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Steelers OC Matt Canada has a bad case of ‘Coach Brain’

Matt Canada is his own worst enemy.

Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

A weird peccadillo in sports analytics is that adherents to the practice can at times get so caught up in evaluating objectively evaluable things that more intangible, less quantifiable things get lost in the sauce a little bit, which is how you end up with smarmy PFF types concluding that well actually Nelson Agholor is better than Justin Jefferson and then getting contact highs from huffing their own farts. This analytical framework lends itself to garnering clicks on the internet and little else, meaning that other, less empirical methodologies are sometimes needed to determine if, and the extent to which, Player A has that dog in him. For example, if Player A catches lots of passes and correspondingly gains lots of yards, perhaps to the extent that his team frequently advances into areas of the field in which their odds of scoring points increase, then Player A has effectively done his job, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that Player A had a good performance. This is called “The Eye Test” or simply “Watching Football” and it’s the sort of thing analytical types might unknowingly eschew in their pursuit of innovation.

I’m not sure if Matt Canada is someone who particularly cares about analytics, but he is very much someone who maintains a steadfast unwillingness to adhere to conventions or deviate from their own methodologies—which, in Canada’s defense, is not an attribute that’s unique only to him. The NFL coaching ranks are, after all, largely populated by men who played football—many of them professionally—and football players are by nature insanely competitive; football coaches are just the ones who took their competitiveness to obsessive lengths. It’s cool to see coaches like Mike McDaniel leverage their affability to disrupt the established paradigm or mainstay “player’s coaches” like Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin lay a groundwork for younger coaches to build upon, but every NFL coach and coordinator is united in weaponizing their megalomania into a profession. And the only thing they hate more than losing is being told their system doesn’t work.

Of course, having an obsessively competitive mindset can pay dividends (see: Bill Belichick) but it can also precipitate truly disastrous outcomes. Remember those stories about how Adam Gase used to sleep in his office because he was such a ravenous film hound? This was not a rational, thoughtful, responsible, trustworthy, or otherwise healthy man, but rather someone so thoroughly afflicted by Coach Brain that they forgot how to do anything else besides wallow in their failure, pour over X’s and O’s, and consider every root cause of the problem except the most obvious and probably most correct one: their coaching.

Matt Canada is not a stupid man, but Coach Brain has infected his psyche like cordyceps and rendered him wholly incapable of rationality. How else would you justify this:

I’ll freely admit that I am not attuned to the more technical aspects of football, but I mean…buddy. C’mon. This is the type of play you run in Madden just to see if it works (it does not and you reset back to the main screen, at which point the game crashes entirely because EA is a soulless corporate entity who, much like Matt Canada, continues to run back the same broken product [pats self on back]).

In this situation—third and very short, slim lead, game on the line, etc.—convention would likely dictate not only that you run the ball, but that you line up in some sort of jumbo set, with your quarterback’s hands placed firmly between your center’s butt cheeks and your beefiest running back a few paces behind him. Instead, Canada spat in the face of convention and dialed up some sort of busted read-option from a shotgun set. The off-ball linebacker who made the tackle was so unburdened by choice that he didn’t even need to identify a “gap” to shoot; the play simply developed directly into his embrace. It was such a stupid play that the requisite chest pounding and “Let’s Go/I’m Him” declarations that followed felt contrived and perfunctory. And this was just the most egregious example: the night was punctuated by numerous backwards pitches and jet sweeps and at one point the color guys remarked on the formulaic nature of the Steelers play call, which led to nearly every third-down conversion attempting being third-and-long.

Steelers fans are a lot of things (spoiled, obnoxious, habitually unable to go on vacation without packing something festooned in black and gold) but one thing they’re not is lacking in football knowledge. This is, in aggregate, a deeply intelligent fanbase, one that understands concepts and context. They aren’t booing and chanting because they’re all sitting there like, “Dur, More Points,” but rather because they’re very cognizant of the fact that what they’re watching is not a winning product, and that the only time they’ll see any semblance of creativity is at the most inopportune moment.

Calling the offense a liability would be a hilarious understatement, and an inaccurate one at that, since it implies that T.J. Watt and the defense performing superhuman feats on a weekly basis is sustainable, which it is not. At some point, Matt Canada (and Mike Tomlin, who is not absolved of blame in all this) needs to have a come to Jesus moment whereby he comes to terms with the ineffectiveness of his system and makes the attendant modifications. If the unwillingness to change anything isn’t an ego thing and more rooted in practicality and wanting to maintain continuity for Pickett, we’re already approaching diminishing returns on that front because the Eye Test and analytics will reveal that Pickett has been manifestly bad this season.

To avoid stunting Pickett’s growth beyond repair, something’s gotta give.