Little things separate youth football teams that finish 12-0 and those that finish 10-2, that also applies to football at other levels of play. Often times these little blunders are on special teams and are very preventable if you know what to look for.
Last weekend one of these preventable mistakes happened during the Denver Broncos- New England Patriots game. The Patriots were on their own 40 with about 8 seconds left to go in the half. It was fourth down and about 8 yards to go, so the Pats decide to punt. The Denver punt returner was set up for the return on his own 10 yard line. The Broncos returner was nothing special, he hadn’t returned a punt for over 50 yards for the entire season.
It was a high booming punt and the Denver return man tried to field the ball on his 15, he fumbled it and the Pats recovered with just 3 seconds remaining. New England went on to kick the field goal on the last play of the half and got a cheap 3 point momentum boost going into the half in a tightly contested game. Later in the game the Patriots broke the game open, but these 3 “free” points could have been the difference in the game. Why would you bother to even bother fielding a punt with a very average return man with only 3 seconds left to play in the half? Wouldn’t the chance that he fumble and the Pats scoring from close in be far greater than the return man returning the kick for a touchdown as the gun sounds?
These mistakes aren’t limited to NFL coaches, something similar happened to my 5-6 grade youth football team this season. In game 2, the other team had the ball on our 45 and they were punting on fourth down. Our return man was a third year player, but this was his first season returning kicks. He has good hands, but had just 1 game as a return man under his belt. The kick was excellent, our return man had to back up to the 12 yard line to catch the ball. He dropped it and the other team recovered and subsequently scored on fourth down on a 20 yard pass just before halftime in a game we lost by 6 points.
While my teams have lost just 20 of our last 159 games, this is probably one we could have won. Our offense had consistently cranked out first downs, the opponents only had 1 timeout left, our return man was average and the other team had a very good kicker. Up to that point the other team hadn’t even cranked out a single first down. What we should have done was play for the fake, let the ball go untouched and look to score in the second half. With all those factors combined, our offense moving the ball, our defense playing lights out, our return man being average, little time left in the half, poor field position and the other team with just 1 timeout, we simply made a bad coaching choice.
You can’t make those types of mistakes and expect to win out in youth football. Little things mean a lot when your goals are large league titles, National Tournament championships and undefeated seasons. Not only do you have to have the mind to recognize it’s time to call it a half and win the game in the second half, it’s something you MUST practice as well. Yes, telling your kids NOT to field a punt, NOT to go for a punt block and safety punt defense is something you should invest 3-4 minutes practicing during every special teams block.
This season that loss kept us from being Division Champions, instead we had to settle for Division Co-Champions. I feel bad for making that decision, but maybe I can find solace in the fact that I don’t get paid anything to coach youth football, but I made the very same mistake as someone that is paid millions to coach in the NFL. That doesn’t make me feel any better, but will be a mistake I won’t make again.