Was Jeff Tedford Too Passive? Was Jim Harbaugh Too Aggressive?


Who's a better head coach, Jim Harbaugh or this 5th grader?


There've been a lot of hand-wringing about the playcalling by the coaches by Cal fans, about how Jeff Tedford nearly gagged away the Big Game with ultra-conservative playcalls that would've made Pat Robertson shudder. It could certainly be argued that taking one or two extra risks would've ended the game instead of leaving the door at open for the Furd to climb back into it

What was lost in the shuffle though was the absolute badness of Jim Harbaugh's aggressive calls. Unlike Tedford's calls, where there's some debate as to whether they were prudent or imprudent, there's not much debate about Harbaugh's playcalls.

Twist and I discuss the following calls after the jump.

1) Tedford choosing to punt on 4th and short rather than going for it--next drive led to a quick Furd TD to cut the lead to 3; we both agree it was an ok call, although we wish

2) Harbaugh going for it on 4th and 8 deep in his own territory--led to a Cal FG that made it a touchdown game; we both agree the call was stupid.

3) Tedford choosing to kneel and center the ball on 3rd and goal--prevented a chance for a Cal TD, settled for the FG; we both agree the call was a little conservative, but again had merit and did make the Furd's chances of winning much longer.

4) Harbaugh passing the ball on 1st and 2nd down with Gerhart available--led to the game-clinching interception. As this 5th grader above us says, very questionable.

Twist: These calls were certainly controversial.  To fully understand the situation, let's try to look at them in context at the time they were made. I wanted to take a closer look at the 4th and 1 call.

Here's the thing.  If it was up to me, I probably woulda gone for it.  But I'm also the person who does fake punts in Madden on 2nd down and has a "No Kicking" policy, too.  I'm an imbecile.  I realize that here in the blogosphere, we are supposed to have extreme opinions that create a lively, if oftimes redick discussion and, most importantly, hits galore.  That's never really been my style, per se.  Like I said, with my limited knowledge, I probably would have gone for it, but instead of talking about what I would have done or even what one *should* have done, what I want to do was take a closer and clearer look at the situation that Tedford faced.  Try to get a better understanding at the decision that Tedford faced at that time, instead of after the game or days later.

I fear that there has been a lot of miscommunication based on faulty remembrances about Tedford's decision.  Personally, I have seen people say things like:

"Tedford shoulda gone for it to ice the game."
"Tedford shoulda gone for it, because we couldn't be stopped."
"Tedford shoulda gone for it, because after they punted, Stanford was right back there just a few plays later." 

Bryan_anger_112109_0890_medium

via calbearsonline.com

Based on the ESPN Play By Play, here is the drive.

California at 12:47 CAL STAN
1st and 10 at CAL 27 Shane Vereen rush for 4 yards to the Cal 31. 31 21
2nd and 6 at CAL 31 Shane Vereen rush for 5 yards to the Cal 36.    
3rd and 1 at CAL 36 Timeout CALIFORNIA, clock 11:07.    
3rd and 1 at CAL 36 Kevin Riley rush for 1 yard to the Cal 37 for a 1ST down.    
1st and 10 at CAL 37 Shane Vereen rush for 3 yards to the Cal 40.    
2nd and 7 at CAL 40 Shane Vereen rush for 6 yards to the Cal 46.    
3rd and 1 at CAL 46 Kevin Riley rush for no gain to the Cal 46.    
4th and 1 at CAL 46 Bryan Anger punt for 41 yards, fair catch by Michael Spanos at the Stanf 13.    
DRIVE TOTALS: Cal drive: 6 plays 19 yards, 03:34 Cal PUNT


The first misconception that I've seen is that this play happened much later in the game.  However, this drive starts with nearly 13 minutes left in the 4th quarter.  It ends with a little over 9 minutes left in the 4th quarter.  The play, in specific, took place with probably about 10 minutes left in the 4th, although it is slightly unclear to me exactly when from this play by play.  So, to me, the concept that Tedford could have "iced" the game here seems laughable.  You can't ice a game with 9-10 minutes left.  Period. 

I realize that the counter argument is that if Cal successfully continues the drive, they can a)take more time off the clock and b)go up either 34-21 or even 39-21!  Certainly, 39-21 with 9 or fewer minutes left in the 4th does seem unbeatable, no matter how much Cal Cal is.  And Cal is fairly Cal, let's not forget that. 

