -- discuss what to do?
But here's what takes that timeout from the ridiculous to the legendarily ridiculous … the Chiefs were punting from the Broncos 46-yard line. What does that mean? It means a DELAY OF GAME PENALTY DOES NOT HURT YOU THERE. The clock was stopped by the incomplete pass. The punter wouldn't mind kicking from five yards further back -- he might even prefer it. You have no reason to call timeout, none. If you need a little extra time to discuss what to do, take the whole clock, who cares? But the Chiefs called the timeout anyway.
It seems to me that after blowing the timeout, the Chiefs (at the very least) should have have felt compelled to go for the first down. At least make it seem like there was a reason for it. But no, they punted, the Broncos promptly drove 68 yards, ran all but 14 seconds off the clock, and Dan Dierdorf (who I normally like as an announcer) prattled on about how that was a "championship drive." Yeah, championship drive if you happen to be playing a 1-10 team that apparently is just making up stuff as it goes along.