Whenever an NFL game is close and relatively low-scoring, analysts are required by law to compare the contest to a chess match. They’ll be outcasts from their profession if they don’t. It’s just a given at this point. Aliens could show up, declare their intent to make a game as boring as possible, and even then you’d still hear Dan Dierdorf grumbling behind their ray gun blasts something about how the two coaches are locked in a mental stalemate or something. That’s why the third-string quarterback just tossed his fifth interception of the day, because one of the coaches outsmarted the other. Had nothing to do with E.T. over there. Give me a break.

That being said, even in this day and age where coaches are held liable for the outcome of every aspect of their team’s season, good and bad, there really are times when NFL coaches have a direct effect on how their teams perform and, for those specific moments, both credit and blame really should be at stake.

Finally, when you consider how many of those moments take place over the course of an entire year, you paint an even clearer picture of those men behind the men, and in the course of doing so, separating the knights from the pawns becomes even easier as result. Hang on to your rooks, then, as we look back at the most important coaching decisions of 2010 and determine who checked their mate and who should’ve checked themselves instead.

 

Masters

 

Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis Rams

Strategic Move(s): Trusting rookie quarterback Sam Bradford

Play-by-Play: It might just seem like common sense that if you pay an athlete $50 million in guaranteed money, you expect them to, you know, play a sport, but that’s actually not always the case. Conventional wisdom, in fact, suggests otherwise, at least in the case of rookie NFL quarterbacks, that is, and history has proven time and time again that for at least that specific scenario, a safer alternative is usually best. None of that mattered to Spagnuolo and the Rams when they started Bradford on day one, however, and now, 15 games later, there’s little question they made the right choice: the Rams went from a league-worst 1-15 season to within one game of their first division title since 2003 (albeit in one of the worst NFL divisions ever) and they did it all with Bradford behind center, who now holds the rookie record for completions (354) and came awful close to matching the passing yards mark as well by throwing for 3,512. Very sly move there, Steve-o, very sly indeed.

 

Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Strategic Move(s): Flawless switch-a-roo of Randy Moss and Deion Branch

Play-by-Play: The original evil genius, Bill Belichick reaffirmed his chess prowess once again this year by taking yet another former stud and dumping him off on somebody else just before the talent pool ran dry. All the warning signs of a pending Randy Moss meltdown were obvious well before the diva was shipped off to Minnesota this past October, and, being the crafty schemer that he is, Belichick not only recognized those signals, he prepared a master plan in response and executed it to perfection. Again. Even before the season opener this year, Moss was already complaining about not feeling wanted in New England, and directly after that first game took place, he told reporters it would be his final season with the Patriots and allegedly asked the team to trade him. “Perfect,” Belichick must’ve thought. That’s how you want to start your season, with your volatile star wide receiver throwing a temper tantrum. Just great. Four weeks later and the whole crisis was all but forgotten, however, as with only two swift moves Belichick secured his five billionth career third-round draft pick, made Randy Moss somebody else’s problem, and used a spare fourth-round pick he had just lying around somewhere to bring back Deion Branch, the team’s former number one receiver whose career most people assumed was all but over. Not so, we soon found out, and looking back now it’s clear that the transition was seamless, the damage minimal, and the results indisputable: since making the move, all the Patriots have done is gone 11-1 on their way to the league’s best record and the top seed in the AFC Playoffs. That’s how you become a master.

 

Eric Mangini, Cleveland Browns

Strategic Move(s): Devious dealing for Peyton Hillis

Play-by-Play: Sometimes one move can make all the difference, as any methodical chess expert knows, of course, and in this case, one move truly does. Now clearly Eric Mangini isn’t a great coach, otherwise he’d probably still have a job, and in the specific transaction we’re analyzing, it doesn’t even appear he knew exactly how clever his bartering skills really were. None of that makes the deal he scored any less astonishing, however: for nothing but bench-weight backup quarterback Brady Quinn, Denver conceded to the Browns running back Peyton Hillis, a sixth-round draft pick in 2011, and a conditional pick in 2012. Since the trade, Hillis has contributed over 1,500 all-purpose yards and 13 total touchdowns, tied for third most in the league, the two draft picks are still unused, and Brady Quinn, the biggest name involved at the time the lopsided deal went down, has yet to take a single meaningful snap. Now that is one shrewd swap, my friend.  You pull off a trade like that in Monopoly you better be ready for a board-tossing argument to break out.  Say what you want about Mangini but he hit it out of the park with this one, like a well-positioned bishop flanking an unprepared king. 