But that seems to assume a lot.  If Cal converts here, they are at their own 47 yard line.  Not Stanford's 22 or something like that.  They still have 53 more yards to go to hit pay dirt.  So, to me, attempting and perhaps even successfully converting the 4th down conversion does not an iced game make.  So, hopefully, looking at the play by play can clear up that conception.

The second thought I've seen out there is that Cal shoulda gone for it, because they've been doing really well in the running game and could probably have just pounded it home there.  That is a fair point to me.  We had been performing really well in the running game.

But we had also been performing really well on defense.  After Stanford jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead in the early part of the 1st quarter, Cal's D had held Stanford to merely 1 Touchdown since.  If my math is accurate, Stanford had gained 110 total yards between scoring their 2nd TD with about 5 minutes left in the 1st quarter and the play call in question here.  69 of those yards came on their sole TD drive in the 3rd quarter.  Basically, that's roughly 38 minutes of game time, 2+ quarters, with a grand total of 110 yards given up by the Cal D.


Any way you cut that, that is incredibly impressive.  Luck goes 4-14, which is......not good.  Just the drive before, Stanford had showed wild desperation, throwing long on its first 2 passes and going 3 and out quickly and quietly.  So, the concept of forcing them to drive 80 yards to pay dirt after holding them down for so long doesn't seem so bad to me.  Tedford was banking on his defense being able to hold Stanford down at that point.

Devon_bishop_112109_0863_medium

via calbearsonline.com

Avi: CBKWit mentioned in the podcast he disagreed with this decision more than the 3rd down kneeldown one (which we're building up to). I'd say this call was very similar to the Belichick playcall (2 minutes, up a score at your own 30 seems about the equivalent as being up 10 points at midfield). Unlike the Patriots coach, Tedford chose not to take the risky decision and trust his defense, which up to this point had shut them down.

Now as Smart Football and Advanced NFL stats pointed out, going for it on 4th down at this range isn't that bad a call. The stats seem to favor going for it--at that range, the success rate is around 75-80%. However, there's still a 20-25% chance that it fails, and given how hard we've been pushing Vereen, and the fact that we couldn't pick up 1 yard on a 3rd and short on a quarterback sneak (which is usually a sure thing), I can see that Tedford would be heistant to go for it and hand the Cardinal any momentum. As Bill Simmons said, statistics can only tell you so much; you have to assess the situation too.

  • The referees had been handing out questionable spots throughout that drive, and the possibility you get screwed again always factors in.
  • You're on the road (yeah I know, the least intimidating road stadium in the world, but it's still the road) trying to protect an upset bid.
  • The crowd had been dead most of the game, but give them the first down and there's a chance you rev them up for the remainder of the 4th quarter.
  • You've been holding Furd's offense in check the entire game.
  • You don't want to hand the Cardinal a short field and give them a quick chance to cut the lead to a one score game.

Twist: Of course, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the Cal D was not able to hold Stanford down at that point.  I have seen many people claim that Stanford was right back at the 50 just a few plays later.  It wasn't actually even just a few plays later.  It was merely one, the big 37 yard play where Luck hit Owusu.  Certainly, I'm MUCH happier that Stanford hit this 37 yard pass from their own 13 as compared to Cal's 46.

Stanford at 9:03 CAL STAN
1st and 10 at STAN 13 Andrew Luck pass complete to Chris Owusu for 37 yards to the 50 yard line for a 1ST down. 31 21
1st and 10 at STAN 50 Andrew Luck pass complete to Chris Owusu for 12 yards to the Cal 38 for a 1ST down.    
1st and 10 at CAL 38 Andrew Luck pass complete to Ryan Whalen for 12 yards to the Cal 26 for a 1ST down.    
1st and 10 at CAL 26 Andrew Luck pass incomplete to Ryan Whalen.    
2nd and 10 at CAL 26 Toby Gerhart rush for 21 yards to the Cal 5 for a 1ST down.    
1st and Goal at CAL 5 Toby Gerhart rush for 5 yards for a TOUCHDOWN. 31 27
  Nate Whitaker extra point GOOD. 31 28
  Nate Whitaker kickoff for 66 yards returned by Jeremy Ross for 24 yards to the Cal 28.    
DRIVE TOTALS: Stanf drive: 6 plays 87 yards, 01:44 Stanf TD


In 1:44, they travel nearly the length of the field, gaining over 2/3rds of the yards they have gained in the last 38 minutes of the game.  Andrew Luck is 3-4 and Gerhart averages 13 yards a carry (kind of a skewed stat there).  Certainly frustrating after it looked like Cal might gone for it on 4th and taken more time off the clock and even gotten up by 18 points! 

