Commentary

A goal-line stand can be self-defeating

Recent last-minute ploys ignite the clock-management debate

Originally Published: November 27, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

So here's one for you: What if there were no fourth-quarter, last-second defensive goal-line stands?

Like, none. Ever again.

Seems drastic, right? Well, first consider that there aren't many goal-line stands anyway: An offense scores a touchdown from first-and-goal at the 1-yard line 85 percent of the time, according to AdvancedNFLStats.com. With those slim probabilities, wrap your head around this: What if the defense -- with less than two minutes remaining and out of timeouts -- intentionally allowed the offense to score every time?

The situation of when exactly to blow a lead has come up a few times. No one can explain when a team should "surrender" a go-ahead touchdown -- or when a team should do its best to prevent one.

I admit I'm a clock-management junkie. It's a fascinating part of the game, one of the few aspects for which a coach can prepare fully. Most coaches do, but as I wrote earlier this year, many aren't confident enough to follow the cold, calculated rules that they spent all week practicing.

Allowing an opponent to score is one of the smartest, gutsiest moves in coaching. The most famous time it happened was in Super Bowl XXXII, when then-Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren allowed the Denver Broncos to score with 1 minute, 45 seconds left. The move was criticized as an emotional decision, based solely on the fact that the Packers couldn't stop Broncos running back Terrell Davis.

But it was actually a smart, reasoned move. As John T. Reed points out in his book that every coach should memorize, "Football Clock Management," Holmgren faced a similar situation earlier that season.

On Nov. 16, 1997, the 0-10 Indianapolis Colts were tied with the 8-2 Packers. Less than two minutes remained. Green Bay was out of timeouts. A Colts' ball carrier was steamrolling toward the goal line, and the Packers stopped him at the 1 to set up a first-and-goal with 1:44 left. The Colts kneeled with the ball three times, draining the clock to 3 seconds, before kicking the winning field goal.

That shrewd move by the Colts was the ultimate clock management. They scored the winning points as time expired. Had Holmgren allowed the Colts to score once the ball carrier was headed toward the end zone, he would have had a chance to win; without it, he had no chance.

So Holmgren's move in the Super Bowl wasn't as much about his defense's failure to stop Davis as learning from his mistake. (And, when you think about it, if then-Broncos coach Mike Shanahan were managing the clock as ruthlessly as the Colts did against the Packers, he would have had John Elway take three knees and sent Jason Elam on the field for the winning kick. Can you imagine a less dramatic way for Elway to exorcize his Super Bowl demons?)

The rule that says when to allow your opponent to score is actually pretty cut-and-dry. When you're down by eight or could be down by eight by allowing a touchdown, and your opponent owns the clock -- meaning it can end the game -- and it won't kneel, let it score.

As Reed writes in his book, "The game doesn't end with the final gun. It ends when one team gets into the take-a-knee period. Your job is to keep your opponent from the take-a-knee period."

That situation has come up a few times this season. On Nov. 15, the New York Jets were leading the Jacksonville Jaguars 22-21 with 1:48 left but were out of timeouts, and the Jags had a second-and-6 at the Jets' 10. At that point, the game was over from the Jets' perspective. The Jaguars could drain the clock and kick a short field goal to win the game. So Jets coach Rex Ryan let Jacksonville score.

But in one of the smartest moves you'll ever see, Jags running back Maurice Jones-Drew didn't take the bait. He took a knee at the 1-yard line so that the Jaguars could melt the clock and end the game. (In my opinion, MJD's decision is tied with Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley's run along the goal line to melt the clock after catching that miracle pass against the Bengals in Week 1 for clock-management decision of the season by nonquarterback players.)

The second moment was a few hours later, when the Colts played the New England Patriots. After coach Bill Belichick decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 28-yard line with 2:08 left -- amazing how that decision flew under the radar, isn't it? -- the Colts had the ball.

After two plays, Indy had a first-and-goal at the Pats' 1 with 36 seconds left. On first down, Joseph Addai was stuffed for no gain. On second down, Peyton Manning hit Reggie Wayne to give the Colts a 35-34 lead with 10 seconds left.

Most of the football world was preoccupied with Belichick's fourth-down call. But those who focus on clock management were wondering why Belichick -- who with Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher is considered among the best clock managers in football -- didn't just let the Colts score and give Tom Brady & Co. a chance.

Brian Burke of AdvancedNFLStats.com number-crunched the decision. He says that teams in the Colts' position -- with a first-and-goal at the 1 -- score 85 percent of the time. Now, given that only one team has Manning under center, the Colts' probability is likely higher than 85. That gave the Patriots at best a 15 percent chance of stopping the Colts.

Now, combine that with Burke's calculation that teams that need a field goal and have 30 seconds in which to get it -- taking into account the average field position after a kickoff -- have a 20 percent chance of success. Neither of the odds is ideal. You have 20 percent against 15. But, as Burke says, "Both considerations point toward letting them score."

You might argue that football is not baseball -- which is to say, not a game capable of being crunched by computers. You have a point. But as rules keep bending toward the offense, it's harder for defenses -- especially near the end zone.

Really, football is a game of risks. Fun as they are to watch, goal-line stands are a big one.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.