Fat Camp: Clock, timeout, & challenge management

Happy Friday, y’all, and welcome to Fat Camp.  What I’m envisioning for this series is a weekly short-form essay on the football topic of my choosing.  It’s intended to be pretty focused, unlike You Got Served, where I always reserve the right to meander into whatever topic I feel like writing about, whether it be the quality of college basketball game analysis, or my aversion to epaulets in men’s clothing.  I hope you learn something each week, or, at least, think about a topic in a different way.

A football topic which has always interested me is clock (and by extension, timeout) management.  Everybody likes to opine about it, but it’s one of the most poorly-understood football concepts, and as a result, a lot of smart tactics get criticized, and a lot of dumb ones get commended.

Let’s start with a really basic question to ponder.  What’s the objective of any football team in any game?  It’s to outscore your opponent by one or more points, over a defined time period, which results in a victory.  That seems obvious, but it’s going to be the key point upon which we build this framework of understanding.

What I’m about to describe is my own philosophy.  It largely mirrors those of some successful coaches, notably Bill Belichick, but I’m not going to say that I necessarily have the “right answer.”  Well, maybe I am.  Yeah, let’s say that I am claiming to have the right answer, and we’ll see how that plays out.

Managing Time-Sensitive Situations

Clock management often comes into play at the end of the first half of games, so let’s think about that situation.  First, let's agree never to use the term "2-minute drill."  It's inherently stupid, because this is a live situation, and not a drill at all.  Also, it makes it sound like there's a one-fit approach to playing football with 2 minutes to go in a half, and that's just not the case, if you're being intelligent.

We’ll start our thought exercise like this.  Your team just received the ball at your own 20, with 2:07 to play in the first half.  How do you approach this situation offensively?

Hopefully, you have a few questions before you answer, because an intelligent analysis needs some more information.  How many timeouts do I have?  How many does my opponent have?  What’s the score?  These are all crucial factors in determining an intelligent approach.

Let’s now restart our thought exercise.  Your team just received the ball at your own 20, with 2:07 to play in the first half.  You trail 14-10, and you have 2 timeouts.  Your opponent has all 3.  How do you approach this situation offensively?

Here’s how I analyze this situation:

Field Position – This is the most important factor.  Because you have a long field ahead of you, a three-an-out is going to give your opponent the ball back in solid field position.  The average punt in the NFL nets 39 yards, so even if you get to 4th and 1 on the 29 and punt it, your opponent is getting the ball back at around their own 32, and they still have 3 timeouts.

Time remaining – 2:07 means that you still have the 2-minute warning to be concerned with.

Timeouts – You still have 2 left, which will come in handy if you can get some movement.

Score – You trail by 4 points, and whether you score or not in the next 2:07, that’s an acceptable deficit at halftime.

My philosophy is this:

  1. The primary advantage to a football team in a 2-minute situation is that they can control how the half ends if they can execute a few plays.  You’re fundamentally in a position of strength.
  2. There’s only one unacceptable outcome, which is to allow your opponent to increase the number of points that they’ve scored.  That's entirely what we mean by risk in this discussion.  
  3. As for your scoring, the status quo is okay, but you’d like to add more points, if the opportunity presents itself within an acceptable risk scenario.  Failure to score is not a material risk, because it's an outcome that we can live with, as long as we don't allow any points to our opponent.

With the clock at 2:07, your average Dan Fouts would say there’s plenty of time to score, and he’d also say that the 2-minute warning is a benefit.  I would say that there’s a dangerous amount of time left on the clock, and that the 2-minute warning is your enemy.

Clock management is not just about moving the ball quickly.  It is also about mitigating risk by letting the clock run harmlessly.

The facts that you’re in negative field position and that your opponent has 3 timeouts combine to mean that Job #1 is getting the gameclock down to under 1 minute before you have to give the ball back to your opponent.  If they want to burn their timeouts keeping it north of 1 minute, that’s fine too.  Job #2 is getting at least one first down, because that’s going to make it unlikely we even have to give the ball back at all.  Job #3 is scoring points for ourselves.

We’re taking a defensive posture here, because going into halftime down 14-10 is fine.  Heading in down 17-10 or 21-10 is unacceptable, since we have control of the situation.  It should never happen.  Therefore, until we get to 1 minute, we're running clock with a singular focus.  Upon accomplishing that, we'll re-evaluate our holistic situation, as above, and proceed accordingly.

The first order of business is getting to the 2-minute warning.  I like to line up and run the ball out of a sub package against a bunch of CBs, with no trickery.  The absolute worst thing you could do is drop back and throw a quick incompletion before the 2-minute warning is reached, where you’re looking at 2nd and 10 with 2:01 remaining.  Just get to the 2-minute warning, and let’s play second down from there.

