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Commentary: NFL Coaches Should Be Taking More Risks


The Green Bay Packers fired their head coach of 13 seasons, Mike McCarthy, on Sunday. This season has been a bad one for a lot of reasons for the Packers, but there was one play that might have damned McCarthy more than any other. In a tight game with the Seattle Seahawks, McCarthy decided to punt on a fourth down rather than try to gain 2 yards. It's one play, but commentator Mike Pesca says it is a microcosm of a problem with the NFL. Avoiding risk is still the default for coaches - although that soon may change.

MIKE PESCA: The other day, Mike Schur, the creator of the TV show "The Good Place" was on the podcast he co-hosts with the sports writer Joe Posnanski talking about the NFL. This was kind of unusual because Mike Schur has given up on the NFL. Perhaps not entirely uncorrelated is the fact that his day job is overseeing a TV show about moral philosophy, where people accumulate points for the afterlife by being good on earth. But on this day, Schur wasn't moralizing. He was bemoaning the boneheaded decisions coaches and quarterbacks were making at the end of games that didn't take into account the time left, thus allowing opponents extra chances to score.

Schur is not the only one to make these points. Writers like Bill Barnwell and Brian Burke and the former executive Mike Lombardi frequently emphasize the epidemic of horrible end-game strategy. But the reason Schur's comments stuck out is his background. In addition to being a TV writer and playing Dwight's cousin Mose Schrute on "The Office," Schur was one of the creators of the nerdy-snarky website firejoemorgan.com. And Fire Joe Morgan was at the vanguard of using logic, humor and shaming to drag baseball out of its entrenched and suboptimal past and into a world where managers now know not to do clearly stupid things like bunt too often or think of walks as bummers.

But football has no equivalent of Fire Joe Morgan. Baseball and basketball have undergone statistics- or analytics-based transformations. And the change came from outside pressure of journalists, enthusiasts and academics. Then, early adopters within the game achieved great success, and it was impossible to ignore how the Red Sox or Golden State Warriors outsmarted the game. Football will get there, but it'll be a slog. I blame a more hidebound culture, including older owners. What we'll see in five years, I'd predict, is teams not just wanting to score touchdowns but paying special attention to the timing of their scores, using the clock as another weapon against the opponent.

I also predict we'll see many more teams allowing opponents to score touchdowns in tie games so they could get the ball back. It's a better option than allowing the opponent to kick a very easy field goal with two seconds left. It seems anathema to allow an opponent to score, but watch the NBA. In close games, the trailing team will frequently allow uncontested field goals in order to attempt 3-pointers at the other end.

And punting - uh, punting - punting is football's bunting. Eventually, all football will be played optimally - or more optimally, which means no team will have an advantage. But in the meantime, there is a chance for daring thinkers to gain an edge and maybe score more points, which won't translate into the next life but will win a few games in this one.

MARTIN: Commentator Mike Pesca - he's the host of the Slate podcast "The Gist." And he is also the editor of "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs In Sports History." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.