Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's a Challenge Worth?

In the aftermath of the Chargers' meltdown on Sunday against the Patriots, Marty Schottenheimer has come under criticism from all sides. One play that stood out was the decision to challenge the ruling-on-the-field of the interception by Marlon McCree and subsequent strip by Patriots WR Troy Brown; the play was a 4th-and-5 with the Pats down by 8 points with just 6:25 left in the game. If the interception had stood (or, for that matter, if McCree had batted the ball down, giving the Chargers possession), the game likely would have swung to the Chargers.

Schottenheimer was criticized for throwing a challenge flag on a play that did not seem (at first glance, or later) to be ripe to be overturned. Further, the Chargers could have used the lost timeout later in the game when, down a field goal with under a minute to go, they tried to mount one final drive.

It's easy to criticize Schottenheimer, the owner of a 5-13 record in the playoffs. (He's also the holder of the dubious distinction of being the NFL coach with the most career wins (200) without a Super Bowl appearance.) However, if the call had been overturned -- as unlikely as that seemed to be given the replays -- the Chargers would have likely won.

But Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick should be subject to even harsher criticism. With approximately 6 minutes left in the third quarter against the Colts, he challenged a fumble out of bounds that still left the Colts with a 3rd-and-4 at midfield; whether the call was correct or not, the Ravens needed the timeout (and the coach's challenge) much more than the swing of 7 yards.

As it turned out, the wasted challenge came back to haunt the Ravens. With the Colts embarking on what turned out to be the game-clinching drive, they reached midfield and a 3rd-and-5. After calling their final timeout, Peyton Manning threw a ball to Dallas Clark that appeared to be well-covered by the Ravens' Corey Ivy. But Clark reached out with one hand, tipped the ball to himself, juggled it against his thigh pad, and ultimately came up holding the ball with an apparent catch. With no challenge in reserve, Billick had no choice but to accept the proverbial 'ruling-on-the-field.' The Colts continued down the field, and ultimately finished the game with a final field goal.

With all the statistical analysis that goes into sports writing and watching today, I am surprised that there is not more written on the 'proper' use of a coach's challenge. But when a team's season is on the line -- and can be saved by the use of a challenge -- it seems reasonable to expect the coach to use it. Unless of course he's wasted it already in the 3rd quarter.

No comments: