Coaching Matters in Championship Weekend

January 19, 2010

Two weeks ago I thought the Cowboys and Chargers were going to the Superbowl.  The recipe was in place: two red hot teams that match up well against any of their upcoming opponents.  For whatever reason I threw all historical and conventional wisdom out the window and picked Wade Phillips to face off against Norv Turner in the biggest game of the year.  This was very stupid.  Three minutes into Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Cowboys I knew I was cooked.  Wade Phillips had a 4th and 1 at the Vikings 31 and he decided to kick a field goal with the immortal Sean Suisham, whose biggest moment of the season was when he shanked a sure thing against the Saints when he was still on the Redskins.  That’s right people, Wade Phillips elected to kick a Field Goal from 49 yards on the road with a guy who’s already been cut once for missing a chip shot at home this season.  Needless to say he missed and the beating commenced.  After Minnesota’s beatdown the Jets and Chargers game started with Rex Ryan differing the ball to San Diego, a brilliant tone-setting move that the likes of Norv Turner could never come up with.  Ryan knew a) His defense is pretty good, b) His offense was not about to drive the ball the length of the field on the opening drive and didn’t want to lose field position early, and c) The crowd would stay quieter than if the Chargers forced a Jets’ 3 and out.  The tone was set; the Jets’ defense came to play and the Chargers were outcoached for 4 quarters.  The fact is that coaching matters when we get to this stage and never, under any circumstance, talk yourself into Wade Phillips and Norv Turner this time of year.  So where does that leave us heading into Sunday?  We have 4 coaches left in the mix: 2 who are in their first year, 1 semi-proven guy and 1 wildcard who could double as any creepy bad guy from any bad action movie ever made.  Let’s take a look at these guys’ resumes heading into the biggest game of their lives.

Sunday 3 PM EST: Jim Caldwell (Colts) vs Rex Ryan (Jets)

The Jury is still out on if Caldwell's headset is plugged in all the time

Jim Caldwell

Experience: Spent years under the tutelage of Tony Dungy learning the ins and outs of the Colts.  Started the season 14-0 and ironically decided to not play his starters against the Jets, which sacrificed a perfect season and allowed the Jets to get into the playoffs.  That decision may not have only cost him perfection but potentially a chance at the Superbowl if the Jets spring the upset.  I’m unclear as to whether or not his headset is actually plugged in at any point when the Colts have the ball on offense, as most television viewers have never seen him speak.  Up until the infamous 4th and 2 Sunday Night Football game against New England half of the country had no idea what he looked like.

Advantages: He has Peyton Manning, who by all accounts can make any coach look good, even Jim Mora.

Disadvantages: The Colts don’t do anything different then what they always have done, so a creative defense (hello, Jets) can come up with a unique gameplan to confuse Manning.  If this happens we will have no idea if Caldwell is capable of making adjustments because he’s never had to do so on a stage like this.

Pressure Level: Tremedous.  The blood will be on his and Bill Polian’s hands if the Jets win.  They let this team in by conceding perfection and now they need to knock them out to get to the Superbowl.  All that nonsense about “We want to win our last game of the season, blah, blah” will be for naught if they go down to the same team that wouldn’t be here if they had played out the string and gone for perfection.

Rex has his Jets rolling into Championship weekend

Rex Ryan

Experience: Son of famed defensive guru Buddy Ryan of ’86 Bears fame, he spent most of his pro career in Baltimore coaching the best defense of last decade in under various titles, including a spot as defensive line coach for the Superbowl Champion Ravens in 2000, which is only measured against his Dad’s ’86 Chicago squad in terms of greatness.  He’s a big fan of sleeveless sweater vests with turtle necks underneath and could potentially make millions as the next Subway spokesperson if coaching doesn’t work out.  Mistakenly thought his team was eliminated after a Week 15 loss against Atlanta only to find out not only were they alive but their final two opponents had nothing to play for.

Advantages: Playing with house money by getting to the AFC Championship.  All of his defensive players carry the same swagger and bravado as he does and they are playing as loose as any team around right now.  They also have the “nobody believes in us” mantra going for them which has fired up plenty of teams in recent history.  Also if the Jets need to go to a fourth string nose tackle he could most likely fill in.

