Coaches Must Believe in Black Swans

It might be convenient to blame Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs on rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel. Tuel might be an inviting target, but he’s not the right target. The target belongs squarely on the back of the Bills’ coaching staff. While Tuel threw the pick six at the goal line, the root of this debacle was an unwise play call.

The Bills were leading 10-3 with a 3rd down and goal to go from the Kansas City one yard line. The Bills had already achieved what no other team had done this season. Until Sunday, Kansas City had never trailed in the second half of any game by more than six points. And at no time this season have the Chiefs trailed, at any point, in any game by more than the seven points they were down to the Bills before disaster struck.

(Photo by Gary Wiepert/AP)
(Photo by Gary Wiepert/AP)

The play call was a failure on many levels.

The primary objective is to win the game. A touchdown is clearly preferable to a field goal, but either would have created another first for the Chiefs. They would have trailed by two scores for the first time this season.

I would have called a running play, but whether another running play had a better chance of scoring a touchdown than a passing play is open to debate. Head Coach Doug Marrone’s post-game comment that the Chiefs either knew what we were doing or it was a blown coverage that they got lucky on is telling. Either explanation doesn’t make up for the poor decision.

Of all the goal line play calls you could make, choosing to throw the ball into a high congestion area at the goal line rarely works out and frequently delivers the kind of disaster those of us saw at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday. It’s pretty clear to me that Tuel wasn’t told to look first to Stevie. Too bad the first read wasn’t hoping the confusion created by the congestion would leave Stevie Johnson open across the middle or an isolation that made throwing the ball away an option. Thank goodness this wasn’t the play call in week two against the Panthers. Even with EJ Manuel at the controls the result might well have been similar.

The Bills were plunged toward defeat by a play call equivalent to an investment in subprime mortgages. The nation was plunged into a deep recession by a financial crisis resulting from excessive leverage in the financial sector. Smart people played percentages that they believed would yield positive results. What they failed to account adequately for was the tail risk or what is often called the black swan event – something with a low chance of happening, but with such catastrophic results that the risk must be properly taken into account. Bulls make money, bears make money, but hogs get slaughtered.

The coaching staff needs to call plays that maximize potential benefits, but which shield the team from unnecessary catastrophic results. Even if you believe passing was the right call, calling this particular pass play cannot be defended because it exposed the team to the worst possible result – and it happened. If there wasn’t a pass play with a similar chance of success but less risk than the one the Bills ran then we have a bigger issue.

At the end of the day, the Bills were on the brink of cruising to victory by going up two scores. Clearly being up two touchdowns would have been preferable to being up ten, but either was better than a tie game and a huge emotional swing in favor of the Chiefs. Run or pass, it really doesn’t matter. I’d have let FredEx try to make the delivery again, but what matters is that this specific play call exposed the team to an unnecessary and disastrous outcome.

One of the biggest reasons I like the new coaching staff is that they have appeared to try to make the system fit the players, unlike the Gailey regime where everything depended on the players being able to fit the coach’s system. Coaches should maximize their team’s chance of success. Unfortunately, on Sunday, the coaching staff appears to have forgotten.

Let’s hope that the new analytics department doesn’t have such blind faith in their models that they fail to account for improbable but disastrous outcomes. If done properly, the new department would criticize this type play call on many levels. Maximize the Bills chance to win by eliminating the unnecessary disasters.

The fact that Jeff Tuel didn’t succeed in executing the play has less to do with Jeff Tuel than the play call. At least that is the view of one Bills season ticket holder that commutes to home games with his son from the Washington, DC area. Yesterday’s result made for a frustrating ride home.

About Jeff Schlagenhauf

Follow Jeff on Twitter at @We4Bills.

2 Replies to “Coaches Must Believe in Black Swans”

  1. That said… Tuel had to have virtually zero vision and depth of field to throw that ball.
    He should have seen the red sea of uniforms…pumped and either scanned the field
    to see Johnson or thrown it away.

  2. The game plan and coaching was excellent.
    When a play is called. The play isn’t called like “throw the ball to TJ Graham no matter what”
    TJ Graham may have been the first read in the play but that doesn’t mean Hackett said thow must through to first read.
    Tuel played a great game but this was a poor decision.

    The Bills coaching allowed the team to dominant the offensive and defensive statistics.
    TJ Graham’s old lady hands, the Tuel poor decision and , 6 official drops are what list the game.
    That is execution not coaching.

    BTW the official drop statistic is held to a higher standard than a guy saying “he shoulda caught that”
    Teams only average about 12 official drops a SEASON.
    The Bills had 6 in one game. It’s mind boggling.