There’s no question Billy Back is a great coach. Maybe the National Arena League Coach of the Year. He earned the Indoor Football League equivalent of that honor in 2016 with the Wichita Falls Nighthawks. This year, he’s been downright Belichickian. His Carolina Cobras have been the most consistent team in the NAL, and he has brought them to the National Arena Bowl in their first year of existence. That required him to out-prep last year’s winning coach, Jacksonville’s Siaha Burley, and the ensuing physical and mental beat-down the Cobras administered to the defending-champion Sharks in last week’s semifinals action was an NC-17 gore-a-thon from the first play of the game to the last.
That being said, what the hell was Billy Back thinking when he unnecessarily sent starting quarterback Charles McCullum back out for that last series chasing another score with a 25-point lead?
McCullum managed to squeeze five passing plays into that 21-second span, hell-bent on piling another touchdown atop a lopsided score – presumably at Back’s direction, but minimally with his blessing. And in the process, center Antonio Foster whiffed on picking up the blitzing Silverberry Mouhon, who could have blasted McCullum into next March if he was so inclined. That means Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect An NAL Championship come Monday.
This arena season has proven to be a war of attrition. The American Arena League championship was put in the hands of two backup quarterbacks and it arguably cost the Richmond Roughriders a ring. Then there’s the Columbus Lions, who limped through the end of their regular season after Mason Espinosa went down. They’ve usurped Massachusetts’ place at the National Arena Bowl, due in large part to the high ankle sprain suffered by Pirates QB Sean Brackett, which kept him out of his semifinal game.
So with the decisive edge of a healthy quarterback going into this Monday’s championship game at stake, it is an utter head-scratch that Back would be all-in just to run the score up to 80 points against Jacksonville.
I get that the Sharks are a polarizing team, the NAL version of the New York Yankees. Some love them, most hate them, a lot are turned off by their antics. They discharge firearms after games. They throw officials’ equipment into the stands. They jaw at fans and are bashed more on social media for being dirty and classless than any other team. Perhaps Billy Back feels this way. If so, that’s all the more reason to run out the clock in a manner not so reliant upon the Sharks’ sense of sportsmanship.
“Our quick-pass game is our run game,” Back said of his West Coast offense after Fifty Yarder delivered our indictment. Back also explained that he asked Jacksonville to waive the forward-yardage rule so he could run things down without scoring but they refused, giving him only five yards of material to work with before scoring anyway. Nevertheless, the optics of an inadvertant rushing touchdown are much better than the passing assault McCullum unleashed.
We’ll also point out that Back did bring in his closer during the previous possession inside of a minute to go. Fullback Faleaoga Russell had three tasks: go forward, stay in bounds, and don’t give up the ball. Yet in two successive plays, Russell ran out of bounds and turned the ball over, which led to a Sharks score. That’s the equivalent of Mariano Rivera giving up back-to-back homers in the ninth. The only difference is, Back still had a four-score lead to work with. And if he was concerned about clock stoppage after tackles for loss, he accomplished the same thing when McCullum threw three incompletions and Phillip Barnett was tackled out-of-bounds on the four plays preceding the hit Mauhon levelled on McCullum to end the game.
There have been a litany of great coaches at the highest level who’ve had occasional brainfarts. Bill Belichick infamously went for it on 4th-and-2 deep in Colts territory in 2009. Pete Carroll called for a pass on the goal line during Super Bowl XLIX. But this wasn’t a brainfart. It was a premeditated decision driven by an arena lust for big scores often extolled by a fandom who is otherwise offended when the same thing happens in the NFL.
It’s also a decision Back admits he might do differently if he could do it over, and in that he is refreshingly un-Belichickian.
Back has given the NAL 15 hours, 59 minutes, and 39 seconds worth of evidence on why he’s the best in this business. I just don’t love his last 21 seconds.