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Bengals personal fouls cost them playoff victory

Posted by John Reed on

On 1/9/16, the Bengals seemingly had their wild card playoff game against Pittsburgh won. Cincinnati was up 16-15 and the Steelers were at the Bengals’ 47 yard line with :22 left in the game.

It was 1st & 10, but Pitt QB Rothlisberger had been badly hurt earlier in the game and essentially could not pass effectively.

Incomplete pass—good for 30 yards

His pass on the next play was incomplete—too high—but was, in effect, turned into a 15-yard completion by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict who injured (concussion) Pitt Receiver Antonio Brown with an unnecessary roughness hit to the head. That moved the ball to the Bengals’ 32. From the 32, a field goal kick is 32 + 17 yards = 49 yards. During the 2015 season, Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell was 9 of 12 from 40 to 49 yards—75%. Before the penalty, it was 2nd & 10 from the Pitt 47 which is out of field-goal range (53 + 17 = 70-yard field goal; NFL record is 64 yards). 

But wait, there’s more. The Bengals’ Adam “Pacman” Jones decided he was entitled to go road-rage nuts at a Pitt coach who was out on the field tending to the injured Antonio Brown. That drew a dead-ball, unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty moving the ball another 15 yards to the Bengals’ 17-yard line. From that distance—34 yards—Boswell’s success rate is 8 for 8 or 100%.

And indeed, he kicked the field goal and the Steelers won 18-16 and advanced in the playoffs. The Bengals ended their season.

Marvin Lewis’s fault

The issue for me is whether this loss was the fault of Bengals’ coach Marvin Lewis.

Yes, it was.

Football Clock Management book

Chapter 12 of my book Football Clock Management is titled “Celebrations and personal fouls.” It also covers what I call “premature mourning” and the celebrations in question are really premature celebrations.

“Premature mourning” is stopping because you think the play is over and your side failed on the play. The classic case history of that was a Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson on Monday Night Football 9/15/08 when he celebrated by spiking the ball backward into fair territory as he crossed the goal line.


The good news for the Cowboys was replay showed the ball never crossed the plane of the goal line. It was a fumble and live ball, not a TD. In other words, Jackson celebrated prematurely.

The bad news was the Cowboys all walked away mourning the TD and never tried to recover the ball. The refs blew it dead from lack of interest as required by the rules. Philadelphia got it first and goal at the Dallas one yard line and scored on the next play. The Cowboys probably could have not only recovered, they could have returned it 99 yards for a TD. Dallas won 41-37 anyway.

I got a million of them

My book is full of actual case histories of premature celebrations, premature mourning, and personal fouls snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Examples, the Sooner Schooner in the 1985 Orange Bowl, The Cal-Stanford 1982 big game that ended with a game-winning, five-lateral touchdown (15-yard penalty enforced on kickoff after celebration penalty against Stanford; another was called on the Stanford Band who marched onto the field while the TD play was happening. That penalty was declined; had it not been, Stanford would have had to kickoff again from their own 10 yard line for an untimed down), Kyle Turley’s tantrum on Sunday Night Football in 2001, Plaxico Burress’ spiking the ball he just caught after he fell down untouched by a defender—that’s a fumble—and he did it twice!—before shooting himself in the foot, literally; Eagles Trent Cole kicking Giants’ Kareem McKenzie, thereby moving the ball to the 34 and letting the Giants tie the game  which they won in OT; and many more actual case histories including many even the most rabid fan probably never heard of.

Penalty avoidance is wimpy?

Many ignoramuses say NFL coaches can’t stop the players from doing that because the players have to be fired up and personal fouls are an inevitable by product of that. Some coaches literally encourage celebration and personal fouls thinking lack of them is evidence of too little aggressiveness. On 10/27/07, Georgia Coach Mark Richt told his players he would make them run extra if they did NOT get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. They got one on the first score. He had to write apology letters to all NCAA coaches.

Here’s a headline from a Web site called SB Nation:

‘What makes Pacman Jones and Vontaze Burfict so good is also what makes them a risk’

Apparently, the author, Roger Sherman, is some corner-tavern, bar stool pontificator who has not bothered to research the matter.

