Dougherty: Analytics will help guide Packers' Matt LaFleur on in-game decisions
In this year’s AFC Championship game, Andy Reid made a game-management blunder that didn’t get a lot of notice but helped cost his Kansas City Chiefs a trip to the Super Bowl.
Near the end of the first half and trailing 7-0, the Chiefs had pinned New England at its 10 with 3:08 left in the second quarter. The Patriots appeared more interested in burning clock than putting points on the board.
Two runs got them a first down and the clock down to the two-minute warning. Two more runs left them with third-and-four, and the end of the first half in sight. But then Reid outsmarted himself and called timeout with 1:13 to play. His analytics might have said the percentage play was to stop the clock for a chance to get the ball back with enough time to score.
But remember, Reid wasn’t going against just anybody. He was going against Tom Brady.
After the timeout Brady threw for the first down, went no-huddle the next snap, and with the help of two timeouts of his own was in the end zone a few plays later. Instead of leaving well enough alone and going to halftime down only a touchdown, Reid’s Chiefs now were behind 14-0. They’d go on to lose in overtime, 37-31.
Game management isn’t everything in NFL coaching, but it can win or lose games, and it’s growing more important, and complicated, every year as the amount of information available to coaches grows exponentially. The Green Bay Packers have a new coach, Matt LaFleur, who’s never been a head coach at any level of football, so he’s never had to make these kinds of decisions on the fly.
Reid’s error against the Patriots came in his 346th game as an NFL head coach, so experience isn’t everything. But of the many things that will be new to LaFleur, among the most important will be those big decisions on whether to call timeout or go for a fourth down. And he’ll have to make those calls in real time while also running the Packers’ offense as play caller.
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That’s asking a lot. So when LaFleur introduced his coaching staff this week, it was noteworthy that it didn’t include a game-management coach, which is a position at least a few teams have added to their staffs recently.
One of LaFleur’s previous bosses, the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay, hired one last year. The Carolina Panthers added game management to one of their assistant’s duties this offseason. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter had a game-management coach the last couple of seasons, and Atlanta’s Dan Quinn hired a game coach about a week ago.
In an interview this week, LaFleur said he didn’t hire a game-management coach because he has retained former coach Mike McCarthy’s football analytics staff to help with in-game decisions: Mike Halbach, the team’s director of football technology, and analysts Ryan Feder, Connor Lewis and Jack Prominski.
“When you make a mistake at the end of the half, end of the game, that’s a big deal,” LaFleur said. “Was it (Bill) Belichick who said more games are lost than won in this league? I know I’ll have to lean on guys within our staff on that.”
LaFleur picked up some experience in analyzing game management when he was Atlanta’s quarterbacks coach in 2015 and ’16. Quinn held a half-hour meeting with him and the special teams coach most days in the offseason to review game-management decisions around the league the previous year.
LaFleur also plans to work game management into his practices, something he learned last year as offensive coordinator for Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson. They got it from their time working with Belichick and the Patriots.
In every OTA practice, LaFleur is going to have GM Brian Gutekunst come up with a game-management scenario. Sometimes they’ll discuss it beforehand, sometimes not.
“Being the play caller I want to think on my feet,” LaFleur said. “Tell me you’re going to throw one in — and we’ll throw one in randomly, because that’s what this game is about, it’s about sudden change, it’s about being able to react to any adversity.
“… (In Tennessee) it was really beneficial, because there were a couple times where I was like, ‘Ooof.’ I’m trying to think real fast, I haven’t thought about this, what am I going to do? Then you do whatever you can in that moment, then go back and reflect, OK, was it good or could I have done something different?”
LaFleur said he won’t conduct the daily half-hour game-management meetings in the offseason because of his other duties as a new head coach. He still plans on meeting regularly with Halbach and his staff about game management, perhaps once a week for an hour, to study scenarios that come up around the league.
“You more or less watch the TV copy and say, what would I do here?” LaFleur said. “That’s easy to say when you’re sitting behind a desk. That’s why you have to take that and put it to the practice field. Spontaneously insert that into a part of your practice.”
LaFleur has his hands full as a first-time head coach. He’s going to call plays, with all that entails in both game planning during the week and focus on game day. He’s going to very much have a hands-on role coaching Aaron Rodgers in their first season together and said he expects to be at pretty much every quarterbacks meeting, which also will cut into his time.
On top of that, he has to learn how to manage and use a plethora of analytics information, including on game day. With all the information available, it has become a big part of coaching in the league. He has an analytics staff to help make sense of the data, but he still has to make the call on how to use it, including on game day, when the decisions to use timeouts on defense or go for it on fourth down can be the difference between winning and losing.
“Numbers are great but they don’t tell the whole story,” LaFleur said. “That’s why I think you need (video) to go along with the story. You can’t just blanket-statement stuff. … Going back to (an end-of-half) example, who’s the quarterback? How’s our defense playing? There are so many variables you have to take into account. Sometimes you have to trust your gut.”