And now the New York sports media prepares for an off-season of what ESPN.com called “The Blame Game” in the wake of the Jets’ 24-29 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s a sampling from ESPN’s Ian O’Connor: “He [Ryan] did not have his team ready to play the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, and that is a regret he will carry to his coaching grave.”
And AOL’s Ray Glier blames Mark Sanchez’s failure to pick up the Steelers’ blitz just before half time, which resulted in a fumble and an insurmountable 24-0 Pittsburgh lead. (No AFC team has ever overcome a deficit of more than 18 points in a title game.) “Who was supposed to call out protections? Should Sanchez have made an adjustment in the blocking schemes? It was third-and-17. It was going to be a deeper route, so Sanchez would need time to look down field. Dick LeBeau, the Steelers defensive coordinator, figured that, too, so he called for the blitz. It looks like a great call by LeBeau, but there had to be a counter by Sanchez. He saw the blitz. He stopped the snap count and looked that way.”
O’Connor is right: Ryan and his coaching staff did not have the Jets ready to play yesterday, and that’s why they were behind 17-0 with about two minutes to play in the first half.
Glier is wrong about Sanchez. If he did check the Steelers’ formation, he still had no way of knowing whether or not Ike Taylor was coming. And even if he did, it was someone’s responsibility to block Taylor. In any event, as Harvey Araton correctly points out in today’s Times, “Ryan did not cover himself with glory … most costly was his decision to allow a rattled Sanchez to throw on third-and-17 from the Jets’ 26, already down 17-0 late in the half. Blindsided by a blitzing Ike Taylor, Sanchez fumbled, William Gay ran 19 yards into the end zone, and the miserable half was compounded by a crucial mistake that gave the Steelers just enough to rope in the second half to survive the resurgent Jets.”
Yes, that says it. The real question, though, is why the Jets coaching staff recklessly allowed Sanchez to drop back and attempt to throw down field in such a bad situation. On third-and-17, you’re more than twice as likely to get hit and sacked for a substantial loss or throw an interception than you are on first down. Wouldn’t it have been far more sensible to simply try and run the clock down, go into the locker room down by 17 points, and regroup? (Which the Jets did anyway.)
Look, don’t blame me for making too much of that play – it was, after all, called the play of the game. And, by the way, when you look at it, ask yourself if, even after review, the officials made the right call? I’ve watched it ten or twelve times, and it still looks to me like Sanchez’s arm was moving forward, and the play should have been called an incomplete pass.
But as Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim point out in their fascinating new book, Scorecasting, “We submit that referee bias from social influence not only is present but is probably the leading cause of home field advantage” in all major sports. And “Could referee bias explain a large part of the home field advantage in football? Absolutely.”
In other words, if the same play has occurred at the Meadowlands, would it more likely have been called an incomplete pass? Yes.
But, that’s part of the game as we know it, too. The decision that set up that play had nothing to do with referee bias and everything to do with Ryan’s immaturity and lack of sound judgment in key situations. It showed again in the final period with the jets down 24-12 on the Steelers’ one-yard line and about eight minutes left to play. On both second and third down, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer baffled Jets fans by calling for passes and the, on fourth down, calling an off-tackle plunge with LaDanian Tomlinson carrying.
What could have been running through Ryan’s and Schottenheimer’s heads? How in such a crucial situation, could they have though of anything other than giving the ball – and this is said with all due respect to the great LT – to their power back, Sonn Greene?
All season long, in money situations, the Jets played ground-and-pound. Against Pittsburgh, with a chance to get back in the game, they chose to get fancy. Yes, neither the Steelers’ sack-and-fumble TD on Sanchez near the end of the first half nor their goal line stand in the last few minutes of the game were in and of themselves decisive. Which is to say that it’s never for sure that if one team does or doesn’t do something, then it’s inevitable if one team does A, the opposing team will do B.
The point is that in both critical situations Ryan and his coaches did not go with the percentage plays but gambled when they would have been much better served by the kind of conservative play calling which got them to this game in the first place.
Who’s to blame? Not Sanchez, who was extraordinary in picking the team up from being down 24-0 late in the second quarter and giving the jets a chance to win the game – the was by far the better quarterback on the field yesterday, hitting on 20 of 33 passes for 233 yards with no interceptions to Ben Roethlisberger’s 10 of 19 for 133 yards with two pickoffs.
Don’t blame the quarterback for this one. The blame for this one begins and ends at the top.