Saturday, November 21, 2009

Decisions, decisions, decisions

Just returned home from the Yale Bowl and won't soon forget what I saw today.

We're not only going to start with Tom Williams' decision to attempt a fake punt leading by three points in the fourth quarter, we are going to finish with it as well. I'm not going to sugarcoat this, it was a reckless decision. In the 20 years I have been a sports reporter, I can't remember a coaching decision I disagreed any more strongly than this one. I am not alone. When I checked my phone, I had four missed messages in the hour after the game from people wanting to know why he wouldn't punt the ball and put the game in the hands of his defense.

This Yale team had been through so much this year, disappointing losses to Cornell and Princeton, so many injuries, a constantly changing lineup and a nearly completely new coaching staff. They could easily have had their eyes elsewhere especially in an academic setting like the one they reside in at Yale. But they didn't. They were on the verge of their most complete effort of the season and only needed for their coaching staff to demonstrate a little self restraint.

Faced with 4th-and-22 at their own 25 and Harvard out of timeouts, Tom Mante trotted onto the field to punt. All Mante did was average 51.3 yards on his previous three punts to clinch the Ivy League punting crown. Harvard had enough respect for Mante that their returner lined up 50 yards from the line of scrimmage when Mante dropped back to punt. But he never got the chance. The designed fake was snapped to up back Paul Rice, who twice this season got the call on successful fake punt calls who pitched the ball to freshman safety John Powers. Powers, a former dual-threat runner and passer during his days as the starting quarterback at Hopkins, nearly got the first down but was tackled seven yards short of the first down. Rather than Harvard needed to drive somewhere between 60-80 yards for the winning TD, it only needed to go 40.

There is no defending the decision. If Williams ponders a decision in that situation again that he will remember the post-game scene. Senior linebacker Travis Henry, one of the truly class acts on the team, kneeled on the 50 by himself for what seemed like an eternity or some of the seniors wandering slowly around the field as if they were trying to comprehend what had just transpired. Henry and the other seniors bought into Williams' deal from the outset. Even when some of them saw their playing time cut or their roles diminished, there seemed to be little discord in the program (at least none I discovered). Instead of walking off the field snapping a two-game losing streak to Harvard, the departing seniors were left to deal with a bitter end to their collegiate careers. Many of them will never play in a football game again and this was not the ending they envisioned or deserved.

I have gone on the record saying I am impressed with the job this coaching staff has done but there is no defending a decision like this. If you want to try it in a JV game or spring it early on Harvard, fine but not in the final quarter against your greatest rival. I compare it to fouling a 90 percent free throw shooter with a 1-point lead with 5 seconds to play in a basketball game. The risks simply outnumber the reward but such a large margin that you just don't do it. I also found it ironic that on a day when Yale ran the ball so well, the Bulldogs resorted to a gimmick with their version of the Wildcat formation. Williams scoffed at the impact of the Wildcat when asked about after the Penn game and yet they went to it. Why?

The sad part is that it all seemed to be coming together for this team. They shook the turnover bug, discovered a running game in sophomore Alex Thomas, the offensive line was playing better than it had all season even if the Bulldogs' two best linemen (Jake Koury and Cory Palmer) were dealing with injury issues. Defensively, Yale resembled the stingy unit of the last couple of years. All of that ended with one call which was simply to risky to justify.

The good news is the future is bright. Replacing John Sheffield, who finished third on Yale's career receiving list, and the entire starting linebacking corps will not be easy. But with Alex Thomas and Mordecai Cargill, the Bulldogs have two talented running backs. Speedy receivers Gio Christodoulou and Chris Smith return after dealing with injury-shortened seasons. Four offensive line starters are back and with the development of Chris Stanley and Kurt Stottlemyer, Adam Money should be able to move to safety to help fill the void left by Larry Abare's graduation. I think Yale could compete for the Ivy League title with an experienced group of returning players.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could not agree more. Until that call, I thought that the dark days of Siedlecki were behind us and we finally had a coach who understood the importance of The Game.

Now I'm thinking we have a coach who doesn't understand the game.

11:27 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree as well. It'd be different if Yale were behind and had to score, but with the way the defense played all day, and with the best punter in the league kicking, I see no rationale for the call. Maybe you make a decision like that in the first half to try to get things going but not with less than 3 mins to go and with a lead.
Given the relative parity in Ivy league talent, the decision sort of shows disrespect to the harvard staff and players. I would not expect to see this kind of play called by the top teams in the country in a head to head, let alone in the Ivy league. Could you imagine what would happen if Saban or Meyer made this call in the SEC championship game in the same circumstance? It kind of speaks to Williams lack of head coaching experience. Having played in The Game, I don't quite think Williams understood what this game is to the seniors. It's the last time they'll ever play legitimate competitive football. All they'll have are memories of this season and this game for the lasting impression from Yale football. 29-29 was the "The Tie", and Coach Cozza gets questioned about that game more than any other to this day. This will go down as "The Call", and Williams will face questions about this one for a long time to come. Probably the worst football game decision I've ever seen.

2:07 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Additionally, there were 3 Seniors who did not get in on one single play on Senior Day. Shame on that coaching staff!

8:21 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the saying goes, " You live by the sword, you die by the sword." The fake punt had been Yale's best offensive play all year. Yesterday it came back to bite them. It was the wrong time and place for that call. Yesterday should have been about those seniors, not about Coach's decision. He made a number of mistakes in the game, but the biggest was taking the game away from his senior led defese. They deserved atleast that much. He put them in a tough spot, having them defend a short field.

10:41 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a member of one of Yale's last great football winning reigns in the late 1970's and early 1980's, I can speak for many of us from those days that were at yesterday's Game and to a man, could not believe that call by Coach Williams. Not one of us could come up with a rational answer for that decision. Everyone, including 4 former pro football players, were shocked, so much so that we have lost faith not only in Coach Williams but in Athletic Director Tom Beckett. Losing to Harvard 8 of the last 9 seasons shows a lack of commitment to the football program. It will be tough for us alumni players who took so much pride in winning to continue to support the program as we have so enthusiastically over the years. Many of our tailgators
were so frustrated that they were already calling for William's resignation and for the hiring of former Yale great Dick Jauron.

10:52 AM 
Anonymous Jeff in AZ said...

While I agree that it was a horrible call, better tackling on HARVARD'S 4th down attempt deep in their own territory before their first touchdown would have made anything that happened after moot.

IMO that is the play that set everything else in motion

2:52 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Call was, to be sure, bone headed, even if it did come close to succeeding.

But I wouldn't go so far as to throw over Williams and his staff based on a single call, however stupid it appears in retrospect. I thought that the coaching staff did a good job in preparing the Bulldogs to play. Also, blaming the loss on a single play is unrealistic. For instance, had Money simply wrapped up Gordon on Harvard's 4th and 4 run with just over 8 minutes to play, Yale would have won. Had Barnes not missed his second FG attempt, we would have been within a point on our next-to-last possession, and Witt would not have been under such pressure to pass the ball. I could go on, but those who saw the game know that there was more than one crucial play yesterday.

Mike Harrington, TD'69

6:23 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, how about Williams, the vagabond, looking at the San Jose State job?? Get a comment-not a lie- from him on that rumor!!

4:06 PM 

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