Coaching Decisions: What Standard Should Be Applied?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody loves talking applying standards more than I do!

During the latter part of the Tedford era, I'd notice discussions pop up on Bear Insider about the various Cal sites that had the tenor of a late 80s/early 90s comedian. "Scout drives like this! BI drives like that!" They'd all go around and have criticisms (or praises) of the various site. I was always somewhat interested in what they said about CGB, so I'd lurk like the creepiest creep to ever creep.

I remember one particular criticism resonating with me. A reader, whose handle I forget, said that CGB seemed extremely conservative. Not conservative like GO ROMNEY GO. Instead, what they meant was that we were very much likely to accept what the coaches said as the Gospel Truth as a genuine justification for their actions.

While others might say "That makes no sense," we'd say "Well, if the coaches are saying it, it's probably true." Now, I don't think that this criticism is 100% accurate, but I did think that is was accurate towards me in some ways. I do often find myself agreeing with the coaches (even within the parameters of their coachspeak), which seems to put me at odds with many of the readers here (which is great, because if you are agreeing with me, something is probably wrong with you). What I wanted to talk about today is why.  What standard am I applying in understanding coaching decisions and how does it lead me to consistently agree with the coaching decisions?

I see it breaking down into two basic standards about how to judge coach decision making:

1. Reasonable Decision - Given all the information that can be gleaned, is this a reasonable decision?

2. Closest To The Best Decision - Given all the information that can be gleaned, is this closest to the best decision?


To illustrate this, let's look at a recent point of controversy, who should be the starting QB for Cal, Jared Goff or Zach Kline. I'm not necessarily using that topic to get into the nitty gritty of the discussion, per se, but just to use my analysis of it in regards to these two standards.

Jared Goff was named starter after many, many months of back and forth during practice. He started off the year playing quite well, but started to struggle as we got deeper into the season (particularly on a wet and rainy night in Eugene where he fumbled the ball several times). Coach Dykes started to put Zach Kline in during the latter portion of games for a drive or two. It didn't seem like he was turning the keys over to Kline, but more giving Goff a break. All of his post-game comments were "Goff is our QB." It never quite seemed realistic that Kline would become the starting QB, pending injury. This kept happening in starts and stops throughout the season, until Goff did get injured in the Big Game and Kline played a substantial amount of the game.

Kline played decently well in his role, but I personally never felt he wildly outplayed Goff. Many fans grew increasingly frustrated with the handling of this situation. As the team's losses continued to mount and Goff played inconsistently (a poor running game and injured OLine did not help, certainly), many fans were looking for a change. The fact that Coach Dykes seemed so dogmatic on the issue of starting QB confused and rankled them. For me, I never quite got to that level, despite the fact that I thought it might have been good for Kline to start a game.

Why the disconnect? I think it is because we were applying different standards.

1. In my reasonable decision standard, I felt that continuing to play Goff was a reasonable decision. He had beaten out Kline in the off-season after months of intense competition. He was playing mediocre to great, all other factors considered. If he was the QB of the future, it's good to get him as much playing time as possible now for his overall development.

Despite the fact that he was struggling, what we saw from Kline didn't seem absurdly better. Part of me felt that giving Kline a starting gig for a game to "see what we had" made sense. The fact that he didn't get that, however, seemed reasonable to me since he wasn't outplaying Goff.

2. For a closest to the best decision standard, continuing to play Goff may not have made sense. The team kept losing. The offense was regressing (there were many factors to this and I do not want to blame Goff wholly). Putting in Kline could be a spark. It couldn't be worse, right?

By not playing/starting Kline, Dykes may not have been making the best decision available. He may have not been putting the team in the best position to win (aka his job description!). However, you can still make reasonable decisions that are not the best decision. If I can understand the coach's thought process and feel that it was a reasonable thought process given all known factors at that time, I'm fine with it. Even though I personally disagreed with Dykes not starting Kline (at least) one game, I was fine with the decision.

To me, closest to the best decision is a harder standard to determine, because it is often outcome dependent. A coach makes a call and it works out. He's a genius! He makes a call and it doesn't work out. He's an idiot! It's the same call with different results due to execution results on the field or whatever, but either way, it's still his same call. There are so many factors that go into a call, it's tough to determine what is the best call ahead of time without that judgment being polluted by the end result.

So, the "conservative" criticism levied above rings true, because coaching decisions are more likely to appear appropriate when using the reasonable decision standard. Enough about me, though. What standard do you use in determining how to judge coaching decisions? Tell us your thoughts in the comments and GO BEARS!

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