Sports Maven: NFL playoffs are no time for conservative coaching

The NFL playoffs are the time when legacies are made and broken. These games show the vast space between the fortune of Tom Brady and that of Philip Rivers.

Unlike some quarterbacks, Rivers falls to the earth as a good, but not great player while still taking his chances throwing the ball downfield.

Rivers only completed 25 of his 51 passes, but at least he went down swinging in a division round game that appeared over by halftime after the New England Patriots had sliced both the offensive and defensive linemen of the San Diego Chargers.

Other quarterbacks this postseason were handcuffed by playcallers who did not realize they were in an elimination game.

Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was the main offender. His options became limited early in the game as Ezekiel Elliott gained 17 yards on his first seven carries. Still, he leaned on Elliott, who led the league in rushing yards. With that being the case, one would like to expect plays to be designed better as the game progressed.

But Linehan, whose lack of imagination demanded that we suffer him once more, drew up a running play for Elliott to go up the middle, where there was no path except into the expectant arms of Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the league leader in tackles for loss. Elliott was sent into a few other inside runs late in the game, with the only goal being a show of toughness when there was a 30-15 deficit to make up.

Maybe Elliott would have totaled more than 47 yards on 20 carries if he were given better schemes.

As the Cowboys tried to make up a 15-point gap in the last 7:16 of play, Linehan directed Dak Prescott to repeatedly throw short passes underneath the second level of the Rams’ defense. Thus, four of the five pass completions on the Cowboys’ last scoring drive were less than 10 yards. Trailing by multiple scores in the last seven minutes of a playoff game is not the time to get one first down at a time. Dallas approached the goal line not because of any great pass, but because Prescott knew that if you let a play break down, chances are that someone will commit a penalty.

The Cowboys’ five-minute drive was far too long.

Also, one had to wonder what they were doing with Amari Cooper when he did not receive the most pass targets among Cowboys receivers and, aside from one 29-yard catch, he had five receptions for 36 yards. Like Prescott, Cooper was confined to making short plays.

The wild card round had more guilty coaches. Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer opted to run the ball late and call an inordinate number of short passes in their Jan. 6 loss to the Cowboys. At age 30, Russell Wilson is not getting any younger and will only regain his supremacy if he is allowed to air the ball out. Nick Foles’ magic for the Philadelphia Eagles worked last week in part because that of Chicago Bears rookie head coach Matt Nagy did not appear. The 40-year-old Nagy has brought a type of offensive imagination never before introduced in Chicago. They won close games in part because of their creative use of running back Tarik Cohen, but only gave Cohen five touches against the Eagles. Also, the Bears attempted four field goals instead of taking more shots at the end zone. Nagy could do better if the Bears return to the playoffs next year.

However, Linehan and Schottenheimer may not deserve more opportunities. Schottenheimer has benefited from having a an accomplished father, retired coach Marty Schottenheimer, but the Seahawks were last in pass attempts this year despite Wilson being a great quarterback. Linehan is a 55-year-old retread with 17 years of experience coaching in the NFL. After five years in Dallas, he is not the one to build Prescott’s future.

On Sunday, Bleacher Report’s Brett Sobleski wrote the much-uttered phrase of the past week, “Everyone wants the next [Sean] McVay,” referring to the Rams’ 32-year-old head coach. “He can’t be replicated, and society hasn’t reached a point where human cloning is possible or acceptable.”

That may be true, but it should not stop any team from seeking the next great offensive head coach. The NFL keeps moving towards spread out passing with fewer snaps under center. Even if new young head coaches like the Arizona Cardinals’ Kliff Kingbury, the Cincinnati Bengals’ planned hire of Zac Taylor (McVay’s quarterbacks coach who becomes available after the Rams finish their playoff run) and the Cleveland Browns’ Freddie Kitchens are not as successful as McVay, they could be at least more clever than the hard-bitten veterans who abide the norms of using the run to set up the pass and rarely attempting two-point conversions.

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