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Thursday, January 7, 2010
Many minute details in beating the clock

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Brandon Stokley
Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley (14) showed his clock management savvy when he ran parallel to the goal line before scoring the last-second touchdown to beat the Cincinnati Bengals this season.

"The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." -- Albert Einstein

After the New York Giants astonished the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, most observers credited Eli Manning, Plaxico Burress and the improbable hand-to-helmet stylings of David Tyree.

John T. Reed, who graduated from West Point and holds a Harvard MBA, had a different take. The reason the Patriots lost, Reed insisted, was that head coach Bill Belichick left too much time on the clock, allowing the Giants to score the winning touchdown with 35 seconds left. Specifically, Reed calculated in a real-time analysis, the favored Patriots failed to play at a reduced tempo and take 163 seconds off the clock in 21 second-half plays. New England could have -- and should have -- burned that 2 minutes and 43 seconds while it was constructing leads of 7-3 and 14-10. If the Patriots had done it correctly, in theory, the Giants wouldn't have had time to rally.

"The clock management in the NFL isn't just atrocious," said Reed, author of "Football Clock Management."

"It sucks. They all suck, even Belichick. Every second you leave on the clock unnecessarily may be the one your opponent uses to win. Every one you waste might be the one you need to start the game-winning play."

This is especially true of the onrushing playoffs, where one mistake with the clock can end your season. NFL games are 60 minutes -- 3,600 seconds -- and chances are quite good that some of these postseason games will come down to a handful of minutes at the end. Whichever team manages time better -- or from Reed's cynical perspective, butchers the clock management process less -- will win.

The funny thing? Fantasy owners obsess over yards and touchdowns, researchers churn out reams of statistics -- yards after the catch, really? -- but there are no official numbers for seconds lost or gained by a head coach (see chart below).

Occasionally, we witness surprising, cerebral flashes of clock management; this season, there were two plays worth noting.

In Week 1, Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley made a spectacular catch on a deflected ball, but even more impressive was his presence of mind to run parallel to the goal line, consuming a few more seconds before scoring. The 87-yard touchdown left the Cincinnati Bengals, trailing 12-7, only 11 seconds to work with and, eventually, the Bengals lost.

In Week 10, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew suddenly took a knee at the 1-yard line against the New York Jets instead of crossing the goal line for a 10-yard touchdown with 1:48 left on the clock. After two more kneel-downs, Jacksonville place-kicker Josh Scobee kicked the winning field goal as time expired. Jones-Drew, a leading fantasy performer, later apologized to his fans, but the uproar the play caused underlined how rarely teams deviate from the standard time-management protocols.

"I don't want to call it a lost art," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said last week from his office in Nashville. "But clock management has become a more and more important part of the game. So many games are decided by three points or less, you have to get it right.

"For a lot of reasons, it's harder to manage than it's ever been."

"Time is what we want most, but we use worst."

-- William Penn

Many moving parts

Dan Reeves won 201 games as a head coach in the NFL -- a win total good for No. 7 on the league's all-time list -- for the Broncos, Giants and Atlanta Falcons, pacing the sideline with dignity and decorum. But for the record, Reeves is not one of those old-school, life-was-harder-back-in-the-day coaches.

"I usually had three or four things to worry about -- down and distance, how many timeouts do we have?" Reeves said. "Today, there are so many more moving parts. Instant replay, for one, forces you to make quick decisions as far as the clock goes. I've noticed a few times lately where it messed up the fellas on the sideline."

Trent Dilfer, the winning quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, is more blunt.

"The coaching world has become convoluted and polluted with all these intricate parts of the game," said Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst. "Today the focus has to be on 25 things in a given game, instead of just three or four."

According to the NFL rulebook, time between plays is 40 seconds from the end of a given play until the snap of the ball for the next play, or a 25-second interval after certain administrative stoppages and game delays.

That's not a lot of time to strategize. Clock management typically gets lost in the wake of the more pressing areas of X's and O's and personnel groupings. Two recent examples:

  • End of the first half in the Week 16 Monday night game between the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler has 22 seconds with the ball on Minnesota's 24-yard line. Instead of taking one (or two) shots at the end zone, the Bears let the clock run down to one second. Chicago kicks a field goal to take a 16-0 lead to the locker room when the lead could have been 20-0. Minnesota stages a furious comeback and forces overtime, only to lose 36-30.

