Sometimes a coaching decision is just a coaching decision. Other times, a coaching decision is a message to the team.
A decision made by Redskins coach Jay Gruden late in their game against the Chargers sent a message, a very wrong one, to his players.
With 2:55 left in the game, the Redskins were trailing 30-6. The Chargers had the ball on the Redskins’ nine yard line. Backup quarterback Kellen Clemons threw a pass to receiver Mike Williams, who was tightly covered by Bashaud Breeland. The cornerback won the battle for the ball and rolled 96 yards for a touchdown.
The TD made it 30-12. A two-point conversion would have made it a 16-point game, a situation where two touchdowns and two two-point conversions would tie the game. To be sure, the odds of pulling that off were very long (details in a minute) but there still would have been the proverbial Dumb and Dumber “So you’re saying there’s a chance” chance. However, Gruden sent out the kicking team. The one-point PAT was good and it remained a three-possession game.
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Why did Gruden decide to go for one? Here is his entire answer when he was asked that during his Monday conference call with the media:
“I thought about it a little bit,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was a realistic chain of events that would’ve had to occur, to be honest with you. You know, with the situation that we had offensively with Trent Williams out and we were down to one back, Ryan Grant was banged up with his ankle, down to three receivers, Josh [Doctson] was a little bit banged up. I just wanted to make sure I got out of that game with enough healthy bodies and didn’t want to risk anymore, especially with having to get two onside kicks, two two-point conversions with two minutes to go. I wanted to, you know, try to get out of this game, get back on the plane, and get ready for Arizona.”
That is all well and good. There was very little chance of winning the game. If they had gone for two points and succeeded and then recovered an onside kick, their win probability would have been 1.1 percent. What would the point have been with, as Gruden noted, so many injured players?
Well, the point would have been that the team should never give up no matter what the odds, no matter how beaten up they were. Last week he was asked about shutting down injured players with the team’s playoff odds hovering at less than one percent.
“I think there are some mathematical possibilities where we can get in,” he said. “I know it’s a long shot, but this is a 16-game season. We know that anything can happen, so we’re going to continue to play to win. That’s the only way we know how.”
Well, it’s the only way they know how until it’s late in a game and apparently the coach is more interested in getting back on the plane than he is about seeing in a chain of events that didn’t seem to be realistic can somehow play out.
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Just like it’s a 16-game season, it’s a 60-minute game. By going for one, Gruden waved the white flag and ended the game after about 57 minutes.
That’s telling your team that, yes, there is a time when you stop fighting. That’s telling the players who are in for the injured players that they’re not good enough to rally the team. That’s telling them that it’s OK to quit when they’re hurting and the odds are long.
That’s not the right message to send. This hasn’t been a consistent issue for Gruden while he has been the head coach. But the slope to losing the locker room is slippery and the drop is steep if many more of these mixed message decisions occur in the future.