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Friday, January 16, 2009
3-2-1 ... Meltdown

By Seth Wickersham

"Time to make this thing interesting."

If YOU think YOU know the right calls to make in four actual playoff situations, take our four-question quiz and win a Best Buy/Geek Squad upgrade of your Super Bowl set-up; if you know "the right call" in four previous playoff situations, you'll be directed to a mailbag entry page. We'll pick a winner Wednesday, January 21.

For someone who takes an unhealthy amount of pride in being disciplined and avoiding drama, Tom Coughlin sure picks odd moments to needlessly up the ante. Take, for example, a Giants visit to the Bears' house on Dec. 2, 2007. New York was behind 16-14 but had a first-and-goal at the Chicago 2-yard line with 1:37 remaining. The Bears were down to one timeout. Coughlin faced a choice:

A) Go for the touchdown.

B) Milk the clock and kick a field goal.

At first glance, option A is a no-brainer. "Our thinking was, You gotta go for the touchdown and trust your defense," says Giants QB Eli Manning. If New York scores the TD, it takes a five-point lead, and the defense can take care of the rest; if the offense fails, they've burned some clock and can still put three on the board. So on first down, Manning handed off to Reuben Droughns, who scored untouched. Perfect execution. Except with 1:33 on the clock, even Rex Grossman had enough time for a comeback. The Bears QB nearly pulled it off, driving to the Giants' 28 before his final pass was knocked down in the end zone.

Giants fans were elated after a thrilling finish. But the truth was, Coughlin risked a win due to a failing that afflicts a shocking number of coaches: bad clock management.

Take a closer look at option B. Every NFL team's staff has a chart that explains when their team can end the game by kneeling on the ball, relative to the down and an opponent's timeouts. It's called a flop chart, and Dick Vermeil is widely credited with inventing it years ago. The chart works off the premise that a kneel—what league insiders call "a quarterback's favorite play"—takes three seconds and that plays are snapped with one tick left on the 40-second clock. When an opponent is out of timeouts, each kneel erases 42 game seconds.

Aided by this chart and a little common sense, all the Giants had to do was kneel on first down, using three seconds and forcing the Bears to burn their final TO, then kneel again on second and third downs to melt away another 1:24. That would have left 10 seconds for kicker Lawrence Tynes to try a 23-yard field goal. New York would have led 17-16 with six seconds left—game over.

We're not picking on Coughlin. Clock mismanagement occurs every week in the NFL. Even in the playoffs, when you'd expect coaches to be extra vigilant about each precious second. After all, these are the guys who burn upward of 100 hours each week micromanaging game plans, scripting plays for near-infinite scenarios, dissecting film and anticipating an opponent's every possible move. But when it comes to one of the most direct factors in wins and losses—how and when the clock is stopped in crunch time—coaches are often clueless. Says one team exec, "Great coaches, Super Bowl-winning coaches, make egregious clock management mistakes every week."

To be fair, there might be no more stressful tactical scenario in sports than the last minutes of a tight NFL game, and how coaches respond is as personal as their DNA. Some fail to think ahead, as Philly's Andy Reid did when he left himself with only one TO in the final four minutes of a 10-3 loss to Washington on Dec. 21. The Eagles offense ended up stranded at the Skins' 1 as the clock struck 0:00. Others jump the gun, as Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin did by calling timeout with 15 seconds on the clock to set up Jeff Reed's go-ahead field goal over the Chargers on Nov. 16. That gave Philip Rivers & Co. time for a last-gasp play, which, even if it didn't go their way—remember Troy Polamalu's non-touchdown touchdown—was a gift opportunity. Very few coaches can block out the emotion and chaos and think clearly about the simple math. "You ask so many questions," says former Ravens coach Brian Billick. "How will my offense hold up? How will the defense hold up? How do injuries factor into it? What personnel do we need? And you have to decide what to do in five seconds."

There's plenty of help out there if teams want it. John T. Reed, a Harvard MBA, Northern California real estate guru and former high school football coach, is the author of Football Clock Management, 280 pages of graphs and charts explaining how to handle time better. The book is also loaded with oft-forgotten mantras like "Every second you leave on the clock unnecessarily may be the one your opponent uses to beat you." According to Reed, the Bills, Colts, Titans, Cowboys and Eagles have purchased it, and former Niners coach Mike Nolan even bought seven copies for himself and his staff. But given Nolan's poor clock management during his three-plus years in San Francisco, Reed is unclear if he actually read the book. Or if any coach has, for that matter. "Coaches are reluctant to admit they don't know everything about anything," Reed says.

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Then there's Billick's Developing an Offensive Game Plan, which, with Tony Banks on the cover, might seem like a comic book at first glance. But it's got smart, simple rules in it. One example: When an offense is trying to run out the clock, the play calls should actually accomplish that goal, even if it means forfeiting a first down. Still, like Reed, Billick doesn't know how many NFL coaches have read his book. "If they did read it," he says, "I don't know if they'd admit it."

Most coaches do at least subscribe to a set of universal rules for the two-minute offense, meant to maximize the clock while simplifying playcalling. Among the most important of these:

1. No audibles by the QB, because they take, on average, anywhere from three to eight seconds.

2. Protections have to be called by the linemen before they're in their stances, saving three seconds.

3. Always call formations in which the receivers line up near where their route will end so they don't waste time running across the field.