  • Week 9, Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles on a Sunday night. Trailing 20-13 with less than five minutes left in the game, Eagles head coach Andy Reid sends David Akers out to kick a 52-yard field goal on fourth-and-11 at the Cowboys' 34-yard line. The kick is good, but subsequently Dallas runs off seven straight plays and the Eagles -- who earlier lost two timeouts in replay challenges -- can't stop the clock from running out.

    "There were four minutes left," Reid told reporters afterward, "and I thought we would get the ball back and win the game."

    In his NFL picks column the following week, ESPN.com's Bill Simmons wrote that Reid was "helpless with clock management -- as we saw last Sunday in painful detail. It's his Achilles heel. So why not fix it? Either have a Clock Management Closer come in and stand next to him, or even better, just have Reid actually leave the sideline and head into the locker room like a baseball pitcher. He could even get a standing O on his way out."

    I saw a bank that said "24-Hour Banking," but I don't have that much time.

    -- Steven Wright

    Hooked at the hip

    Bill Belichick
    New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is considered one of the best managers of time.
    In his first three seasons as Jets head coach, Herm Edwards was often criticized for his clock management skills. In the spring of 2004, he did something about it; Edwards promoted tight ends coach Dick Curl to senior offensive assistant, in other words, to become his personal Clock Management Closer.

    "As the game is played, obviously, there are a lot of scenarios," Edwards explained recently. "You get caught up in coaching the players. All that's swirling around you, and I learned that I needed to have a [clock] guy."

    Curl spent three months looking at Edwards' previous decisions and put together scenarios that might arise in the coming season. Each week, he worked with the coaching staff and players in meetings and practices and spoke constantly with Edwards during games. The Jets won 10 games in 2004 and made the playoffs.

    Some teams -- but certainly not all of them -- have designated positional assistants to help the head coach with clock management on game day.

    "You've got to have that guy hooked to your hip," said Edwards, laughing. "It's an amazing deal, because every game comes down to seconds. As a young coach you think you've got it. Then you find out -- there's a whole lot to do."

    Fisher, who just concluded his 16th season with the Titans, and Belichick, who has been at it for a decade in New England, are names that come up often in discussions regarding the best managers of time. Is it a coincidence that (with the notable exception of the Eagles' Reid, who is in his 11th season) they are the two coaches with the most seniority?

    "Probably not," mused Fisher. "Part of the process involves being able to predict and identify what the opponent is going to do. With the tremendous amount of turnover in the league, it's hard to correctly make those predictions without experience."

    Of the 11 new head coaches in 2009, nine were coaching their first full NFL season. With the narrowing shelf life of head coaches, how are Jim Zorn (fired by the Washington Redskins on Jan. 4), Josh McDaniels, Mike Singletary and Jim Schwartz supposed to accrue the experience they need to succeed?

    "You lose a lot of close games and you lose your job," said Dennis Green, who was 113-94 as a head coach of the Vikings and Arizona Cardinals. "You lose a lot of coaches and then there are new coaches. It's a vicious circle."

    As Green pointed out, while most eyes are focused on the final minutes of each half, many important decisions that impact that critical period happen well before -- timeouts not called, blitzes dialed up to end a possession, a player on a team that is ahead failing to stay in bounds, playing an up-tempo offense, etc.

    "The war may be won when the clock shows zero," Green said, "but quite often the battle gets won earlier -- you just didn't know it at the time."

    "Time is one thing that can never be retrieved."

    -- Winston Churchill

    Playing at the proper pace

    John T. Reed
    Several NFL teams have purchased copies of John T. Reed's manual "Football Clock Management."
    A dozen years ago, because he was curious, John T. Reed analyzed 14 NFL games played in a single week.

    "If nothing changed beyond the clock management recommended in my book," Reed said, "five of the losing teams in those games would have been winners."

    "Football Clock Management" runs 288 pages, is in its third printing and will cost you $39.95 (plus sales tax for California residents). So far, Reed said, six NFL teams have dropped that substantial coin -- the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and Titans -- and he's sold more than 1,000 copies overall.

    Virtually every game exhibits examples of poor clock management. Reed's basic philosophy, distilled: Teams that are ahead should play slower to run the clock down, while teams trailing should play faster to preserve time -- and increase their chances of coming back. According to Reed, clock management cost the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, won by the Steelers 21-10:

    First half: "When they got the ball at 14:44 left in the second quarter, Seattle was ahead 3-0. Accordingly, they should have been in a slow-down, which means they should have taken about 45 seconds per play. During that drive, they took 2:22 to run seven plays -- a 20-seconds-per-play pace -- much too fast," Reed said.

