Two of the most notable strategic decisions of 2009 were made by this year's Super Bowl coaches, Mike McCarthy and Mike Tomlin.
McCarthy made some bold gambles in the Packers' playoff shootout with the Cardinals. The Packers ultimately lost the game abruptly, but it was McCarthy's tactics that engineered a 21-point comeback to force overtime. Unlike some coaches, he did not throw in the towel. McCarthy went called for a surprise onside kick when down by 14 in the third quarter, and he went for multiple 4th down conversions throughout the 2nd half.
In shootout-style games, possession becomes even more important than field position:
Plus, with the scoreboard blowing fuzes keeping up with the scoring, possession becomes even more important. My conventional WP model understates the advantage of McCarthy's decisions. A 45-45 game is clearly not about field position, but about keeping possession and scoring touchdowns. The bigger the advantage that offenses have over defenses, the more punts and field goals lose their value.
Tomlin's bold move came in the Steelers-Packers game itself, which has been parsed a thousand times over since Sunday when both teams won their respective championship games. The game was one of the most entertaining of 2009, and Tomlin himself was the reason.
Just having scored to take a 2-point lead in the 4th quarter, Tomlin called for a surprise onside kick. It was unsuccessful and recovered by the Packers, who went on to take the lead themselves. But this was one of the best examples of why the surprise onside kick is such an under-appreciated tactic, because the Steelers went on to steal a 37-36 win.
What's most interesting to me is that a failed onside kick is hardly certain death--a 0.42 WP. There was plenty of time for anything to happen--a stop, a turnover, or a score. And sure enough the Steelers gave up a touchdown but came back with one of their own.
Also, a successful onside recovery doesn't seal the game. The Steelers would still need at least two first downs to clinch the win. Essentially, the Steelers traded 30 yards of field position for the chance to keep the ball out of the Packers' hands.
Let's hope next weekend's game is as fun to watch.