4. Begin each play on a quick count (each hut takes a second) and end it by handing the ball to an official so he can set it stat (saving five ticks).

5. Hustle between snaps so that no-huddle plays melt 19 seconds, not 25.

6. If you throw away the ball, aim for the ground, as it takes an official longer to blow the whistle if he's watching the pass float out of bounds.

7. Spike the ball no more than nine to 12 seconds after the previous play's snap.

8. If you can't stop the clock, leave at least 18 seconds for the field goal unit to set up and get a kick off. If you can stop the clock, do so with two seconds left, so that the game ends and your opponent can't pull a 1982 Cal-Stanford redux.

Jeff Fisher is considered one of the best late-game managers. He hasn't been fired in a decade and a half. Coincidence?

Of course these rules can't cover every last-second scenario, which is why most coaches have a position coach or coordinator in their ear helping them manage the clock. A few coaches even enlist a quantitative research analyst. These guys spend game days in a luxury box, clutching complex charts, breaking down info about time intervals between plays and relaying advice to the field. (Using computers during games is illegal.)

These math geeks prefer to remain anonymous; it's an unwritten rule that only coaches should make strategic in-game decisions. But to some bosses, like Bill Belichick, there's no one more valuable. The Patriots head coach lets only one voice come through his headset in a game's final minutes: that of Ernie Adams, New England's research chief, a boarding school friend of Belichick's who's fairly obsessed with the technical, historical and numerical minutiae that win and lose games.

Getting advice is one thing; following it is another. The smartest clock managers—an informal league poll cites Belichick and Tennessee's Jeff Fisher as the best—tell their offensive coordinators what they want to accomplish in advance of a given series. As it unfolds, they think two or three plays ahead, considering different scenarios. It's calmer that way. Witness the Titans' late, fourth-quarter drive against the Ravens on Oct. 5 while down 10-6. Fisher didn't use a single timeout as his team marched 80 yards for the game-winning TD, converting two third-down plays along the way. "The longer you've done it, the better prepared you are," Fisher says. "You've experienced everything."

The poor game managers—the same poll cites Kansas City's Herm Edwards and San Diego's Norv Turner—burn through timeouts like a teenager through cell-phone minutes, leaving them helpless late. Other mistakes occur when coaches try to simultaneously call plays and manage the clock, causing a system overload. Turner suffered a meltdown against the Colts on Nov. 23. Trailing 20-17, San Diego faced a fourth-and-two from Indy's 29-yard line with 1:45 left. Turner's options:

A) Go for it on fourth down.

B) Run down the clock as much as possible, to 1:06, call time and kick a 47-yard field goal.

C) Brain-fart by calling time with 30 seconds left on the play clock and 1:35 remaining in the game, kick the field goal and give Peyton Manning an extra half-minute to dismantle San Diego's defense.

Turner chose option C. Sure enough, Manning used every second given to him, driving 37 yards in eight plays, then spiking the ball with two seconds left so the game ended on a 51-yard field goal.

Not every coaching misstep is so obvious. New Browns boss Eric Mangini violated a key adage when his old team, the Jets, played the Bills on Dec. 14: If you're on D and need the ball back, never call time with between 2:10 and 2:00 left. Normally, an offense protecting a lead won't pass, lest an incompletion stop the clock. But if a defense calls time under 2:10, like New York did against Buffalo with 2:06 left, it invites the offense to throw the ball, since the two-minute warning will stop the clock no matter which play is run. Thanks to the TO, the Jets had to defend pass and run. Sure enough, the Bills spread the field and rolled quarterback J.P. Losman to the right. Luckily, blitzing safety Abram Elam forced a fumble, which defensive end Shaun Ellis returned for the winning score. Because of the win, no one criticized Mangini on his blunder—or his gamble, if you think he called time to bait the Bills—which only gives him more incentive to ignore the math. Nearly every coach works this way.

Getting advice is one thing. Following it is another.

But coaches can't always count on luck to save their asses, as Mike Smith learned during his Falcons' wild-card loss to the Cardinals. He used his last timeout with 2:17 left, with his defense on the field and the Cards facing third-and-16. Smith's move not only guaranteed that Arizona could ice the game with one more first down—so says the flop chart—it also violated another clock management tenet: Always save a full 40 seconds with a timeout when playing from behind. Each offensive play that stops the clock takes about seven seconds, so the goal with any defensive TO is to buy yourself five or six snaps for when you get the ball back. But by calling a timeout right before the two-minute warning, Smith saved only 17 ticks—two or three potential plays lost. Of course, the Falcons never got another shot, as Kurt Warner completed a 23-yard pass to Stephen Spach. "We're out of timeouts," Smith said into his headset after the play, "so the f—ing game is over, boys."

On the opposite sideline, Ken Whisenhunt leaped into the air and pumped his fists. But he still had to finish the game. He could call a:

A) Run.

B) Pass.

C) Quarterback's favorite play.

For once, clock management was easy.

If YOU think YOU know the right calls to make in four actual playoff situations, take our four-question quiz and win a Best Buy/Geek Squad upgrade of your Super Bowl set-up; if you know "the right call" in four previous playoff situations, you'll be directed to a mailbag entry page. We'll pick a winner Wednesday, January 21.