    Second half: "They were behind, so they should have been in a hurry-up. Their first possession of the second half came after Pittsburgh had raised the lead to 14-3. Seattle ran eight plays. The final play was a missed field goal that took five seconds. That leaves the other seven plays that took 2:46 or 24 seconds per play. And two of the plays were incomplete passes! Some hurry-up!"

    Reed's conclusion: "Seattle lacked the appropriate sense of urgency when they were behind throughout the game. It may not have made the difference, but they sure could have used all that time they left on the table lollygagging along."

    Reeves said he used to carry a card that took all the guesswork out of determining when his team was in a position to win with kneel-downs. Today, it's called a Flop Chart and, factoring in the opposing team's timeouts, each time the quarterback takes a knee it knocks, on average, another 42 seconds off the clock.

    The best tool of time management, Reeves said, is the quarterback himself.

    "Today, I see teams that are ahead snapping the ball with eight, nine seconds left on the play clock," he said. "You watch [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady, they get it all the way down to one or two. The other thing that drives me crazy is when [trailing] teams don't have two plays called. They waste an awful lot of time trying to get a play off."

    "Make use of time, let not advantage slip." -- William Shakespeare

    Seeking a comfort level

    Green was the San Francisco 49ers' special-teams coach in 1979 when the team drafted a skinny quarterback from Notre Dame named Joe Montana.

    "Thursdays -- Joe hated Thursdays," said Green, who was also the 49ers' running backs coach from 1986 to 1988. "That was the day we practiced the two-minute drill, the four-minute drill.

    "He's got [future Hall of Fame safety] Ronnie Lott flying around back there on defense and Bill Walsh is standing there with his arms crossed. It wasn't fun, but we always said if you can move it against these guys …"

    … how hard can it be against the Cincinnati Bengals, in one of the most dire, suffocating circumstances ever?

    At the very end of the 1988 season, in Super Bowl XXIII, Montana produced one of the great pieces of time management. The Bengals had just kicked a field goal to take a 16-13 lead with 3:20 remaining in the fourth period, when the 49ers began a drive on their own 8-yard line. Montana took the 49ers 92 yards in 11 plays -- the last a sweet 10-yard slant to John Taylor with 34 seconds left. San Francisco won 20-16 as Montana delivered his third Super Bowl of the decade.
    Dan Reeves
    Former NFL head coach Dan Reeves says that the instant replay element makes a coach's time management decisions more difficult.

    "You can't necessarily practice managing the clock," Green said. "But you can set up scenarios. It's not like a game, but you're trying to achieve a comfort level with the situation."

    Like most coaches, including Green, the Titans' Fisher focuses on the two-minute drill almost every day of training camp. He also invests a great deal of offseason time in studying opponents' tendencies. During the regular season, Fisher said, there is only time to rehearse a two-minute drill on offense and defense in a five-minute period once before each game.

    "Everybody says they do it, but only a few coaches do it right," said ESPN's Dilfer. "Fisher does it right, so does Bill Belichick. [Mike] Holmgren did and I'm told [Pittsburgh's Mike] Tomlin does it. Those guys are saying, 'We have 52 seconds with two timeouts -- how does the offense handle this? There's 3:06 on the clock and the opponent has all three timeouts and the two-minute warning -- how do we react on defense?'

    "There are so many variables, but everyone thinks they know how it should go. It's funny being around here [ESPN]. Everyone watches the games and says, 'Oh, that was so stupid. I would have done it better.'"

    People who live with knowledgeable football fans know the drill; when the game comes down to crunch time, at the moment of critical mass, the deeply focused fan puts his fingers to his palm in the sign of a "T." When his timeout call beats the head coach to the punch, even by a few seconds, invariably, there is a look of triumph.

    One suspects this happens when John T. Reed is watching games at home in California. He makes his living in real estate, but no one thinks more about those lost seconds in football games.

    "I think there has been some improvement in clock management," Reed said, "especially since my book came out."

    But, he insisted, teams have yet to fully embrace his concepts. The quarterback sweep-slide is an example. Reed argues that winning teams safely could kill even more clock by having the quarterback, in kneel-down situations, run to the open side of the field before hitting the dirt. The elaborate four-play, sweep-slide sequence, yes, it's in the book.

    When it happens in the Super Bowl, Reed's work will be done.

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.