Football coaches — even the more innovative ones — can become cautious and conservative in very important moments. Consider Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma not going for a first down when trailing Alabama by multiple scores in the Orange Bowl, or not going for it on fourth and short against Georgia in overtime of the Rose Bowl the season before. Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams played it safe against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game. He was fortunate that the refs couldn’t make one of the easiest defensive pass interference calls in NFL playoff history.
Yes, even the most innovative and daring and fresh-thinking coaches have a cautious part of themselves which surfaces in tense moments. Even for the new-age coaches in the crowd, a piece of coaching DNA always seems to hold them back eventually.
That voice of caution — while disappointing to see in the present moment — exists for a legitimate and valid reason: Many sports competitions — not just in football — are lost not because of the gains or advancements a team fails to make, but because of the abundance of failures and mistakes a team is unable to avoid. Teams often don’t have to be spectacularly productive. They don’t have to make the highlight-reel play or post eye-popping numbers. They just have to make the routine plays and not commit untimely blunders.
The Atlanta Falcons didn’t need a touchdown late in Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots two years ago. Leading 28-20 late in the fourth quarter, they didn’t even need a first down. They just needed three points when they drove inside the Patriots’ 25-yard line.
No touchdown, no first down — merely getting into fourth down and kicking a medium-length field goal (with Matt Bryant being as reliable as any kicker in the NFL) would have done the job.
The Falcons gave up big negative plays because of Kyle Shanahan’s refusal to run the ball. The rest, as they say, is history. The point is clear, however: The Falcons lost that game by making tons of mistakes. Had they merely gotten out of their own way and avoided those colossal gaffes, they would have been fine. This is why even the most innovative coaches get very conservative. The voice in the head reminds them that the avoidance of mistakes can feel like a benefit.
Standing still, in the same place, feels like progress and advancement because one managed to avoid falling in the mud or slipping on a banana peel. Merely avoiding disaster feels like a triumph. Coaches know this, and this is why the cautious voice emerges, even in moments when it shouldn’t be listened to.
The complicated part of all this: This principle — succeeding more by avoiding mistakes than by setting extremely high standards — is worth promoting and applying. It is a core truth of sports. It is valuable. It needs to be listened to. It just can’t dominate every situation. It is more about the long journey of a season and the identity forged in 12 games than in specific time-and-score situations when boldness is often required.
Navy and Ken Niumatalolo are very aware of the need to be aggressive and daring on fourth downs. This football program knows it can’t be overly cautious in high-leverage moments.
Yet, while the immediate reality of a down-and-distance situation normally requires guts and fearlessness, it remains that on a larger level, much of Navy’s success over a larger period of time has been built on not making the key mistake opponents usually make. Merely being solid and competent — not dazzling, not imposing, not overwhelming — often gets the job done. You don’t have to get an A on a final exam to win if the opponent plays at a C level. Merely a B would be fine.
In 2018, Navy couldn’t get that B, in one very specific way.
The Midshipmen’s first- and third-quarter defense played really well in 2018. The Mids were given a good plan and good halftime adjustments last season. They allowed just 79 first-quarter points and 86 third-quarter points, basically one touchdown per quarter in every game. Extended over four quarters, one touchdown per quarter translates to 28 points allowed. Navy should do extremely well when its defense plays at a 28-points-per-game clip.
All Navy needed to do was be moderately decent on offense in those same quarters.
The actual results: Navy scored 84 third-quarter points all season… and just 41 points in first quarters.
That’s right: Navy’s defense was outstanding in first and third quarters last season, yet the offense couldn’t score more points than the defense allowed. In the case of first-quarter scoring, Navy was nearly doubled DESPITE the defense’s strong work. Navy’s offense averaged barely more than a field goal per first quarter, across the full regular season.
That is a waste of quality defense. Opposing offenses were usually contained by Navy’s defense — not Hawaii or Houston, no, but most opponents were.
Yet, the season never developed into anything encouraging. Special wins eluded the Midshipmen’s grasp. Merely being moderately good — achieving at a normal standard, not an exceptional one — was something the 2018 offense could not attain.
Yes, Navy was a top-10 team in fourth-down conversions and time of possession, but not when it mattered — not often enough, at least.
This coming 2019 season, Navy has to trust that its defense can establish a standard similar to the 2018 group… and that this time, the offense will get out of the way, avoid mass quantities of mistakes, and perform at a B or B-plus level.
It doesn’t sound sexy or thrilling, but making that modest advancement could profoundly improve Navy’s results this coming autumn.
Lincoln Riley and Sean McVay would nod in approval.