Was the Stanford O hyped by the Stanford D stopping Cal on 3rd down?  I don't know.  But they woulda been, it follows, even more inspired if Stanford stopped Cal on 4th down.  And only had 47 yards to go instead of 87. 

Yes, it is a lot of fun to imagine Cal performing the best case scenarios.  And it is frustrating to compare the reality of the situation with what could have been.  It's also important to look at the worst case scenarios that Tedford was attempting to avoid and compare those to what might have been.  Here, my frustrations lie less with the call, although I am not sure I necessarily agree with it, and more with the fact that the Cal D allowed the Stanford O to go 87 yards in 6 plays and 1:44. 

I think people are viewing the call as a negative call, because of the negative result (the following Stanford TD) that did not have much to do with that call per se.  And if the Cal D had stopped the Stanford O on the next drive, nobody would have much discussed the 4th down punt.  Although, certainly if the 4th down attempt had failed and Stanford had quickly scored and gone on to win, people would have lambasted Tedford for that odd 4th down call, claiming the D was playing great and it woulda been better to just trap Stanford deep in their own territory. 

Hopefully, this has cleared up the situation and will allow us to look at the decision making process with the facts that existed AT THE TIME OF THE CALL as compared to the 20/20 hindsight and misconceptions that I think many are currently laboring under.  Again, the idiot that I am, I probably woulda gone for it there, but, being the risk adverse person that I am,  think I have a grasp of how Tedford's decision making process went.

Cameron_jordan_112109_0955_medium

via calbearsonline.com

Avi: Indeed, that's the outcome bias working--we're judging Tedford for decisions made based on what happened afterwards as opposed to the value of the decision at the time it was made. It's human, but it's erroneous to blame Tedford for this decision because the Furd happened to score.

Twist: Let's go one drive before that:

Stanford at 4:27 CAL STAN
1st and 10 at STAN 21 Andrew Luck pass incomplete to Coby Fleener. 31 28
2nd and 10 at STAN 21 Toby Gerhart rush for 2 yards to the Stanf 23.    
3rd and 8 at STAN 23 Andrew Luck pass incomplete to Chris Owusu.    
4th and 8 at STAN 23 Andrew Luck pass incomplete to Jim Dray.    
DRIVE TOTALS: Stanf drive: 4 plays 2 yards, 00:50 Stanf DOWNS


This is the drive preceding.  Luck not looking so good on there.  But the key portion here is the 4th down play.  Stanford is on its own 23.  Roughly 4 minutes and change left.  All 3 time outs. In the previous two Cal drives, we had gone 12 plays for a total of 35 yards.  Most of which came on one 18 yard pass completion.  Two punts.  Clearly, the momentum had shifted back to Stanford at this point.  So, if you punt and can hold Cal, you got another great shot.  Certainly, if Tedford was in this situation, he would have punted.  But Harbaugh decided to go for it.  On 4th and 8.  On his own 23.  With 3 time outs and 4 minutes left in a 3 point game.

Avi: Unlike the 4th and inches, which you could consider either good or bad, this was a truly atrocious call. There's a small chance Luck succeeds here and scrambles for the first down, but only the remotest possibility that he throws for one (9 for 26 on the game up to this throw). It's 4th and long too, so the odds of a run are totally minimal, leaving the defense likely to play mainly the pass, and maybe a Luck scramble.

More importantly, YOU ARE HANDING CAL POINTS IF YOU FAIL. A field goal means you now need to drive down the field, likely without the majority of your timeouts. A touchdown ends the game. If Tedford had made a decision like this I'd be tearing my hair out. You punt the football and trust your defense, which has stopped the Bears from scoring the last two times (with some home town reffing helping them out, but whatever). Get the ball back and all you need to do is drive for a field goal, which given Furd's quick strike offense is totally feasible.

Imagine if the Furd had gotten to the red zone down 3 instead of down 6--think that the playcalling changes bigtime for Harbaugh? I feel that way.

Some Cal fans out there might prefer Harbaugh's aggressiveness because it's manly. It's ballsy. It sticks it to other opponents, it makes you feel awesome if it succeeds, it reinforces all the cliches of a football coach. It's just more social biases at work--we feel better because he played to win rather than playing not to lose. It doesn't excuse the fact that it's a bad decision the same way Les Miles's decision to dial up a throw to the end zone with 7 seconds left in field goal range. Ballsy, but literally fucking stupid.

Twist: And his ultra-aggressiveness does not pay off.  Of course, when Stanford turned the ball over on downs, Cal fans in my section and, assuredly, other sections started to believe that the game was done.  Cal would punch it in, make it a 2 score game with a minute or so left and we all go home happy. 

Then, this happened:

Big_game_112109_0903_medium

via calbearsonline.com

California at 3:32 CAL STAN
1st and 10 at STAN 23 Shane Vereen rush for 12 yards to the Stanf 11 for a 1ST down. 31 28
1st and 10 at STAN 11 Shane Vereen rush for no gain to the Stanf 11.    
2nd and 10 at STAN 11 Timeout STANFORD, clock 02:55.    
2nd and 10 at STAN 11 Shane Vereen rush for 2 yards to the Stanf 9.    
3rd and 8 at STAN 9 Timeout STANFORD, clock 02:48.    
3rd and 8 at STAN 9 Kevin Riley rush for a loss of 2 yards to the Stanf 11.    
4th and 10 at STAN 11 Timeout STANFORD, clock 02:46.    
4th and 10 at STAN 11 Vince D'Amato 28 yard field goal GOOD. 34 28
  Giorgio Tavecchio kickoff for 42 yards returned by Josh Catron for 14 yards to the Stanf 42.    
DRIVE TOTALS: Cal drive: 5 plays 12 yards, 00:46 Cal FG


Let's take a deeper look here.  Vereen starts off with a killer rush.  However, his next two attempts net 2 total yards.  Cal does not in any way attempt anything close to a pass in this situation.

Many people were greatly concerned about this lack of killer instinct.  Maybe it is a lack of killer instinct, I don't know.  But, in my belief, the downside of a pass attempt is FAR greater than the downside of any rush attempt.  Forcing Stanford to use all 3 time outs limits Stanford's offensive playcalling on their next drive. 

I know what you are saying here.  But if we score, their next drive don't matter.  A salient point.  Here, Tedford is going for the least risky plan.  Especially considering that they IN NO WAY trust Riley in the red zone.  We saw it in the Arizona game and we saw it again in the Stanford game.  After Riley throwing 3 picks in the red zone and fumbling once there also, once they get near the goal line, they would rather take 3 then risk a pick.  Considering that Vereen had had an amazing day to that point, they put it into the hands of the man they trust the most.  I believe they even used a WildBear or two, to try to mix it up.  This is a point lost in all the "TAKE A SHOT AT THE END ZONE!" lines.  The upsides of the plays called seem limited not because they have low upsides, but, because they just plain didn't work.

So, Cal decides to drain Stanford of time outs, force them to have to go the length of the field in roughly 2 minutes with no time outs.  To ensure that, he decides to center the ball.  At the close range, centering the ball becomes epically more important.  The angles are much harsher the closer in you go.  And Cal has certainly had its fair share of kicking troubles this year.  So, I see no problem with this play.

4124593576_45059c888b_medium

IMG_9968 (via Monica's Dad)

Avi: There's also the matter of Riley's red zone struggles. This season, he's only completed 45% of his passes in the red zone. Worse, he's thrown three interceptions, one of which destroyed early momentum against USC, another which could've cost us the Arizona upset (the other was earlier in the Big Game and was not Riley's fault). Although he threw a TD early in the 4th quarter, it wasn't an easy throw. Plus with a 3rd and goal at the 8, Furd's defense will probably play hard to guard the end zone on a pass.

Imagine if the Bears had thrown an incompletion that stopped the clock and left the Cardinal with one timeout, or worse, thrown a pick with the Cardinal likely playing the run. You'd probably feel much worse waking up Sunday morning.

No, the only decision here is to run the football a la Arizona, preferrably up the middle to center the ball and hope that you find the crease to the end zone. I find it quizzical that in this situation (like on 4th and inches) you don't trust Vereen to secure the ball, considering he's not fumbled all game long. I would've liked to see a run, but I guess when they got nothing on the first two runs they figured Vereen was spent and decided not to get too fancy at the end and do something totally mind-blowing (and there've been plenty of mind-blowing finishes in college football before).

