On Super Bowl Sunday, The New York Times published an interesting series of stories and charts based on the work of a computer program called Zeus. It's complicated stuff, and if you want to get more into it, check out the site pigskinrevolution.com or else this FAQ that was in the Times.
An alert reader named Larry -- a former resident of N.C., currently of Tampa and still, he says, a PSL holder -- pointed it out to me.
After running through millions of scenarios, Zeus decided among other things that teams should go for it far more often on fourth down, because a good offense generally can convert that from short distances and that the onside kick is severely under-utilized. It advocates aggressiveness in play-calling -- not just because of a gut feeling, but because of science.
So how does Panthers coach John Fox rate on this scale?
You probably won't be surprised that Zeus judged Fox to be dead last -- No.32 out of 32 -- on how often he made a decision that would agree with what the Zeus computer program would have said he should do. Zeus's rankings aren't far off the NFL's 2008 stats for teams that went for it on fourth down most vs. least often -- Carolina went for it the fewest times (8) and Jacksonville the most (24).
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio finished first in Zeus's rankings -- he's notoriously aggressive on play-calling -- and yet the Jaguars didn't make the playoffs. (Zeus would likely say this is because the human execution part of the play-call cannot be accounted for). Pittsburgh, the Super Bowl champion, was 10th.
Of course, the Panthers still managed to go 12-4, secure a first-round bye and finish 7th in the NFL in scoring. So it's way, way off the mark for any human (or computer program) to call Fox the No.32 coach in the NFL. For all his flaws, I'd label him a top 10 NFL head coach.
But this does back up a lot of anecdotal evidence I've gathered over the years: Fox may well be the most conservative coach in the entire NFL. If Fox could just curb that conservative impulse a bit, he might turn into a Top 5 NFL coach and the Panthers might well win a Super Bowl one day.
But as I've written a number of times, Fox said in our first long interview way back in 2002 shortly after he was hired: "A punt is not a bad play." And, for better and for worse, the coach has never strayed far from that philosophy.