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Divisional Round provides strong “empower the players” reminder

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What the Packers did right and the Cowboys, Chiefs did wrong showcase the importance of player trust and empowerment in the NFL.

We’ve reached conference championship week in the NFL. With that, comes an annual tradition -- using facets of the four remaining teams as concrete evidence regarding the correct way to build a team or to pinpoint which positions / players matter most.

And doing so isn’t crazy. In fact, it’s quite logical.

However, yes, this is the classic opportunity for recency bias to sneak into analysis, but because it’s the craze this week, I decided to offer the main thought I had after Sunday’s divisional-round games.

(For example, the justified talk during this championship game centers around elite QB play and the decreased importance of defense. A year ago, the “defensive wins championships” chorus was rightfully loud.)

In general, NFL teams that lean on and trust the strengths of their good players, especially in critical situations, are typically successful. When scheme is prioritized over players, success is harder to obtain.

I saw two blatant examples of this on Sunday.


Packers - Cowboys

After losing a big, second-half lead, the Packers operated a vintage four-minute drill to get into field goal after the two-minute warning.

At the Cowboys’ 38 yard line, Green Bay faced 3rd and 13. A bot would have elected a safe running play with a high probability of getting the ball a few yards closer for the go-ahead field-goal opportunity.

But Mike McCarthy isn’t a bot, and he trusts Aaron Rodgers. So a pass play was called. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer looked for an open target and ultimately threw an incomplete pass well down the field.

A shorter pass probably would’ve made more sense, but it really wasn’t about the incompletion. Hats off to McCarthy for empowering his superstar in a critical situation.

The same goes for the game-winning drive. Green Bay started at its own 25 with just 35 seconds remaining. Draw play right? Maybe a screen? A kneeldown?

Nope.

First play... deep shot down the seam. Incomplete. Second down, 17-yard completion. First down... sack (which nearly cost them the game, but didn’t). On 2nd and 20 with 18 seconds left from his own 32, Rodgers threw incomplete.

Then, “the throw” happened, on 3rd and 20 with 12 seconds left. Otherworldly execution from Rodgers and Jared Cook. Most importantly though, there wasn’t an ultra-conservative, play-for-overtime coaching decision to stop the potential of that otherworldly execution from ever happening.

On the other side of things, the Cowboys didn’t trust their young, budding superstars, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

With 47 seconds to go, from the Packers’ 40 yard line, Jason Garrett elected to have Prescott spike the ball, kinda-sorta playing for the tying field goal, instead of the go-ahead touchdown.

Dallas then had only two attempts to gain 10 yards. Also, the choice provided Rodgers just enough time to orchestrate a legendary, game-winning drive.

Dealing with first-year players, it’s hard to come down extremely hard on Garrett for his decision, but it was a catalyst in the Packers’ remarkable victory.


Steelers - Chiefs

With the game on the line in the divisional-round nightcap, the Chiefs prioritized scheme over their (star) players... and lost. Imagine that.

Kansas City needed to stop the Steelers on a 3rd and 3 after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter to have any chance to win the game. Instead of letting lockdown, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year cornerback Marcus Peters cover Antonio Brown (with maybe some safety help over the top), the Chiefs dropped into zone. What’s even worse — their expensive pass-rusher, Justin Houston, was one of the front-seven players who sank into coverage.

Instead of trusting their two best defensive players to do what they do best — for Peters, it’s coverage, and for Houston, it’s rushing the passer — they relied on their scheme to do the heavy lifting.

It failed.

Antonio Brown executed a crossing route and, unsurprisingly, made the catch just beyond Houston to effectively win the game for the Steelers.


Cool story, Chris, but what’s the Bills tie-in?

In the aftermath of Buffalo’s Rex Ryan era, Bills fans are well aware his scheme was put ahead of the defensive players. And the results were abysmal on that side of the ball, especially relative to the talent.

Much more often than not during the playoff drought, I’ve witnessed the Bills play not to lose instead of taking an aggressive approach with their best players highlighted.

The only harsh criticism of Anthony Lynn during his 14 games as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator in 2016 was his decision to call a reverse to Reggie Bush from the Dolphins’ 19 yard line in overtime of the Christmas Eve loss to Miami that ended the Bills’ 2016 season. The vast majority of the time, Lynn leaned on the Bills’ elite run game.

From everything I’ve gathered about Sean McDermott, his defense is considerably more “player-friendly” than Rex Ryan’s. Players are empowered. They’re not relegated to being pawns in a system.

All this is not to insinuate an attempt to fool an opponent with a decoy or exotic coverage / blitz / trick play can never happen. Not at all.

It’s just that I’ll never fault a failed coach if he put the game in the hands of his best players in crucial situations, particularly near the end of a close contest.

Today’s offenses and defenses are ultra complicated. Significant game-planning goes into each outing. But truly and simply — not just coachspeak here — putting a team’s best players in position to do what they do best is the most sensible way to have no regrets as a decision-maker in the NFL.