Let’s now say it’s 2nd and 5 with 2 minutes to go.  We’re trying to get it under 1 minute if we can’t get a first down, so the next play needs to potentially burn about 30 seconds off the clock.  I like another run play, or possibly a screen.  This time, we’ll maybe call a handoff from the shotgun.  Again, though, we can’t have an incomplete pass.

If we get the first down, then we have the thing under control, because the clock is running, and we have a full set of downs and 2 timeouts.  If we don’t turn the ball over, the opponent isn’t scoring.  It’s 1st and 10 from the 32, with 1:30 remaining and the clock running when we snap it next.  Here, I’d like to use really high-percentage passes, to keep the clock running, and to give us a chance to get it near midfield with a minute to go. 

If we can do that, we’re now likely to score points, and we can only now begin to start to play with a sense of urgency.  Under a minute, you’re starting to think about calling timeouts and/or spiking the football to stop the clock.  Remember our good friend field position here.  We don’t mind throwing incompletions anymore - because even if we do so and then have to punt, the opponent is going to get the ball deep in their own territory, and won’t have time to do anything with it.

This whole exercise is about understanding risk, and recognizing the constant situation-driven changes in our risk profile, and then always operating in a manner that is appropriate, given that information.  With every yard gained and every second burned, our risk of allowing points to the opponent diminishes, and we can therefore begin to be more aggressive in trying to score our own points.  If it seems like you’re always playing for a Field Goal, and some grumbling ensues about that, that’s good.  Little do the grumblers know that you were actually playing to maintain the status quo, and the gain of three points was a bonus on top of meeting your first objective.

Obviously, the status quo isn't particularly acceptable at the end of the game if you're tied or trailing - but otherwise, this plays out similarly.  In that case, you want to score, but you equally want to take up all of the remaining time to do so.  Once again, you're not in a hurry, and you're going to do everything you can not to let the opponent get the ball back with a chance to score and beat you after you just went down and scored on them.  (See the Colts-Jets Wild Card game from 2 weeks ago.)

Timeouts

Let’s talk about timeouts.  You hear a lot of stupid clichés on TV about them, like, you can’t take them with you, so you might as well use them.  Here’s my contribution to the pile. 

No team was ever hurt by having all of their timeouts available, so it’s best not to ever use them until you need them to manipulate the clock.  If you don’t ever reach that point, that’s fine too.  Nothing is lost by declining to ever use them.

So what are the implications?  Well, for one thing, QBs should be instructed not to ever call timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty.  They should have to take the penalty, work their way out of it, and pay the consequences for a missed assignment next week in practice.  Timeout use to save five yards should be prohibited, because 5 yards isn’t ever worth a timeout.  It’s on the QB and the playcaller to ensure that delays of game never happen.

Another implication is that the utterly stupid “Let’s line up to go for it on 4th and short, and try to draw the other team offsides, then waste a timeout if it doesn’t work” play is deleted from the playbook forever.  I don’t know what fool had this idea, but how often does it work?  Teams should always be going for it on 4th and 1 from positive territory anyway.  We’ve covered that.

TV analysts like timeouts to talk over a big play, but I think they’re a waste.  We’re going to stop doing that.  We practice all week, and we know what plays we like, so let’s just spare the viewers the Kay Jewelers commercials, okay?  We’re just going to line up and execute like we practiced all week.  This is a basic job expectation for offensive players, like not taking delay of game penalties, so get used to it.

Challenges

Finally, we’re going to rethink our strategy on using our play challenges.  How many times have you seen a coach challenge a call where the outcome doesn’t swing anything very important?  I look at the opening kickoff of the Steelers-Ravens game last Sunday, where Mike Tomlin challenged that Lardarius Webb’s wrist was down on the return.  He was right, and he saved a whole 14 yards.  Later in the first quarter, he lost a second challenge on the weird Cory Redding fumble return for a TD, and was therefore out of challenges for the duration of the game (teams must win both challenges to be allowed a third).  He’s really lucky that that didn’t come into play over three more quarters.

The rule of thumb for challenges should be that you should only challenge plays that involve points being scored, or a change in possession of the football, either directly or indirectly.  You let the random first down at midfield go, because your team should have defended it better, and because it’s not worth a used challenge or a timeout.  You challenge when an iffy 15-yard completion moves a team from punt territory to field-goal range on 3rd and 18, or on a touchdown play where the receiver may not have gotten both feet down.  Otherwise, the upside isn’t good enough to justify the risk.

To close, risk is ultimately what we’re talking about here.  Football coaches need to think like professional risk managers, and most of them fail to understand risk in a very intelligent way.  It’s not part of the physical education or sociology curricula at most universities, but at the very least, teams should have a person in the booth or on the sideline who understands this stuff, and can advise a coach on the risk-versus-return aspects of game management.  He could sit next to the guy who always says to go for it on 4th and 1, and they could be the unsung heroes to winning a lot more football games.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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