PHOENIX -- A common refrain in the aftermath of Super Bowl LI was that if Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn had overruled the decision of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to pass late in the fourth quarter, the New England Patriots’ historic comeback probably would have fallen short.
Play conservatively for a 37- to 40-yard field goal, make it a two-score game, and the Patriots likely wouldn’t have had enough time to pull off the comeback.
If only Quinn had stepped in as Shanahan called for a pass on second-and-11…
The stunning turn of events still is a hot topic eight weeks later, as evidenced by what unfolded Wednesday morning at the NFL’s annual meeting, when it wasn’t long before Quinn took his seat for the NFC coaches breakfast and was asked if he has second-guessed himself for not doing so (he said he hasn’t).
It kept coming up at various points over the next hour, with Quinn showing impressive patience and thoughtfulness while reflecting on one of the most painful losses of his coaching career.
Quinn’s decision to not overrule Shanahan -- the Falcons took a sack and then were called for holding to knock them out of field goal range -- has been hotly debated and analyzed. But there seems to be one significant part of the discussion that hasn’t been flushed out, and it warrants further exploration.
Given the speed with which each play is required to be called and then executed on the field, how realistic is it for a head coach to overrule a coordinator on the spot?
And how often does it really happen?
As is the case with many things in professional football, there are shades of gray in the answers, but insight from nine of the NFL’s 32 head coaches helps produce a snapshot of what they are often thinking in those moments.
“Things are moving fast. It’s not like you have time to sit there and go, ‘OK, you want to call this play? I’m overruling that!’ That’s not how it works,” Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said when asked in general terms how often he overrules a coordinator's call.
“It’s not really realistic because when the play gets called, it sets in motion the operation -- the personnel is running on the field, the 40-second clock is running, or the 25-second clock is running [from when the ball is spotted ready for play] and you have to get the ball snapped. You’d probably have to call a timeout realistically to get it done, so that’s something you want to plan ahead on as much as you can.”
In the critical fourth-quarter sequence in Super Bowl LI, Quinn had a little bit of time to plan ahead after receiver Julio Jones made a remarkable 27-yard catch along the right sideline to advance the ball to the New England 22. There was a slight delay as officials huddled to sort out an issue with the clock.
At that point, 4:40 remained in regulation and the Patriots still had all three of their timeouts. Quinn could have instructed Shanahan to take the air out of the ball, but the decision was made to stay aggressive. So Quinn didn't blink when Shanahan called two pass plays after running back Devonta Freeman was stopped for a 1-yard loss on first down.
“I heard all the plays going in. Like any other time of the year, if I had said, ‘Hey man, let’s change that and go somewhere else’, we would,” Quinn said. “There were times I did this year, so it’s not like I haven’t before. I’ll always speak up when I think it’s the right thing to do for our team.”
Understanding how that happens, however, adds important context to the discussion. Specifically, the idea that a head coach would interrupt an offensive coordinator as he’s calling in a play is not especially realistic.
“I’m not going to interrupt a playcall,” Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey explained. “But I will say, ‘If we get the first, let’s go to this play,’ or ‘If we get to third-and-medium, this is what I want.’”
Added Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, “You’re not going to coach over guys all the time, but different times I may interject on something. It doesn’t happen very often, I doubt that it’s once a game.
“But it does happen occasionally where you’re just going to instruct a coordinator, ‘I don’t want to pressure here’ or ‘Let’s do this here and make sure we take care of this here,’ because you’re looking at the whole game management thing while they’re just looking at what their particular side of the ball is.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick discussed this dynamic in a recent interview with SiriusXM College Sports, with Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski playing the role of interviewer as the host of his show.
“When a coordinator gets into a flow during a series," Belichick said on the program, "I usually don’t say too much at that point unless it’s a timeout or I see a situation coming up like we’re going to go for it on fourth down, so that could change the third-down call, or something like that. But for the most part, I let them call the game as the situations come up, so they can get into a rhythm.
“By the time the play is over and the ball is spotted, the coordinator doesn’t have any more than 10 seconds at the most to get the play in because we still have to call it in the huddle and get to the line. Or defensively, we’re on the other side.