If penalties are a mark of good, aggressive play, why are the most penalized teams generally not the ones in the playoffs?

Cincinnati ranked 20th out of the 32 NFL teams in penalties accepted against them. Pittsburgh was 6th. The top team in avoiding penalties accepted against them was the Vikings, who barely lost to the Seahawks in their wildcard game. The perennially well-coached and successful Patriots rank 4th in penalty avoidance in 2015. 

The Bengal’s low ranking for the season and performance against Pittsburgh reflects on the head coach. He can avoid penalties both by the way he coaches and by whom he puts on the roster and whom he puts on the field.

Basic coaching principles violated

What you emphasize, you achieve. Marvin Lewis failed to emphasize penalty avoidance enough and reaped what he sowed.

What you tolerate, you encourage. Here is what was known about Burfict and unsportsmanlike/personal fouls before the Steelers game. This from Wikipedia: 

On October 6, 2010, Burfict was benched by Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson. The reason given was Burfict's unusually high number of personal foul penalties. In a game against Stanford, Burfict was called for grabbing the facemask of Doug Baldwin, and—after complaining to the referee—charged with a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct that gave Stanford a first down at the ASU 7. Two plays later, Stanford scored what turned out to be the winning touchdown.

Here is what my son Dan found researching Burfict:

In college he had 16 personal fouls in 26 games. Since he entered the NFL, he leads the league in unnecessary roughness penalties (14).

So don’t draft Burfict. Don’t hire him as a free agent. If you inherit  him, trade him. If you have him, keep him off the field. If you keep him and play him, don’t come running to me crying when he behaves as he has always behaved.

What you demand, you get. Lewis may have requested penalty avoidance, but if requesting is not enough, the leader must demand, and that means punishing the player in question more and more harshly until the desired result is achieved—or firing the SOB when he fails to behave. Either straighten him out or move him out. This is basic leadership, including coaching.

These three principles—emphasize, tolerate, demand—are the most basic principles of leadership and coaching. Either Lewis does not know them or he is not man enough to get belly to belly with a player and demand the necessary performance and make the demand stick either by punishment that brings about the desired change or by trading/cutting.

 By the way, the worst coaches in the NFL for penalty toleration are Rex Ryan at Buffalo tied with Tampa’s Lovie Smith.

How to coach to avoid penalties

My Football Clock Management book and my other coaching books discuss how to coach to avoid penalties. It involves carrots (moving up the depth chart, compliments, awards) and sticks (demotion, benching, cutting from the team) as well as not letting the player on the team to begin with. If you want NFL-specific ways to coach so as to avoid penalties, identify the retired coaches who were good at that and ask them. I doubt there are any mysteries. Emphasize, don’t tolerate, demand, and throw off the team those who persist in unacceptable behavior.

Or you can tolerate this crap and watch your season go up in smoke because of some jerk who acted the way he always has, like an unprofessional jerk.

You don’t need talent to hustle and too many athletes think they don’t need to hustle because they have talent

I have noticed a phenomenon nobody else writes about. Thee is a saying is coaching that you don’t need talent to hustle. But a whole lot of talented players apparently have drawn the corollary conclusion that if you have talent, you don’t need to hustle. Hustle can be defined simply as doing what your coaches have always told you to do and to refrain from doing that which your coaches told you not to do.

The good players I coached, like recent Bengals receiver Ryan Whalen, had talent and they had hustle. When they make a great play, they treat is as a deposit into their savings account that they will leave there for future spending on important stuff, like being recruited to college, or drafted into the NFL. The jerk players who are talented, see a great play as a deposit that must be spent ASAP, by acting like a jerk and saying, implicitly to the other players, “See, I’m so good, I can misbehave and get away with it.”

Burfict was good enough to be a first-round draft pick, but because he “spent” his good-play “deposits” as fast as he could by acting like a jerk, he ended up being undrafted and got picked up cheap by a team that thought they were smarter than all the rest.

Too many coaches, desperate for talent, tolerate that. Bad move. With each passing year of my career, I became less and less tolerant. That was true of being an Army officer, a landlord, a coach, a businessman—any leadership position.

Marvin Lewis reaped what he sowed. He thought Burfict was a bargain. He got what exactly what he paid for.

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