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Controversial Play Callers Are Not Geniuses

20 Feb

Originally posted on September 20, 2011 by William Bixby. Enjoy

Coach Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils and Coach Belichick of the New England Patriots have been considered the class of their respective games, college basketball and professional football. They make bold, enigmatic play calls that are adored by sports analysts, tacticians, and commentators. However, their calls are not nearly as innovative as they seem to the casual basketball or football fan. Genius encompasses intellect and vision, which both Belichick and Coach K obviously have, but it also is a function of creativity and originality.

Neither coach has infused much change into the landscape of their sports even though they have been incomparably successful during their tenures as head coaches. Their talent as generals is undeniable. Coach K has won four NCAA championships, and is joined by only John Wooden and Adolph Rupp as the only three coaches to win at least four titles (Wooden won ten) in Division 1 history. But Coach K’s harsh man-to-man defense with principles of zone defense was taken straight from Bobby Knight’s playbook. Knight used that defense to win 3 NCAA championships and over 900 games as a head coach. In fact, Krzyzewski’s motion offense is an adaptation of Knight’s motion offense too. He did not invent his own coaching philosophy and system; he simply installed a style of coaching that he witnessed working successfully under his former head coach. Knight’s teams generally scored fewer points than Krzyzewski’s teams, but were more efficient offensively and defensively. And, Knight and Coach K have comparable winning percentages too, at 70.3% and 78.6 respectively. Plus, Coach K has not reached the declining years of his coaching career yet.

Similarly, Bill Belichick used proponents of the philosophies of his mentor, Bill Parcels to develop his coaching strategy. Parcells believed adamantly in drafting the biggest, most athletic play makers available, rather than pursuing the most productive talents in college. Belichick has followed this tenant in his Hall of Fame career with the Patriots. His linemen are big, powerful, and fast, though not as prolific as some of the other players that could become New England Patriots. He even followed Parcells mold, by giving up high picks to sign the same player that he wants for less money and more future draft picks.

Mike Krzyzewski is constantly praised for winning the 2010 NCAA basketball championship by almost exclusively using a three guard rotation rather than running his offense through the post. While he did make a few timely adjustments in his offensive scheme to attack the stingy Butler defense, his strategy would have been fairly obvious to even most mediocre coaches. Butler plays a stout zone defense, and every zone has a weak spot. First, Coach K posted his center in the soft area of the zone to see if he could get the ball into the teeth of the defense. Once the entry pass was consistently made to his big man, he inserted his most versatile player, Nolan Smith, into the same spot. Smith either scored or assisted on the next four plays, and the Butler zone was defeated. Krzyzewski did nothing that John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, George Thompson, or any other great coach would not have done. He adapted and made the right call to win the game. That does not make him a basketball genius; it means that he can make reasonable adjustments when the game calls for it.

Analysts label Belichick’s play call to attempt for a first down on 4th down and 2 yards late in the fourth quarter of a late season game against the Indianapolis Colts both gutsy and apocryphal. However, the call was neither. It was simply the right call. The Colts had scored on the previous two possessions starting  from their own 20 yard line in an average of less than four minutes. The Patriots had over 450 yards of total offense in the game with Brady, their quarterback accounting for most of it. Belichick did exactly what he was supposed to do by putting the football in the hands of his best player rather than trusting his middling defense. Even statisticians support the decision stating that 4th and 2 has a 60% conversion rate in the NFL. With 2:05 left on the clock, the New England Patriots would have effectively ended the game by getting a first down. Teams that make that play win 79% of the time. Teams that punt in the same situation win only 70% of the time. By the numbers, he made the right call. In addition to this, the play almost worked. A slight fumbling of the football by Kevin Faulk changed the spot of the ball a yard shorter, which caused a turnover on downs. Had he caught the ball cleanly, the Pats would have won, and the sports world would be singing his praises again.

If there are any moments of genius in sports, they are not displayed through simply making smart, unconventional, and unpopular play calls, but through innovations in the philosophy of the sport and how the game is being played. The triangle offense is of ingenious design. It harnesses and utilizes every athlete’s strengths within the offensive concept of the team. The triangle is predicated on ball movement and exploiting match-ups.  It is now responsible for 10 of the last National Basketball Association championships. Tex Winters is a genius in basketball. Similarly, the Tampa Two is result of the genius of Tony Dungy. With a versatile middle linebacker and an athletic safety, Dungy’s defense revolutionized the way that football is played in the National Football League today. It was the standard defense used by most NFL teams over the last decade, and two of the best defensive teams in NFL history used his system. That is innovation. Coach K and Belichick simply implant the system and knowledge of their teachers into their teams. They are talented coaches, but far from geniuses.

Competent coaches make the right calls by the numbers at the right time. Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Belichick are great coaches, but they have not done anything so intuitive and radical that they should be called geniuses. They push their players to play at the highest level of their potential. That is the mark of a great coach. They expect perfection, so their assistant coaches and their entire programs aspire to it. Coach K and Coach Belichick are like great poker players. The best professional poker players consistently reach the final table in big tournaments against the best competition. They succeed, not because they know something that the other players do not know, but because they apply the same knowledge differently. Krzyzewski and Belichick read the situation and make the best decision for their team regardless of how it defies convention, and they win because of it. Though both Mike Krzyzewski  and Bill Belichick are intelligent and excellent tacticians in their sports, the label genius does not fit. Krzyzewski and Belichick are not sports geniuses, they are just great coaches.

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