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The Monday After: Heartbreaking loss to Cal edition

In which we examine the final three plays and wonder: Why are fans so obsessed with perfectly optimal game strategy?

Oh no.
Oh no.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Anytime a team suffers a painful loss, as WSU did in it's absurdly stupid 60-59 setback to Cal on Saturday, fans want someone to blame. Because it has to be someone's fault, right?

Now, I'm no psychologist, so take this for what it's worth. But it seems to me that fans follow a pretty predictable pattern of grief -- the same pattern people move through when they suffer an actual, real loss in their lives.*

*What this says about us as a society ... well, I'm not a sociologist, either, even though my six undergraduate classes in the subject somehow qualified me for a minor.

After we move out of denial ("I can't believe we just lost to Cal like that") and work through our anger ("I'M SO PISSED THAT WE LOST TO CAL LIKE THAT!!!"), we move on to things like, "Well, he actually scored a TD on first down, so this is all very stupid,"* or "If only we hadn't called a timeout after third down and tried the field goal there, that would have solved everything."

In other words, blaming is bargaining. We blame the refs.* We blame long snappers. We blame field goal holders. We blame coaching strategy. (We actually seem to blame everyone but the person who actually blew the play. Not sure why that is, but whatever - maybe there's an actual psychologist out there who can tell us.)

*Sometimes, we cover denial and bargaining in one, tidy tweet blaming the refs!

It's that last target of blame that always fascinates me. Mike Leach came under tremendous fire after the Cougars lost the New Mexico Bowl in the fashion that they did: "If only Leach had called for kneel downs from the sideline, all of this could have been prevented!" And bargaining is rearing its head again after the way the final three plays unfolded on Saturday.

Before debating the merits of the criticism, I'd actually just like to ask one question of those who found themselves angrily wondering why Leach (and/or Connor Halliday) didn't handle the situation differently.

Have you ever actually noticed just how often coaches deploy sub-optimal end-of-game strategies?

I have. And it happens across all sports, across all levels. Watch one night of major league baseball and you'll find a manager who out-thinks himself with his platoon matchups; watch one night of the NBA and you'll see a coach draw up a dumb inbounds play that fails spectacularly. Heck, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks completely butchered their final series of the first half last night, nearly injuring their star wide receiver in the process.

Seriously: You don't have to watch many games in any sport to see some coach or manager do something questionable at the end of a game. And boooooooy are we quick to call them out on it, as if our years spent in Little League or copious hours playing Madden make us the authority.

I'm not even pointing fingers here. I do it too!

But lately I've been thinking about this and wondering: If this is as easy as we think it is, why are these kinds of strategical "failures" as rampant as they are?

These guys are the best of the best at their profession. Are they really not intelligent enough to understand late-game strategy? Do they really not prepare enough for end of game situations? I tend to think coaches are not stupid, and we know that most of them are paranoid preparation freaks.

Perhaps it really just comes down to this: With all the things a coach/manager has to handle at the end of a game, maybe it's just actually really hard to get it right.

And I think that fans' obsession with getting situations exactly right is a huge part of the problem here. So often, we're splitting hairs on a couple of percentage points of probability. But when something goes wrong, we are determined to find whatever we think would have been the foolproof option. We bargain.

Only this is sports. And because of that, there's almost never a foolproof option.

Would WSU have been better off passing on second down? I think the answer probably is yes, but WSU had already run it in twice from the 1-yard-line in the game. There was reason to believe it would work, and if it didn't, the Cougs had one timeout. Of course, that's how it played out.

Now, should WSU have run one more play? If you think of it logically, you weigh it this way: What's the probability of success of an offensive play -- which also has to include the probability of a game-ending negative play -- versus the probability of success of a 19-yard field goal?

The analysis probably needs to start with the latter, and given the fact that Quentin Breshears has made 100 percent of his extra points -- all 24 of them, at least some of which I presume didn't have perfect snaps or holds -- a 19-yard field goal coming out of a timeout probably is as close to a 100 percent proposition as you're ever going to get in sports. Yes, the ball was spotted a little right of center, just outside the right upright. But it certainly wasn't an extreme angle.

If you gave Breshears 100 of those kicks, how many do you think he makes? Let's assume you think he's terrible, which you probably do right about now. You can't ignore that he's made 24-of-24 nearly identical kicks, though. So let's say he'd miss 10 of those in that exact situation -- end of game, under pressure, just a little right of the upright. That seems like a lot, right? That's a 90 percent conversion rate, though.

So then this is the next logical question: Ignoring for a moment that there also are all sorts of negative outcomes (a sack, a fumbled snap, an interception) that were in play that likely would end the game, was there a 90 percent likelihood WSU scored a touchdown with an offensive play? We'd quibble over the numbers, but I think we all can agree it's something south of 90 percent.

