Big picture vs small picture…
After the disappointing loss last Sunday night, I got to thinking about the past few years since the Chiefs became one of the top teams in the league. There seems to be a larger strategy going on than just winning the next game. This may be giving Andy Reid more credit than he deserves, but if I said that about Bill Belichik, you’d say that he’s playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers and readily accept it.
Let’s face it – most coaches in the NFL are playing for their job. That means posting wins. For a vast majority of them, They have to win week to week just to keep their job, and no game is more important than the next one. They all say that, but for some of them it’s the literal truth. This isn’t true for some of the coaches at the very top – Andy Reid and Bill Belichik come to mind. They have established enough history that they really aren’t judged on the day-to-day grind and team records, but on how they do in the playoffs. As long as they get their teams to the playoffs, talking heads will say that this is a team you don’t want to face. There’s a very good reason for that.
Because of this comfort, I think that these higher level coaches are afforded the luxury of having a different viewpoint. Instead of coaching to maximize their ability to win each and every week, They are coaching to maximize their chances of penetrating deep into the playoffs. They are afforded the luxury of being able to look at the big picture.
An example of someone that didn’t think in this mindset could be Marty Shottenheimer. He was a very good coach and had a lot of regular season success, but never had much luck in the playoffs. I think the reason for this was that he put all his considerable knowledge into beating an opponent each and every week, which he usually did. Unfortunately, this left nothing “new” left to do the second time around, when he’d face many of the regular season opponents for a second time. They knew what he was going to do, and he was unable to provide a strategic advantage for his team. They already made their half-time adjustments before the game started.
A huge part of the NFL game is making adjustments, and in many NFL games, it’s obvious the adjustments that coaches make during halftime. The same type of adjustments are made between games as more film becomes available. NFL coaches become such because they are good at this stuff. Because of this, I think that the top NFL coaches hold a lot of things back until the playoffs. The reason is pretty simple – the playoff games are much more important.
If you think about the first two games we played this season, both teams are potential playoff opponents. It wouldn’t make sense to use your best stuff against them in relatively minor regular season games. A game against the Ravens is about the same amount of importance as a game against the jets, play off seeding aside. If I was coaching, I’d figure out my best game plan to use on these teams and then put it in my pocket. I’d then come up with a regular season plan that still gave me a good chance to win, but didn’t reveal how I planned to shut them down or blow them out later in the year. This regular season plan would also be used to gain knowledge about the opponent to see what they would do in certain situations, so that could be used against them as a further refinement of the playoff game plan.
I would also set up my game plan to put my players in position that they could learn more during the regular season. This means putting them in a position that doesn’t apparently give them the best chance to succeed, but will teach them how to expand their game. By no means would I be giving the game away – I’d make sure they had enough ammo to have a good chance at winning the game, but they’d have to compete in order to do it. If they executed poorly, they may fail, but it would be used for later lessons.
If you look at the schedule before the season begins you would see that many of the teams wouldn’t be a playoff threat, so you can give them a bit more in the game plan to allow your team to win, as long as you don’t give anything away that the upper echelon teams could use later in the playoffs. Division games are a bit of an exception, as you want to beat them to insure you make the playoffs, and you play each other so much that you have a pretty good idea what each other are going to do.
Since Andy has become the coach and made the Chiefs competitive, I notice a lot of this appears to be going on. I suspect that Sunday night’s game was no exception. He definitely had the team prepared to beat the Ravens, but they failed to perform the tasks that were required. Thus, they lost. It’s likely he could have done more to allow them to win, but to do so would make it harder to beat them if they came up as a playoff opponent at the end of the year.
The main goal of any season is to win the championship. Everything else is just bonus. Believe it or not, sometimes not putting your best effort forth in the regular season actually helps you to reach your goal.