Great teams become mortal when the score gets close. We like to think that sports dynasties are built on clutchness and late-game grit, but the truth is dominant teams tend to be better at winning blowouts than barn burners. The hardest part of killing a giant is not getting crushed, and the hardest part of toppling a massive favorite is keeping things close until the final two minutes. Once an underdog gets there, games become less of a mismatch and more of a crapshoot.
Look at the greatest football coaches of all time. Virtually all of them have worse winning percentages than usual in close games. Vince Lombardi won 75 percent of his games as an NFL head coach, but went just 13–11–6 (.542) in contests decided by three or fewer points. Bill Belichick boasts a .683 winning percentage overall, but sits 12 percentage points worse (40–31) in such games. Nick Saban has created an absolute juggernaut at Alabama, with a 127–20 record (.863) since 2007. He’s 6–4 (.600) in games decided by three or fewer points. And the Cowboys won more than 60 percent of their games in the 29 years when Tom Landry was head coach; they were only 38–37–6 in such games.
This trend is common among great coaches, with one major exception: Coach Eric Taylor. His accomplishments didn’t come in spite of his team playing in lots of close games, but because of what his team did in those contests. During his five-year stint as a high school football coach in West Texas (as depicted in the documentary series Friday Night Lights — trust us, it’s a documentary), Coach Taylor dealt with a nearly constant string of obstacles: Star quarterback Jason Street was paralyzed; the coach took a job at Texas Methodist only to return to Dillon midway through a season; the town of Dillon was abruptly rezoned into two school districts, prompting the birth of an entirely new school and football team; just two seasons after that redistricting, Dillon was contracted into a single district again. Perhaps most difficult of all, Taylor was perpetually beset by the presence of his daughter Julie Taylor — a truly awful daughter, a hell-daughter, maybe the worst daughter in the history of daughters. Still, Coach Taylor won two state championships (one in his first year as a head coach, one in his second season at newly founded East Dillon) and nearly won a third.
Coach Taylor’s combined record at Dillon and East Dillon over the five seasons of the show is 41–11 (.788). Impressive, but not mind-blowing. Now let’s examine how the Panthers and Lions fared in close games.
Of the games in which the final scores were shown during the series, 30 were decided by seven points or fewer. Coach Taylor’s teams went 25–5 (.833) in those contests. Even more incredible, 16 games were decided by three points or fewer. Coach Taylor’s teams won 15 of them (.938).
There are only two explanations for Coach Taylor’s remarkable close-game success: either his team was the fictitious creation of a group of Hollywood screenwriters who had a vested interest in his team winning games in a variety of improbable ways, or Coach Taylor has uncovered a number of truths that the rest of the football world has yet to learn. Since that first explanation sounds unrealistic, I decided to study Coach Taylor’s tactics in crunch time. I watched every close game that the Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Lions played over the course of the five Friday Night Lights seasons and identified six takeaways that all football coaches should adopt to improve their own performance in close games.
Never, Ever Kick
When a team trails by three points or fewer and has possession toward the end a game, football history suggests that team should play for a field goal. Getting the ball near the opposing end zone is markedly easier than getting it into the end zone, thus explaining why the overwhelming majority of the NFL’s game-winning scores are field goals. Over the past five seasons, the league has had 57 go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and just nine go-ahead touchdowns in such scenarios.
But Coach Taylor doesn’t believe in half-measures. You either score a touchdown or you don’t score at all. The Panthers and Lions combined for 16 game-winning touchdowns under Taylor in FNL, and hit just one game-winning field goal.
In a Season 1 matchup with Gatling, the Panthers are completely dominated by linebacker Junior Silverio, a childhood friend of running back Smash Williams. They fail to score in the first three quarters and are even stopped in their own end zone for a safety, staking Gatling to a 2–0 lead. The only rational move for a team trailing by two points toward the end of regulation is to play for a field goal and a 3–2 win.
Instead, with mere seconds left on the clock, Coach Taylor calls for the Panthers to run a speed option with quarterback Matt Saracen pitching the ball to Williams, a play that should lead to Smash getting tackled inbounds and the time expiring. But the gamble works: Fullback Tim Riggins throws a huge block on Silverio, and Smash sprints into the end zone, giving the Panthers a 6–2 victory.