 

Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles

Strategic Move(s): Benching good old boy Kevin Kolb for notorious villain Michael Vick

Play-by-Play: This cunning little maneuver played out so well you often forget how difficult a decision it really must have been at the time. Two years ago, Michael Vick was the most infamous NFL criminal not named O.J., the Eagles had an established starting quarterback, and Kevin Kolb was little more than an eager backup who’d blown what few opportunities he’d been given so far. Fast forward to this past April, however, and the scene in Philadelphia was quite different: former star Donovan McNabb had been run out of town, Kolb had been christened the next big thing following a promising ’09 campaign, and Vick, ready to embark on his first full season since serving 21 months in federal prison, was basically an overqualified backup. Hold the fast forward button down just a few seconds longer and you’ll skip to Week 3, where the situation had changed yet again, trapping poor old Andy Reid in quite the cerebral conundrum: due to a concussion, the loyal, dedicated Kolb had only played a single half of football so far, and while it was definitely a terrible half that he played, it certainly wasn’t the kind of opportunity the young heir thought he’d be receiving. Vick, on the other hand, had played phenomenal over the six other quarters of the season, throwing for over 450 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Now both were healthy again, and the long-tenured coach had an awfully tough choice to make. Uh, lil help please? Not necessary, at least not for a visionary marvel like Andy Reid: Vick was given the nod, the Eagles went on to win the NFC East, and in the process the elusive quarterback put together some of the most amazing individual performances in recent memory and still has a legitimate shot to become the season’s MVP. Did somebody say “master?”

 

2010 NFL Grandmaster of the Year

 

Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

Strategic Move(s): Onside kick out of nowhere in Super Bowl XLIV

Play-by-Play: The biggest game of Sean Payton’s life was a close one at halftime, and although his team was trailing, the deficit was so minimal that no one could have possibly expected he would have the guts to call the gutsiest call in the history of gutsy calls: an onside kick to start the second half. Of the Super Bowl! Well, Payton had those guts and even though chances are he was going to end up somewhere on this list just for calling that crazy play in the first place, one way or another, you know what? The darn thing worked. Well played, Coach Payton, I believe that’s check and mate.

 

Amateurs

 

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals

Strategic Blunder(s): Donating free money to Antonio Bryant

Play-by-Play:  One of Marvin Lewis’s wide receiver upgrades was actually a moderate success this season, when he signed nomadic big mouth Terrell Owens to a one-year deal back in July.  Owens went on to catch 72 passes this season, his most since ’07, while also adding over 900 receiving yards and nine touchdown grabs.  Lewis’s first major free agent pickup this year, however, was a different story altogether.  Antonio Bryant was once considered a fairly consistent playmaker, but after an injury-plagued ’09 season that saw the Buccaneers cut ties with the wideout, questions about his health lingered on into this past off-season.  Lewis and the Bengals, however, apparently saw no reason for concern, and just to make sure their confidence in Bryant was completely unmistakable, they did the completely unthinkable:  they signed Bryant to a four-year contract worth a reported $28 million on March 10.  Don’t think anybody dared doubt their conviction after that move, no sir.  Five months later, on August 29, 2010, the Bengals released one Antonio Bryant, leaving the still-bruised receiver to walk away with almost $8 million in guaranteed money after catching a total of zero passes for zero yards in zero games played.  Not a bad way to make a buck if you ask me, not by any means, but definitely a bad way, on Lewis’s part, at least, to try and prove your chess expertise.

 

Tom Coughlin, New York Giants

Strategic Blunder(s): Epic season-busting collapse in Week 15

Play-by-Play: By now, everyone knows exactly what happened when the Eagles visited the Giants in Week 15, but here’s an unnecessary recap anyway: with just over eight minutes left to play, the Giants held a 31-10 lead, only to then surrender 28 unanswered points, including a touchdown-scoring punt return as time expired, and inexplicably lose the game. The aftermath was brutal, and that’s putting it lightly. Heading into the game, both teams were 9-4 and tied for the NFC East lead. Both would go on to finish at 10-6, with the Week 15 debacle securing the division for Philadelphia. New York would miss the playoffs. New Yorkers would cry. Even the hipsters too cool to care about football. Oops. So much has already been said about the meltdown the Giants experienced that fateful Sunday afternoon that it isn’t even worth reliving at this point, what with Michael Vick’s cyborg-like heroics and rookie punter Matt Dodge’s ill-advised kick and all, but the extent to which coach Tom Coughlin should be held responsible for the disaster definitely is. This is not a last second field goal we’re talking about here. It’s not a case of blown coverage, or a risky play call, or a questionable penalty. There are no scapegoats in this one. No, this thing was bad. And while it may not necessarily be enough to permanently brand you a bad coach when your team gives up 28 unanswered points in less time than it takes to switch your car insurance to Geico with the entire season on the line, it certainly is enough to strip you of at least one ambiguous title: chess master.