And to that end, I'd argue that the 19-yard kick WSU attempted probably was the closest to foolproof WSU was going to get. Could it have been a little more foolproof? I guess, maybe if the ball was centered or something so that the straight-as-an-arrow ball that Breshears actually kicked would go straight through the uprights.

But at some point, I think we have to let go of our obsession with perfectly optimal. Teams have to win in spite of sub-optimal strategy, because sub-optimal strategy is a pervasive reality in sports, which are coached by humans who have a lot of things on their plate.

At some point, we have to stop looking to coaches to put their players in the absolutely perfect situation in order to squeeze out a victory, regardless of what you think their salary should require them to do.

At some point, a player just needs to make a 19-yard field goal.

What We Liked

Halliday rightly has received a ton of praise for his performance. But I'm here to recognize the guys who made it possible: Vince Mayle, River Cracraft, Dom Williams and Isiah Myers. Other receivers saw the field, but these guys did the heavy lifting for an offense that was almost quite literally unstoppable.

Credit Halliday for getting the ball to the open guys, but credit them for getting open and then doing things like streaking all the way to the end zone.

We all believed this was the best group of receivers in the Pac-12, and while some would make a case for Arizona, you simply can't argue with the results. Guys are running free on nearly every play, a testament both to the offense and their talent.

What Needs To Improve

I guess I'll just say it again: If WSU has any chance of winning four of the last six to get back to a bowl game, the secondary has to play better. That said, I think we're starting to reach "they are what they are" territory.

That's actually the reason I'm not going to flip back to the dark side and call for Mike Breske's job after that debacle on Saturday. I didn't expect the secondary to get torched that bad, but I expected them to have a very difficult time -- when I was talking to a Cal booster group over the phone last week, I predicted a 48-38 victory. I knew Cal's offense was really good, and I knew it would test the weakest part of the defense. I undersold the Bears' offense by a touchdown. Meh.

At this point, we know what the strength of the defense is. It's in the front seven, and I think you have to credit to Cal for figuring out a way to keep Jared Goff upright in the second half despite Breske bringing myriad and varied blitzes at the Golden Bears.

So, I think the weekly question for the last half of the season is a simple one: Does the opponent have the kind of quarterback and receivers that can take advantage of WSU's weak secondary? If not, the defense probably has a chance to be OK. If so -- hello, Arizona and Arizona State -- it's probably going to be a mess.

The good news, I guess, is that Stanford is next. The Cardinal bring the sort of run-oriented attack that the defense has been solid against this season. There's a good chance the defense looks a lot better Friday night just because Stanford isn't very good offensively.

And for the record, I love the idea of putting Daquawn Brown at safety. It's not a long-term solution -- he's too small for the beating he'll take and I think he has a corner's mentality -- but he's a heck of a tackler and he'll represent an immediate upgrade in coverage from that position.

Who Impressed?

Because record-setting offensive performances take total team efforts, let's recognize the other guys who were so important: Joe Dahl, Gunnar Eklund, Riley Sorenson, Eduardo Middleton and Cole Madison. Halliday had loads of time to throw all night, and on 73 dropbacks, he was sacked exactly zero times.

Way to go, big boys.

Which Player Underwhelmed?

I guess I'm pretty disappointed that Ivan McLennan and Kache Palacio were completely neutralized in the pass rush in the second half. The secondary needed their help, and they just didn't get it.

Up Next!

Stanford is reeling after a last-minute loss to Notre Dame that torpedoed any playoff hopes the Cardinal had. However, I don't think anyone who had watched the Cardinal much thought they'd make it through the season without at least a couple of losses.

The defense is as good as ever, rating first in S&P+ and seventh in raw FEI (that's likely going to shoot up once opponent adjustment kicks in), but the offense is a struggle. The Cardinal just don't have the same kind of power running game they once did, and Kevin Hogan hasn't lived up to his NFL prospect billing.

Stanford does still have some explosive athletes on the offensive side of the ball. Ty Montgomery is still strong and fast, and if WSU isn't sound in its coverages, Hogan can still pull a throw out of his behind and hit Montgomery over the top. But this is a not very good unit right now, and WSU ought to be able to keep it that way.

Defensively, the Cardinal simply whipped the Cougars up front last season in the rain in Seattle, sending Halliday to an early exit. What makes it difficult for the Air Raid is Stanford's ability to control the line of scrimmage with four linemen. Even when Stanford has just five in the box, the Cougars have struggled to run, and those four guys have gotten a lot of pressure, too, making it hard for four receivers to find gaps against seven defenders.

If WSU is going to have a shot here, it's probably going to have to come down to the secondary eliminating explosives and the offensive line playing its best game against its stiffest challenge.

Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. on Friday on ESPN.