Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

December 3, 2007

Column: Colts’ Tony Dungy masters the art of the challenge flag

By Todd Golden

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said that mastering the art of when and when not to make a replay challenge was a matter of mastering the obvious Sunday in the Colts’ 28-25 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Dungy successfully challenged two key first-quarter plays. The first was on a fumble by Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard. The ruling on the field was that the Jaguars recovered the ball and retained possession. Dungy saw with his own eyes that Raheem Brock recovered the fumble and was down when he had possession of the ball.

“I saw it all the way. It shouldn’t have been missed on the field. He had the ball and was hit when he was down, when he was getting up. That one wasn’t hard,” Dungy said.

The second challenge was a pass to Ben Utecht that was ruled a fumble recovered by Jacksonville’s Terry Cousin. Dungy challenged the play, believing Utecht was down before the fumble. The officials ruled it an incomplete pass.

“I didn’t think it was a fumble; I thought Utecht’s knee was down and they said he never caught it,” Dungy said.

The payoff on both successful challenges was immediate. Peyton Manning threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark three plays after the first challenge. On the first play after the Utecht challenge, Manning threw a 47-yard bomb to Reggie Wayne for a touchdown. Dungy said after the game that it’s the first time he’s ever successfully challenged two plays in a game.

Some might jest that it’s the first Dungy has ever challenged two plays in a game. Dungy has long been known for being conservative with the challenge flag. It’s part of Dungy’s perceived emotionless style of coaching, which rubs critics the wrong way.

But if ever there was a coaching decision where emotion should be taken out of it, a replay challenge is it.

Challenging two calls where possession was at stake wasn’t a hard choice, but not many coaches can’t resist the temptation to toss the red challenge flag no matter what impact the challenge might have on the game. Too often coaches get caught up in the emotion and in the minutiae of the each play. They lose the forest for the trees as far as where a single play fits within the entire game, and reflexively toss the red flag.

From the Colts perspective, the most obvious example this season was San Diego coach Norv Turner’s pair of first-half challenges in the Chargers’ 23-21 victory on Nov. 11. Turner lost both, and when the Colts rallied late in the game he had taken the decision to challenge anything questionable out of his own hands.

On a certain level, though, it’s understandable. Coaches in all sports spend long hours to make sure every last contingency is accounted for. It’s almost as if a questionable call offends their sense of attention to detail. Combine that with the belief that you never know what might happen if something as innocuous as a re-spotted ball leads to something good, and red flags fly at what turn out to be inopportune times.

But part of making a good replay challenge is fighting that urge. Sorting out what’s an expendable call and what isn’t is crucial and Dungy has a knack for it.

Dungy decided a 6-yard catch by Jacksonville’s Reggie Williams’ on the last play of the first quarter was expendable even though it appeared that Williams trapped the ball. It gave the Jaguars third-and-7 instead of third-and-13, and even though the Jaguars later scored on the drive, Dungy said he didn’t want to take away his ability to challenge later by using up his challenges so early in the game.

“I don’t like to waste timeouts or challenges unless I’m pretty sure or unless someone upstairs tells me,” Dungy said.

It’s not easy. Players and fans alike very rarely have the emotional wherewithal to discern what should be challenged and what shouldn’t. If it were up to them, every questionable call would be challenged. With the indignant roar from the crowd and with players and assistant coaches in the coaches’ ear imploring them that life or death hangs on the balance of a reversal, it isn’t an easy to take the emotion out of it.

“When we have an emotional drive going, you want to keep the momentum going,” Utecht said. “At the same time, as the leader of the team, [a coach] has to make the right choice for the team. It’s like you have a business decision and a heartfelt decision all in one. I don’t know if there’s a better guy in the business than coach Dungy to do that.”

Dungy struck the right balance as far as what was expendable and what wasn’t on Sunday. In a game where his judgments ultimately put 14 points on the board for the Colts in a three-point contest, they were probably the most vital decisions he made.

Todd Golden writes for The Tribune Star in Terre Haute, In.. He can be reached at todd.golden@tribstar.com.