 

Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals

Strategic Blunder(s): Settling for sub-par quarterbacks

Play-by-Play: After Ken Whisenhunt took the Arizona Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII in only his second year as a head coach, completely transforming one of the NFL’s traditional laughing stocks into a legitimate contender in the process, his last name provided a convenient excuse to instill upon him the kind of nickname any prudent chess master would love to bear, as a result of his incredibly quick success:  The Whiz.  That was two years ago, however, and by now any residual praise from that magical post-season ride has completely worn off, making The Whiz today seem more like The Was.  The downfall of the Whiz began back on January 29, 2010, when future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner retired, admittedly creating a significant roster void for Whisenhunt and the Cardinals to fill, but also leaving them plenty of time to decide how best to fill it.  So what did they decide to do, you ask?  Well, step one was to bring in one-hit wonder Derek Anderson, which would’ve worked out great if only he’d have arrived in a time machine from 2007, step two was to wait until the fifth round of the draft to add another quarterback to the roster, some guy named John Skelton, and step three was to release Matt Leinart, a former first round draft pick who took over $50 million from the team despite playing in less than 30 games over a four-year span. Leinart’s spot went to some other guy no one’s ever heard of before, undrafted rookie Max Hall, and then, with all his anchors in place, the Was marched on toward the regular season, where his rotating quarterback carnival helped produce the 31st ranked passing attack in the league, despite having one of the best wide receivers in the game as its number one target in Larry Fitzgerald. As if that weren’t enough, however, the Cardinals’ 5-11 record was bad enough to warrant an embarrassing last place finish in the worst division in football, where even eight measly wins would’ve landed the team a home playoff game, and even now, after 16 painful opportunities to evaluate the personnel at his disposal, Whisenhunt’s quarterback situation is no less hazy than the day Warner first retired. Wizard or no wizard, you’re definitely not winning any chess matches with that gameplan, Ken.

 

Mike Shanahan, Washington Redskins

Strategic Blunder(s): Cringe-worthy catfights with Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb

Play-by-Play: Once considered a rogue mastermind in his own right, Mike Shanahan rode into Washington last January like a knight in shining armor: known mostly for taking no-name players and turning them into superstars, the 20-year coaching veteran had already won two Super Bowls, he had an impressive 8-5 playoff record, and all evidence suggested he would finally be the savior it seems like the Redskins are always searching to find. Then he showed up. Today, it’s hard to imagine the Mike Shanahan era in Washington starting off any worse than it did, and, looking back, the shrewd, calculating guru who was hired not only as head coach but also as Vice President of Football Operations is looking less like a chess master and more like a teenage girl stuck in a chat room throwdown. From what I gather, Shanahan’s first order of business upon arriving in Washington was to start a never-ending name-calling feud with the team’s highest paid player, defensive crybaby Albert Haynesworth, a war waged entirely through press conference insinuations and wink-wink sound bites, and then, just when it seemed like that particular humiliating public relations disaster was finally starting to fade away, Mike decided it was then time to start a completely new one, this time with the team’s star quarterback, Donovan McNabb, by benching the former Pro Bowler who’s been to five conference championship games for Rex Grossman, a guy who can hardly flip a coin without it getting intercepted. Okay, so the situation in our nation’s capital might have been just a bit more complicated than that, but neither altercation could have been handled much worse, and when in-house squabbles underscore a talented team’s underperforming season, nobody escapes unscathed, especially the guy in charge. Chess master you are not, Coach Shanahan.

 

2010 NFL Novice of the Year

 

Brad Childress, Minnesota Vikings

Strategic Blunder(s): Rolling the dice with Brett Favre Randy Moss

Play-by-Play:  When a head coach gambles on a risky player, he puts his reputation at risk.  When he gambles on two of the riskiest players of an entire generation in the same season and fails on both accounts, his name is Brad Childress and his downfall is one for the ages.  Childress had the best of intentions this season, no one can argue that, but when training camp rolled around and the most ridiculously indecisive athlete in history was still playing coy about whether or not he felt like occupying the most important position on Childress’s entire roster, you couldn’t help but question the management style at work.  Then, when that same management team went on to both acquire and release yet another historically controversial name in Randy Moss, all within a matter of just 26 short days on their way to a 6-10 record and a last place finish within their division, that is, no matter how much Childress really was involved in either case the blame ultimately rests on his shoulders.  The fact is this:  if Childress’s gambles had paid off the way they very easily could have, he’d be basking in praise right now, possibly vying for Coach of the Year honors.  But they didn’t.  They blew up in his face instead.  That’s why he doesn’t have a job right now, and that’s why he finds himself at the bottom of this list.  Lousy dunce.