Error Proofing an NFL Coach


Hat tip to one of my favorite blogs,, for pointing this out. In Sunday's Texans / Patriots game, somebody on the Texans sideline apparently removed the red “challenge” flag from the back pocket of head coach Gary Kubiak.

This wasn't some sort of prank… it was apparently a systematic way of avoiding an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. See this picture and the explanation:


See above the orange arrow…. out comes the flag.

Why? See the clock… there's just about two minutes left in the first half. By rule, coaches can challenge a play, UNLESS it's within the last two minutes of a half, when the decision to review a call is made by an official in the booth.

I guess throwing a challenge flag with under two minutes somehow shows up the officials or draws unnecessary attention to the coach (although a coach can jump up and down and yell and scream).

On Thanksgiving Day, Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was penalized for throwing a challenge flag on a touchdown. Again, by rule, all scoring plays are reviewed by the booth… so Schwartz throwing the flag drew a penalty AND meant that the play could no longer be reviewed. That seems like a dumb rule, but the referees enforced the standardized work, robbing the Lions of seven points (or giving them to the opponent on a play that would have been overturned, resulting in no touchdown). Ironically, that opponent was…. the Houston Texans.

“I knew the rule – you can't challenge on a turnover or a scoring play – but I was so mad that I overreacted,” Schwartz told reporters after the game. “I had the flag in my hand before he even scored because he was obviously down.”

Ironically, Schwartz didn't learn after seeing this happen to an opponent last year:

Schwartz took immediate ownership after the play, gesturing a mea culpa after receiving the flag. It's a rule he took advantage of a year ago in the infamous “handshake” game against the 49ers, when San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh  received the same penalty  after challenging a touchdown by the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew.

Many called for the NFL to change the rule (as standardized work can always be improved):

Former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira  tweeted about the call, claiming “Just got back from the field. The rule penalizing Schwartz is good. The rule not allowing the play to be reviewed is horrible. Must change.”

Pereira is absolutely correct. While Schwartz should have known the rule, not allowing the official to reverse a very obvious mistake makes a sham out of the entire operation.

“A rule's a rule,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “I know one thing: You've got to keep your flag tucked in your pocket.”

But, I'll give credit to the Texans for taking an appropriate error proofing step. The coaches can be aware of the rules, as did Schwartz, but they can still lose their head in the heat of the moment. Instead of posting an ineffective warning sign for the coach on his clipboard, the team removes the risk of throwing the flag. They just have to remember to put it back for the start of the second half.

Maybe they have a checklist to remind them?

I wonder if other NFL teams do this?

Looking at your own processes, what are some possible mistakes that can occur? What practical and procedural steps can you take to prevent the mistakes? Would that be more effective than just asking people to not make mistakes or posting a bunch of warning signs? What have you error proofed lately?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Duke University was recently trailing NC State at the end of game where an NCS player shooting 46% from the free throw line was holding the ball and wasn’t fouled by Duke. A few seconds later the ball was in the hands of a 75% shooter who was fouled. Knowing who to foul was obviously not addressed in the previous time out. Coach K messed up on this one. Perhaps he should have an assistant who identifies the best player on the opposing team to foul as coaches standard work.

  2. […] – The 2012 NFL football season saw a great replay flag snafu with then-Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz throwing a challenge flag on a scoring play – however, because scoring plays are automatically reviewed, not only did an odd rule reverse the automatic review (canceling it) but it also drew a penalty. A very stupid rule, so stupid that the Houston Texans implemented a measure to error-proof against their then-head coach Gary Kubiak throwi…. […]


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