Clock management in the NFL stinks
. It’s worse
in college football and worse yet
in high school.
There are a number of reasons for this including:
• no visible play clock in high school
• little or no practice time devoted to clock issues
• no clock available or turned on for practice
• poor understanding of correct clock management by coaches
• low priority
The typical high school coach assumes clock management consists entirely of two-minute drillswhich he practices for about ten minutes on Thursdays.
The correct approach is to learn all the principles of good clock management and to integrate them into your practices so most of what you do has a clock-conscious component. Good clock management does not require additional practice. Rather, it requires that the practices that you are already doing be done smarter. Mainly, you need to add a clock situation to almost everything you do. For example, don’t just run 29 toss in practice. Run 29 toss and tell the team you are behind in the game. That means your running back should try to get out of bounds at the end of the play if he is near the sideline.
If your team is competitive, you probably lose one to three games each season solely because of incorrect clock management. Here are some of the most common clock-management mistakes.
• Waiting until the last two minutes of a half to manage the clock. You manage the game clock whenever it is running, including on the first play of the game. Generally, you should be in a slow-down whenever you are likely to win the game and in a hurry-up whenever you are likely to lose. In other words, with a few exceptions, you should be in either a slow-down or a hurry-up on every play of the game.
• Not practicing slow-down tactics. Some things in sports are so easy that coaches neglect to practice them sufficiently. In baseball, sliding and bunting are correctly perceived to be easy, but they are not so easy that you can get away with little or no practice. The same is true of the slow-down. My book Football Clock Management has twenty different slow-down rules. Most coaches assume their players know them without practice then curse when they predictably violate them near the end of a close game. You have to practice staying in bounds, taking a sack, taking an intentional safety, taking a knee, and so forth. Not much, but you do have to practice them.
• Scoring too fast in your last possession of the first half and your last possession of the game when you are down by 8 or less. This mistake caused Arizona State to lose the 1997 Rose Bowl to Ohio State. My book has separate charts for when you need a touchdown and when you need a field goal. Basically, you need to speed up, slow down, or go at a medium pace according to how many points you need and the time and yards remaining. You can work out your own charts. Your field goal chart depends on your kicker’s range.
• Trying to get another first down after you have reached the QB-sweep-slide point. Taking a knee does not use much time. So I invented a better play for that purpose. I call it the quarterback-sweep-slide play. In it, the QB sweeps to the wide side of the field and deliberately loses about 15 yards out near the boundary behind the protection of his three backs who are flanked to the wide side. If you are up by three points or more, the quarterback-sweep-slide series culminates in an intentional safety. Using this play rather than kneeling allows you to stop risking a turnover trying to get another first down about 25 to 30 seconds earlier in the game. The only time a game should not end with the quarterback-sweep-slide-intentional safety series is when the offense acquires possession during their kneel-down period or when they are not ahead by three or more.
• Not taking a knee on the fly. The vast majority of coaches think you take a knee only after a snap. Not so. You take a knee whenever you are in the take-a-knee or quarterback-sweep-slide period and that can occur on the fly. If you need one more first down and get it, your ball carrier should immediately take a knee (not go out of bounds) after he crosses the line to gain. Same is true if you take the ball away on defense and you are in the take-a-knee period. The defender in possession should not risk contact with the opposing team. He should take a knee or run out of bounds. (The clock will stop for the change of possession so going out of bounds is not a blunder in this situation.)
• Being tackled or going out of bounds on a two-point conversion or final play of the game when trailing. All high school and NFL two-point conversion attempts should end in success, an incomplete pass to the end zone, or a failed lateral. (In college rules only, the defense can score a 2-point touchdown on a 2-point conversion attempt. In high school and the NFL, the ball is dead if the offense fails to score.) The same is true of all games in which the trailing team is in possession of the ball on the last play of the game. Laterals are generally frowned upon nowadays. But in this situation, what do you have to lose? To allow yourself to be tackled or knocked out of bounds without lateraling is giving up without a fight. Lateral to a teammate if one is available or, if no teammate is available, to the ground in the hopes that a teammate will be the first one to the ball.
• Calling timeouts in odd-numbered quarters. The optimum time to call a timeout is when your opponent is on offense and trying to waste time. Timeouts called then save about 40 seconds each. Calling timeouts when you are on offense and hurrying only saves about 12 seconds. Forty is better than twelve. Don’t waste timeouts in odd-numbered quarters because probably no one is in a slow-down and even if they are, there is plenty of time to wait and make sure they are still in a slow-down near the end of the half. Calling timeout because of some screw-up is a very bad habit because it wastes timeouts and will not work when you screw up and no longer have any timeouts left. You need to practice not calling timeouts. Give your quarterback some other solution and practice it.
• Not getting a whistle on the final play of the game when you are ahead. The game ends on a whistle, not a horn. Make sure your ball carrier ends the game by going out of bounds or taking a knee when you are ahead. A couple of high schools have lost games when they celebrated after the horn, but before the whistle. It’s simple, but you have to practice it.
• Not letting the clock go down to :03 before an end-of-half field goal attempt. The famous five-lateral, through-the-Stanford-Band, game-winning touchdown was set up by this mistake. You must spike the ball immediately after the snap, but you do not have to call for the snap until the play clock gets down to :05.
• Spiking the ball when you have time to run the down you waste. Too many teams think that you spike the ball whenever you want to call timeout but do not have one. Not so. You only spike the ball when you no longer have time to use the down in question. For example, 1st & goal at the 6 with :06 left and the game clock running. Do not spike the ball with 1st & 10 at the 40 with :36 left. The Seahawks made that mistake in the 2006 Super Bowl. Run a pass play that has some chance of success. For example, you could make the fade your play of choice for that situation and yell out a code word or even say, “Spike the ball!” as your code. That means run the fade.
• Using a standard whether-to-go-for-two card early in the game. The cards coaches carry to tell them whether to go for one or two after a touchdown are only for the time in the game when there is likely to be only one or two more scores, that is, near the end of the game. Consulting such a card in the first quarter shows that the coach does not understand how the card was arrived at. This is an example of a clock-management issue that coaches do not even recognize as a clock-management issue.
The most common and devastating mistake is ignoring the play clock play after playlike huddling when you are behind. You are either wasting time that you should not be wasting because you are trailing or otherwise likely to lose, or you are leaving time on the clock for your opponent to come back and beat you.
The old saying, “Football is a game of inches” is really an exaggeration. They eyeball the spot. It’s only inches when they measure with the chains. But it is no exaggeration to say that football is a game of secondswith modern scoreboardstenths of seconds. The clock is your friend when you are ahead and your enemy when you are behind. That applies to the whole game. Every second you leave on the clock unnecessarily may be the one your opponent uses to beat you. Every second you waste may be the one you need to start the final game-winning play.
There is a lot more to clock management than this article. My book on the subject runs 245 8 1/2 x 11 pages.