In the previous installment, we addressed common areas of criticism that miss the mark with respect to areas Jimbo Fisher needs to improve in 2013. We now look at areas where criticism is more warranted.
Whereas most criticism of Fisher has (wrongly) focused on the offensive coordinator portion of his responsibilities, the bigger areas for improvement are actually on the head coaching side, which should be no surprise as he is much less experienced on that side of the job.
Playing the Odds
Perhaps nothing has been more infuriating over the past three years than Fisher's apparent unwillingness to take the percentage play on fourth down.
Fisher has been widely criticized for FSU's loss against NC State in 2012, but most of that criticism has focused on playcalling or the decision to run the ball three times on the last offensive possession. Neither are really good criticisms.
But two particular head coaching decisions by Fisher may well have cost FSU the game and each reflects a poor percentage play. The first was the decision to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the two yard line with about two minutes left in the first half.
FSU had been dominating the game to that point, had significant momentum, and had been averaging nearly eight yards per rush. This was not a situation where NC State had already stuffed the FSU running game multiple times inside the five. The proper play here was clearly to go for the touchdown—the expected point value of 4th down from the 2 yard line is still above the value of the field goal even presuming relatively equal competition.
Given the way FSU had run the ball to that point, odds of scoring the touchdown are probably over 60%. If FSU scores a touchdown there, that makes it 17-0 and even with the second-half collapse manages to back into an overtime situation. That FSU got the ball back and kicked a FG right before the half would likely not have been any different, so even the second-half collapse in that case would have produced no worse than a 20-17 win.
At worst, FSU gets stuffed on the play and the NC State offense takes over on their own goal line—field position with an expected point value actually below zero. Odds are very high of a three and out (or better) result from the defense, with good chances for a safety, turnover, or field position inside the NC State 35 with over two minutes remaining.
The decision to forego a 51-yard field goal attempt—despite having arguably the nation's best kicker in Dustin Hopkins, who had already made a 49-yarder—in the fourth quarter was even more inexplicable. Hopkins was 5-6 from 50+ yards in 2012, suggesting that the probability of making the field goal was approximately 80%.
Make the field goal and FSU goes up by two scores rather than clinging to a tenuous 6-point lead. By now, anyone familiar with Florida State football should be accustomed to the need to take the chance to go up two scores whenever possible, as the 'Noles have experienced all too many painful fourth-quarter losses when initially leading by numbers like 2 or 6.
Even with a (rare) Hopkins miss, going for the field goal communicates confidence in the defense, which still has half the field to defend. Again, the expected point value of kicking the field goal is higher than the benefit of field position gained by punting the ball.
These are examples where Fisher's decisions helped contribute to a loss, but they are by no means exceptions. Fisher has all too often made "orthodox" coaching decisions that ignore more recent data on the probable results of such decisions. In general, the data suggest Florida State would benefit from taking a more Belichick-style aggressive approach to fourth downs and similar situations.
Tempo, Tempo, Tempo
Fisher is correct that every team needs to be able to run at least three tempos. Operating at one pace all the time allows the defense to get comfortable, and a team that only operates at warp speed can put too much pressure on its own defense.
Nevertheless, teams with a significant talent advantage benefit from more plays in a game, not only because of superior depth but also because increasing the number of trials over the course of the game makes low-odds outcomes less common. It's the same principle at work in casinos—an individual player may come out ahead after a few trials, but if he plays enough, the house always wins because the odds are in its favor.
Given its stacked roster, Florida State now has "house odds," and should benefit from pushing the pace more against lesser opponents, who are less likely to win a high enough percentage of 160 total plays than they are 125.
Fisher believes in balanced football where the offense protects the defense, but nothing protects a defense more than points. The aim should not be to slow the game down to protect the defense against a lesser opponent but the reverse: speed things up, increase the intensity level, put up early points, and give the defense more opportunities to win its own matchup. Once you're up three or four scores, you can step off the pace a bit to avoid the increased chances of injury and begin to develop depth by playing more backups.
Plays for Players
Fisher is often criticized for being too stubborn on offense or for being in love with his own playbook. This criticism is nearly the opposite of where he could really improve. If anything, sometimes respects the defense too much by defaulting so heavily to the "take what they give" approach that undergirds his offensive philosophy.
That is, Fisher's offense relies upon a counterpunching philosophy that aims to make sure the defense is always wrong—"if they try to take away this, we'll to that." Fisher values the ability to make "blind calls"—flexible concepts that have answers built in for anything a defense could do. This is generally a sound approach but sometimes allows the defense to dictate too much rather than saying, "Here's what we do best, try to stop it."
One result of this approach is that sometimes the Seminoles' best players don't see the ball as much as they ought—such as Rashad Greene last year. The offense could benefit from just a few extra plays per game specifically designed to isolate its best players rather than simply defaulting to open concepts where they may or may not see the ball, depending on how the quarterback reads the coverage.
Likewise, there have been a handful of times over the past few years (most notably Wake Forest in 2011 and Florida in the late third/early fourth quarter in 2012) where FSU held the edge up front and simply should have pounded the football a bit more even though the defense was trying to take it away. Sometimes you've simply got to establish dominance when you've got the physical edge rather than always counterpunching.
This change is one I expect to see more of this year, as FSU has the offensive line to make this an emphasis, and the more experienced offensive staff should help plan for some wrinkles to get its best players the ball.
This is perhaps the hardest thing for any head coach to manage, and Fisher is no exception, though he has worked very hard at it, drilling himself and his team for every conceivable situation.
Nevertheless, the Virginia game in 2011 stands out as an example where all the preparation doesn't always mean getting it right.
Also, like with fourth downs, the Seminoles could probably afford to take a few shots at the end of first halves, as sometimes Fisher doesn't use all the clock (or timeouts) available to maximize efficiency at the end of halves.
I do think we'll see a bit more aggressive approach on offense from Florida State this year, including more of an emphasis on establishing dominance.
I'm not, however, optimistic about Fisher changing his approach to fourth downs, punt/field goal and goalline decisions to a more probability-based approach, nor do I expect an increased tempo against lesser teams in 2013.
Clock management has seemed to improve a little each year, but it may be more difficult with a young quarterback under center.
At any rate, like his program, Fisher still has room to improve, I suspect this year will confirm him as one of the top head coaches in the NCAA.