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Fans have no business criticizing play-calling in the NFL

Play-call bashing has become an epidemic. It needs to stop.

I've been a part of it. You've been a part of it. Your dad's been a part of it. We all have.

However, it's only been in the past few years that I've realized criticizing specific play calls is foolish, off-base and, most importantly, rooted in the purest form of hindsight.

And hindsight's the sneakiest worst enemy of legitimate analysis.

Hindsight rarely has any value, yet it's used as justification often. Too often. Even when used appropriately—like Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf being a pretty good idea—it doesn't reveal anything ground-breaking.

Hindsight's appealing though, because it's empowering and reaffirming. With it, you're never wrong, which speaks directly to our inherent desire to (always) be right.

While we all understand that the future can't be predicted, being able to analyze and form educated opinions on what might happen in the future is the best the human race can do.

But enough with philosophical ramblings. This relates to football. I promise.

Here's the best way I can illustrate how bad hindsight can be when watching the NFL. 

3rd-and-2 scenario:

Play No. 1 – The offense lines up in a traditional, tight formation—maybe with a lead-blocking fullback—and the quarterback hands to the running back. The play gets blown up behind the line, and the runner's stopped for no gain.

The Aftermath – "Everyone knew they were going to run it up the middle. This offensive coordinator needs to be more creative. He's SO PREDICTABLE."

Play No. 2 – The offense lines up in a spread formation with the running back standing directly next to the quarterback in the shotgun. After receiving the snap, the running back is given the ball, but he's stopped just shy of a first down.

The Aftermath – "Why are they in the shotgun on 3rd and 2? The running back had no lead-blocker and didn't have a running start. UGH! Keep it simple."

Play No. 3 - The offense lines up in a traditional, tight formation—maybe with a lead-blocking fullback—and the quarterback executes a play-action fake, rolls to his right to look for a tight end running in the flat and maybe a backside receiver coming across the field. One of the outside linebackers beats the right tackle off the edge, which forces a hurried, inaccurate throw from the quarterback that falls incomplete.

The Aftermath – "Why are they throwing on 3rd-and-short? Line up, run it down their throats, and get the first down. That play-action rollout was WAY too cute."

Play No. 4 – The offense lines up in a spread formation with the running back standing directly next to the quarterback in the shotgun. After receiving the snap, the quarterback immediately looks up to find an open receiver. Everyone's blanketed. The defense sets the edge well, and the quarterback can't scramble outside for the first down.

The Aftermath – "Why are they throwing on 3rd-and-short? There wasn't even a run fake. COME ON. Don't make it harder than it is."

Play No. 5 - The offense lines up with the quarterback under center, a fullback and running back behind him with one tight end and two receivers out wide. Upon receiving the snap, the quarterback drops back to pass, but he can't find anyone. An outside blitz forces him to throw it away. Time to punt.

The Aftermath – "Can someone explain to me why there wasn't even an attempt to run the ball? We have a big running back! We needed two yards. What's going on?!?!"

Now, imagine the discourse if each of those plays worked and the 3rd down was converted.

Play No. 1 (run up the middle from I-formation) – "Good, classic football. Simple is best.
Play No. 2 (run from the shotgun) – "I like the different look. The shotgun formation made the defense respect the pass."
Play No. 3 (play-action pass) – "Perfect time for a play-action fake. The defense was sold on the run, and that tight end will be open almost every time."
Play No. 4 (pass from the shotgun) – "Hey, two yards isn't a given when the defense is expecting the run. Smart idea to throw the football there."
Play No. 5 (pass from I-formation) – "With the quarterback under center and the running back behind him, the defense was thinking run. Nope. Ideal time for a pass. Caught them off guard."

Crazy, right?

This illogical phenomenon doesn't solely apply to third-and-short situations or plays near the end zone. 

You'll find the same results in just above every in-game situation. Should a team run on first and second and throw on third? Or should they throw it on first and second?

In the end, play-calling depends on execution and result.

I've never once, in my football-watching life, heard anyone gripe about play-calling on a drive that results in a touchdown. Conversely, if a quarterback's struggling and his team loses without much offensive output— bad play-calling is almost always a culprit.

Current day example: Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was widely considered a play-calling genius with Aaron Rodgers under center. With Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn…not so much.

Does all this mean play-callers (both offensive and defensive) are immune to criticism? 

Absolutely not.

On a grand scale, they can be criticized.

If a team drafts Tavon Austin and uses him as an outside, possession receiver only, it's bad coaching. If a team doesn't run the ball with a lead late in a game to milk the clock and force the opponent to call timeouts, it's bad coaching. If Robert Quinn is asked to drop into coverage as much as he's asked to rush the passer, it's bad coaching.

You get the idea. Playing to strengths and masking weaknesses are vital facets of coaching, and every team's different.

But rarely can I complain about the specific plays offensive and defensive coordinators call onto the field. 

Before the snap, neither know what exact play the opposition will throw at them. Sometimes, the perfect, counteracting play is called on one side, which causes the other team's play to fail. That's the unpredictable, random and coincidental aspect of football that'll never change.

So, instead of screaming about the offensive coordinator when your team doesn't convert on 3rd down, realize that play-calling quality, in almost every instance, is contingent upon on-field execution and the play called by the opposition. It'll ease your mind. Also, it'll help put an end to the play-call bashing epidemic that's running rampant today.

Because using hindsight to be "right" doesn't necessarily mean you're being as smart as you could be. 

Brad Gagnon

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com (covering Super Bowls XLIV, XLV and XLVI), a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Bloguin, but his day gig has him covering all things NFC East for Bleacher Report.

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