“So I think the time when we talk a little more is in between series when our offense or defense is on the sideline. We talk about the next series coming up, and what we need to try to do, not just from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but sometimes as it plays into time and overall clock and game management. Same thing with special teams, but those situations can change in a hurry. So what you’re talking about one minute can be a different conversation a minute and a half later.”
For Belichick and other head coaches, there is a balance to strike when working with coordinators.
“If you go in and try to micromanage things during the course of a game, I think you can find yourself in some bad spots. It’s tough to call a game when you’re constantly being second-guessed,” said second-year New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo, the team’s former offensive coordinator who still called offensive plays in 2016. “You need to empower your playcallers and assistant coaches and give them support.”
No matter the team or head coach, this link bound them all on the topic.
As Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said, “There is a fine line there. You have to let those guys work. You have to let them call the game. You can’t be sitting there chirping the whole time on the headset because you can get them sideways.”
Pagano has lived on both sides of that head coach/coordinator dynamic, having served as Baltimore's defensive coordinator in 2011. Mularkey also falls into that category as a former offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, Miami and Atlanta before taking the Titans’ reins. Along with Belichick, Mularkey believes the best time to chime in is between series or during timeouts.
“That’s when most of my input will come. I try not to talk too much because I know how that goes from being a previous playcaller; it’s hard to get into a flow if you have somebody interrupting you all the time,” he relayed. “I try to be smart about it, but if I have a feel about a play, I will interject, and the coordinators know that.”
Typically, however, the head coach is focusing on macro issues more than a specific playcall.
“I know all the calls -- offense, defense and special teams -- so if I want to speed a game up or slow it down, I’m the one who comes in and tells the coordinators to do it,” Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said. “What can happen is that you want them to stick with the plan, but maybe things aren’t going as well and a coordinator might say, ‘Shoot, I have to make something happen.’
“I can kind of get a sense of that in the way they’re communicating [on the headsets]. You can kind of feel that. That’s when I might come on the line and say, ‘Hey, you’re OK here, keep calling the game the way you are, don’t worry about it.’ Or it might go the other way and it’s, ‘Hey, I think we have some issues, we have to try to make something happen, let’s go after this guy.’”
In simpler terms, the Ravens’ Harbaugh summed it up this way: “The goal as a head coach is to provide direction to the coordinators in terms of how we want to play those situations, and hopefully you practice your situations enough so everybody on the sideline knows exactly how you want to execute. It’s not simple. It’s complicated. But it has to be simple to operate under pressure.”
In Super Bowl LI, Quinn and Shanahan insist they were working off the same aggressive script in the fourth quarter after Jones’ sensational sideline catch. Quinn said the sequence of events was “disappointing” but made it clear that his disappointment was not in "the call itself.”
The second-and-11 play in which quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked was intended to target Jones, and Quinn said, “Most plays where we had a play designed to our best player usually end up pretty good. … I totally trusted Kyle in terms of calls. There was an intent of where we were trying to go with the football.”
As Quinn spoke those words this week at the NFL’s annual meeting in Arizona, Shanahan was a few tables away when he said, “There’s nothing in that game that I would have done different. I know I did what I prepared for, what we prepared for, and we did what we thought was right at the time.”
Shanahan countered the widely held thought that running the ball was the obvious choice after Jones’ catch, pointing out how the Patriots had shut down the run effectively throughout the second half.
“Just because you say you’re supposed to run the ball, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re not going to lose yardage or something bad happens,” Shanahan said. He noted that the Falcons were called for holding on a rush that lost a yard late in the third quarter.
To the Colts’ Pagano, the head coach/coordinator partnership “all goes back to trust” in situations like those.
“We all talk during the week and we’re all part of the process when we put in these game plans. As a head coach, you kind of remove yourself and stay a step ahead, and try to manage the game,” he said.
“That’s a major part of the role as a head coach. You have to be able to forecast and know when it’s the right time to step in and say, ‘Hey, you might want to do this here, or this there’ or ‘we’re in four-down territory.’ Those guys need to know that well before it’s fourth down. It’s staying one step ahead, a play ahead. When you’re managing the game, managing the clock, there are a ton of things and it can be really, really difficult.
"It’s easy on Monday morning, as we know. Nobody is wrong on Monday morning.”