Disadvantages: Has a rookie quarterback about to play in a hostile atmosphere in the biggest game of the season against one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game on the other side.  Completely one dimensional on offense and cannot rely on Mark Sanchez to out-duel Peyton Manning under any circumstances.  If the Colts get ahead early his team has little to zero chances of coming back.

Pressure Level: None.  Nobody thought the Jets would be here and for a fanbase as tortured as the J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets! fans, two playoff wins is more than enough.  Even if they get dismantled on Sunday look for Fireman Ed to motion for a 300 lb statue of Rex Ryan to be built in front of the new stadium next year.

Sunday 6:40 PM EST Sean Payton (Saints) vs Brad Childress (Vikings)

Brees and Payton have been the NFL's most potent offensive duo in recent years

Sean Payton

Experience: After brief stints with the Eagles and Giants in the late 90s he moved within the division to Dallas where he worked under Bill Parcells as an assistant coach.  Was dealt a short hand while in Dallas having to coach Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe but hit the jackpot when he took over in New Orleans and Drew Brees signed on as a free agent.  Of all the coaches in the Conference Championship round, Payton has the best credentials.  He led the Saints here three years ago but got throttled in Chicago by the Bears; many of the players remain on the Saints this year and will be ready for the challenges to Conference title game brings.

Advantages: Will be coaching at home in what should be the loudest Superdome crowd in history.  The Saints have the best homefield advantage in all of the NFL and it will be thunderous in New Orleans on Sunday.  He is the most creative playcaller left in the playoffs and has a plethora of weapons at his disposal.  He creates matchup problems for any defense which will help neutralize Minnesota’s pass rush.

Disadvantages: The jury is out on if his defense can come through in a big game.  If the Vikings pass rush is getting to Brees he is going to have to dig deep into his bag of tricks to get the Saints moving.  While the Saints are capable of winning any kind of shootout they’ll need some semblance of defense to avoid an early deficit and keep to the Superdome rocking.

Pressure Level: Moderate.  While the Saints are the favorites in this game the good people of New Orleans will not be calling for anyone’s head if they go down.  After Dallas ended their run at perfection in December the Saints fans stayed an applauded once the final whistle blew.  A win would push him to “never have to pay for a meal in New Orleans” status but everyone’s safe if they lose.

A made for TV movie villian has a chance to go to the Superbowl

Brad Childress

Experience: Worked under offensive guru Andy Reid for several years in Philadelphia and unfortunately inherited his former boss’ clock management skills as well.  Bounced around a good chunk before landing in Philadelphia then ended up in Minnesota where he probably would have already been fired if the team hadn’t landed Adrian Peterson in the 2007 NFL draft.  His career record with the Vikings is 36-28 and 1-1 in the postseason.  Wears an odd earpiece/headset thing to communicate idiotic time management and play calls back and forth.  Decided to grow a beard to distance himself from looking like any made for TV movie serial killer but ended up looking like a picture seen on the news in any kind of Amber Alert case.

Advantages: Brett Favre has enough playoff experience to make up for the rest of the Vikings who may have a deer in the headlights look shared by their head coach.  Adrian Peterson can run and help keep the Saints’ offense of the field and New Orleans has a below average secondary that Favre will pick apart if given the time.  Unless he reverts back to the recent playoff Favre where he will throw at least 2 spine crushing interceptions for Vikings fans.

Disadvantages: Cannot handle the two minute drill whatsoever, is incapable of properly working with timeouts and often challenges calls that you are not allowed to challenge.  He also has the ticking time bomb that is Brett Favre who can explode for 4 picks in 6 possessions if he gets the yips.

Pressure Level: High.  Favre came back to win the Superbowl, America had to sit through the entire offseason soap opera and if they don’t get to the big game bringing him back got one more win in the playoffs then last year and now they have to deal with the will he or won’t he talk through minicamp and beyond.  Enjoy!

If we had to rank these coaches it would go something like this: 1. Payton 2. Ryan 3. Caldwell 4. Childress.  There are going to be plenty of other factors at play and Peyton Manning pretty much levels any slight edge Ryan has over Caldwell.  You can’t get this far without being somewhat competent but you also need savvy along the way.  But how would you feel if your favorite teams’ season rested on the acumen of Brad Childress in a big spot?  These are the questions that are going to decide who plays in Miami in a couple weeks.

Stay Tuned for a podcast and picks for Championship weekend later in the week.