Coach Taylor tries to avoid kicking in all situations. In three games, his teams score when down by seven, and, when faced with the option to kick a game-tying extra point or keep the offense on the field for a game-winning two-point conversion, he plays for the win all three times. All three times, it works.
Hell, most of the time we don’t even know who the team’s kicker is. In Season 4, Coach Taylor appoints Landry Clarke as East Dillon’s kicker and punter, and, much to his surprise, Landry drills a 45-yarder to beat West Dillon in the season finale. The only other time a kicker is mentioned during the show’s five-season run is in the Season 1 episode “Black Eyes and Broken Hearts,” when the black players walk off the team in protest of a racist remark made by offensive coordinator Mac McGill. In one scene, the team’s coaches gather to run through which players are no longer on the roster, and an assistant coach mentions that the squad is suddenly without a kicker, implying that Dillon’s kicker is black. This, secretly, is the most interesting thing that happens in Friday Night Lights — there’s been only one black kicker in the NFL in the past 50 years! Sadly, the show moves on quickly. I wanted a season-long story arc about Dillon’s black kicker, but unfortunately Coach Taylor doesn’t care about special teams.
Oh, and you also shouldn’t punt. The Panthers beat Arnett-Mead in the Season 3 playoffs by picking up a late fourth-and-7 conversion instead of punting and win two games thanks to key punt blocks, one by Riggins and the other by Smash.
Coach Taylor believes that kicking is losing. Every time a coach puts special teams on the field, he relinquishes the opportunity for his offensive players to win the game. Nick Saban could learn a lot from Coach Taylor.
Listen to Your Players
The most important thing to Coach Taylor is trust — and if he trusts you, he might just let you make up a play with the team’s entire season on the line.
Take the Season 5 premiere, for instance. Coach Taylor convinces basketball player Hastings Ruckle to give up his favorite sport to play for East Dillon’s football team. In Ruckle’s first game, it’s clear he understands little about what’s going on — how football works, what the plays are, what he’s supposed to do, etc. But before the final play, he pulls Coach Taylor aside. He used to play basketball against Croft’s defensive back, he says, and knows that he can outjump his counterpart. Ruckle has never played organized football before, lacks knowledge of East Dillon’s playbook, and could very easily be straight-up lying. Yet Taylor decides to believe the kid he met just last week — and it pays off, as Ruckle skies for a touchdown.
Of course, the player Coach Taylor trusts the most is Saracen, who suggests that Dillon run a hook-and-ladder on the final play of the Season 1 state championship. So far as I can tell, the Panthers had never practiced this play — it genuinely seems as if Saracen hadn’t heard of a hook-and-ladder before and just spontaneously thinks up the concept without realizing it’s a common trick play. Offensive coordinator Mac McGill feels that this is an awful idea, but Coach Taylor listens to his QB1 and has the team run the play on the fly. It works.
Saracen also draws up a play from scratch earlier in Season 1 to beat South Pines, the team with “the fastest safeties in Texas.” He notices those safeties line up unusually far apart and suggests that a receiver run a quick-hitting route between them, another idea McGill believes won’t work. Again, Coach Taylor trusts Saracen over McGill; again, Dillon runs the play; and again, the Panthers come out with the win.
(Other than the many, many defenders the Panthers embarrass, Coach Mac might be the character with the least upside on this show. He’s constantly getting overruled by Coach Taylor; he kinda looks like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi when his mask gets taken off; and he’s openly bigoted against black players. If your aesthetic is “racist Humpty Dumpty” and you’re bad at coaching, what do you have going for you?)
It’s true that Nick Foles suggested the Eagles run Philly Special in Super Bowl LII, but that was a play for which they’d planned. Coach Taylor sometimes lets players lead football improv classes with four seconds remaining in playoff games — and it always works.
Ignore the Clock
Some teams have coaches dedicated to clock management, ensuring that they handle the pivotal final seconds of games properly. Not Coach Taylor, whose late-game strategy seems to answer the question: Why worry about managing the clock when you could just put the ball in the dang end zone?