Leave the Cardinal with no timeouts and they have no choice now; score a touchdown or lose the game. You're limiting Harbaugh's options, and that might've helped force the last questionable decision of the game.





Twist: Of course, after hitting the field goal and kicking off, Stanford then proceeds to march the length of the field VERY quickly.

Stanford at 2:42 CAL STAN
1st and 10 at STAN 42 Andrew Luck rush for 12 yards to the Cal 46 for a 1ST down. 34 28
1st and 10 at CAL 46 Andrew Luck rush for 4 yards to the Cal 42.    
2nd and 6 at CAL 42 Andrew Luck pass complete to Toby Gerhart for 29 yards to the Cal 13 for a 1ST down.    
1st and 10 at CAL 13 Andrew Luck pass incomplete to Coby Fleener.    
2nd and 10 at CAL 13 Andrew Luck pass intercepted by Michael Mohamed at the Cal 3, returned for 6 yards to the Cal 9.    
DRIVE TOTALS: Stanf drive: 5 plays 45 yards, 01:06 Stanf INT



The bulk of the drive is the one pass to Gerhart for about 30 yards.  A frightening moment for any Cal fan.  But one that we might have seen more of if Cal had attempted a pass and failed.  Luck had looked terrible all day, going 10-30.  Gerhart had certainly killed us, but Tedford's plan to drain Stanford of all 3 of its timeouts had limited Stanford's ability to use Gerhart.  When you have the ball at Cal's 13, you want to go to your stud RB first, right?  He averaged 6.8 yards on the day per carry.  Give it to him twice and bam, you score the potential game-winning TD.  But with no time outs, Stanford could NOT do that.  They had to throw throw throw.  And when you throw throw throw, what happens?  Well, just the series before, you have 3 incompletes and fail.  Here, Luck threw another incomplete and then a pick to the Prophet. 

As a final thought, I know Cal fans love ballsy aggressiveness.  I get that.  They want to see stirring sacks and long bombs (although once you start at the 23, you can't really long bomb).  But there are considerations other than proximity to goal line that come into effect here when choosing a play. 

Tedford didn't necessarily see it as a difference between a 38-28 game and a 34-28 game, like many fans do.  He saw it as a difference between a 34 (maybe)-28 game where Stanford had 1-3 time outs and roughly 3:30 left and a 34 (for sure)-28 game where Stanford had 2:42 and 0 time outs left.  When viewed from that prism, I, the risk adverse person that I am, have to agree with the game management here.  Sure, the otherworldy talent of Toby Gerhart nearly gave us all heart attacks.  But when you have a limited playbook and have to rush your plays because of no time outs, bad things happen.

And a bad thing did happen.  To Stanford!  Especially compared to if Stanford had punted on the 23, stopped Cal, driven 30+ yards and hit a field goal to tie the game.  This may be controversial, but I fully support Tedford's calls here.

Avi: I was baffled by Harbaugh's playcalling on 1st and 2nd down in the red zone. You have two minutes on the clock, and probably five-six plays to go. At this point, all you can do is score (turning the ball over ends the game), so why not run the football? If you score a touchdown immediately, you leave TWO MINUTES on the clock for Riley and the Bears to march downfield on a pass defense he's torched all game long.

More importantly, Andrew Luck is even worse with his accuracy in the red zone than Riley (after the Big Game, he's barely at 40%). Whether it's due to his receivers dropping passes or him making bad decisions. Although Cal held him down for much of the game, it was clear to almost any Cal fans we were more terrified of Gerhart running it up on us than Luck throwing it on us.

To be honest, I'm not sure Harbaugh should've even called that final timeout. You let Cal run the clock down to two minutes, keep that timeout in your back pocket, and in case you get to the goal-line (Furd's been a quick-hitting team all year, and their last drive only took 90 seconds), you have it ready so you can still factor Gerhart's running ability into the equation.

I hate to say it, but I feel the perfect college football coach choked a little under the spotlight. Just a little. (Actually, what the hell am I saying, I LOVE to say it.)

Big_game_112109_1040_medium

via calbearsonline.com

Who cares about us though, what were your thoughts on these calls?

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