In Dillon’s Season 1 matchup with Arnett-Mead, the Panthers have the ball at their own 33-yard line with 15 seconds remaining. Despite this being an obvious passing scenario, Coach Taylor dials up a reverse that calls for Smash to pitch the ball to Riggins, who was mid-block before taking the pitch. It works:
With the score tied at zero and just seconds to go in a Season 2 matchup against South Millbank, the Panthers run a direct snap to Williams almost 70 yards from the end zone, with Saracen pretending that the ball was poorly snapped to distract defenders. It works:
And in the Season 1 state semifinals against Brant, Saracen pretends to spike the ball to stop the clock — but it’s a fake. While most fake spikes are passing plays designed to take advantage of a napping defense (and stop the clock anyway in case of an incompletion), Dillon’s fake spike is a run. It, too, works:
(Shout-out to Coach Mac for yelling “SPIKE THE BALL” as Saracen runs into the end zone. Racist Humpty Dumpty is, like, 0-for-7 on football choices in this show.)
Just to be clear: All of these play calls are absurd. Thanks to Coach Taylor’s savant-level understanding of endgames, however, all of them work. I’d recommend all coaches follow Taylor’s lead and completely disregard conventional wisdom regarding clock management. But Andy Reid has been doing that for years, and, well … sorry, Andy.
Always Have the Ball Last
In the world of Friday Night Lights, defense doesn’t win championships. Basically every play that’s shown throughout the series features at least four broken tackles, so you definitely don’t want to be on defense at the end of the game. This brings us to what may be Coach Taylor’s most overlooked late-game triumph: Somehow, he almost always makes sure that his team has the ball as the clock ticks toward zero.
In 27 games decided by seven points or fewer, Taylor’s teams have the ball last in 25 of them. They go 22–3 in those contests, with their three losses coming when they’re stopped just shy of the goal line. Meanwhile, Taylor’s teams go 1–1 in the two games when the other team has the ball last. Their one win that’s sealed on defense comes during the Season 1 playoffs, when the Panthers knock down a Round Rock Hail Mary attempt.
We can’t know for certain how Coach Taylor keeps getting his team the ball in these situations; viewers are typically dropped into games with less than two minutes to go, and the action picks up from there. But the opposite situation unfolds in the Season 3 state championship, when Taylor busts out a trick play that has Riggins throw a touchdown to Saracen … only to leave South Texas with enough time to set up a game-winning field goal.
(Also important: Why does the entire southern half of Texas get just one high school? That seems wildly unfair.)
Have Every Single Trick Play in Your Playbook
Boise State’s football team famously executed two trick plays to upset Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl: a hook-and-ladder and a Statue of Liberty. Most coaches never get to call a trick play in the critical moments of a big game; then–Broncos coach Chris Petersen made his name by doing it twice in the same game.
Coach Taylor must scoff at this. He’s hit both of the Boise State trick plays, too. Here’s the hook-and-ladder to win the state championship in Season 1:
And here’s the Statue of Liberty that wins East Dillon the Season 5 opener against Croft:
But that’s not all! We’ve already talked about the fake spike to win the Season 1 semifinals, the fake botched snap in Season 2, and the halfback pass in the Season 3 state championship game. We never see Coach Taylor employ a hide-a-player technique, but we get to see him coach for only five seasons. I’m sure that was in his playbook as well.
Know Your Stars
Of the 20 game-winning scores that happen in FNL, 18 come from characters who can be considered main cast members. A breakdown:
- Smash Williams, six
- Tim Riggins, three
- Hastings Ruckle, two (the thing that surprised me most rewatching all of this FNL game film: Hastings Ruckle was a damn PROBLEM)
- Vince Howard, two
- Matt Saracen, two
- Luke Cafferty, two
- Landry Clarke, one
The other two game-winners (Saracen’s Hail Mary in the pilot and J.D. McCoy’s pass to beat Fort Hood in Season 3) are both thrown to receivers wearing no. 1. However, the two anonymous Dillon wideouts have different skin tones, so we know that they’re not the same Panther.
You’d think that this trend would make life easy for opposing coaches. They can ignore the vast majority of Coach Taylor’s roster. Plus, the players listed above are almost exclusively quarterbacks and running backs, leaving little reason to defend wide receivers and tight ends.
And yet, Coach Taylor continued to find ways to get those players the ball and win. (There are a ton of ways to pass to your fullback, apparently.) In high school football, there’s a huge talent gap between the best players and the worst — and Coach Taylor relentlessly exploited that. This is convenient because his best players are also handsome with fascinating personal lives. We’re blessed that Coach Taylor decided to keep giving them the ball.