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Late 2nd quarter clock management

Posted by John Reed on

I have lately found a number of games where teams lost as a result of passes thrown that stopped the clock. Had they kept the ball on the ground and inbounds, they would have won the game.

I need to modify my clock management rule 1.20(c) which says prefer running plays to passing plays when the running play in question is adequately effective to gain the yards needed on the first three downs of a series except on the last play of a quarter

Normally, near the end of the first half, my rules, which are in my book Football Clock Management, would have you following my pace graph. That says to snap the ball at the play clock time that is most likely to enable you to score, but to also minimize the amount of time left on the clock for the opponent to also score before the half. Ideally, you would score as time ran out in the half.

Football Clock Management book

Upon further review, if you are in the lead, I want you to follow the pace graph, but to refrain from passing or going out of bounds in the process. This would especially be true when you were in the take-a-knee or quarterback sweep-slide period.

However, unlike the take-a-knee or QB-sweep slide periods, where you lose yards on every play, I want you to try to gain first downs and/or score.

It is already common for teams to take a knee once or twice near the end of the first half if the coach deems it unlikely that they would score because of field position. What I am saying here is that should be extended to at least four such plays in a row but that the team in possession should not take a knee or have the quarterback run a backward sweep slide play. Rather, the team on offense should try to gain first downs and score.

You can pass on fourth down because either gaining a first down or turning the ball over will stop the clock anyway.

Going forward instead of backward has a slightly increased chance of turning the ball over by fumble, but that is offset by the chance of scoring. There is no chance of scoring on plays where you go backwards.

Ends of halfs are special because whatever the field position, it is irrelevant when the half ends.

You should use my sweep slide and take-a-knee tables to decide when to stop passing or going out of bounds. But the plays in question would be inside running plays if you were in the take-a-knee period and wider plays or misdirection plays if you were in the QB sweep-slide period.

The average play lasts about 6 seconds then, at the college and pro levels, you have a :40 play clock that will run all the way down down if you let it, which you should when your win probability is greater than .500, unless the pace graph has you on a shorter play clock time for snapping.

So you can run about :46 off the game clock for each of the first three downs and about six seconds on the fourth down—assuming the opponent has no timeouts. How many timeouts they have is part of my table. You can also throw on fourth down including a bomb that goes out of bounds and is not intentional grounding. Those can take several more seconds extra off the clock.

If you were just out of field goal range, you might run backwards on that last play staying out of the end zone and in bounds and untackled as long as possible, but you’d better make sure the game clock runs out before the whistle gets blown. In such a play, you would slide down as soon as the buzzer sound the end of the half.

Some old walruses who avoided math courses in college would say this is too conservative, that you should always be trying to got first downs and score. If you are ahead at half time, you will probably win. That does not mean the game is over and you can sit on the lead, but it does mean that if you can prevent the opponent from possessing the ball at the end of the first half, and you should. This is math, not philosophy.

If you look at every game where the team that won scored late in the first half, and that score provided the eventual margin of victory, you will find many games where the losing team was ahead in the second quarter and could have run out the clock if they had stayed on the ground and inbounds and waited until the end of the play clock to call for the snap. There will be plenty of time in the earlier parts of the first half and in the second half to throw passes to try to gain first downs and extend your lead.

But the final minutes of the first half present an opportunity to guarantee the opponent does not score then. Take it. Again, you don’t stop trying to score or gain first downs. You just do running plays. If the defense really sells out to stop the run, then maybe you take what they give you, the pass, figuring it will have a higher completion rate because of their overemphasizing stopping the run.

Are there games where the leading team ran a two-minute drill to score just before half and that score  ended up being the margin of victory? Absolutely. My pace graph says to do precisely that. What we’re talking about here is to go as fast as you need to score, but avoid stopping the clock with incomplete passes and going out of bounds.

If you are ahead at half time, you will probably win. That is what you see when you look at the statistics.

If you try to score by throwing passes or going out of bounds, you may succeed, or you may be forced to punt or turn the ball over on downs, and the opponent may score on the ensuing possession. These are both possible, but less likely than your winning if you ahead at half time.

And if you are inside the take-a-knee or QB-sweep-slide periods, you are guaranteed to prevent the opponent from possessing the ball if you stay inbounds and avoid incomplete passes and fumbles.

Here’s the decision tree on this.

The decision is to stop passing or going out of bounds on the first three downs or to run whatever play, including passes, that is most likely to gain the first down or score, once you are in the QB sweep slide period at the end of the second quarter.

Possible outcomes if you choose to stay on the ground and inbounds are you keep the ball and score or you keep the ball and don’t score. Your win probability is guaranteed to get higher either way because the time remaining in the game goes down to 30:00 at the NCAA and NFL levels, 24:00 at the high school level, and the score margin remains the same—as long as you do not lose a fumble that the opponent turns into  a score

Those same two outcomes apply to if you throw passes or run out of bounds on the first three downs of each series plus

  1. you turn the ball over on downs or by punt without having scored but the opponent also does not score
  2. you turn the ball over on downs or by punt and the opponent does score

In #1, you end up in the same win probability at half time as if you did not turn the ball over and you did not score.

In #2, you end up with a lower win probability at half time than if you had kept the ball on the ground and inbounds, and thereby retained possession. 

So the question is whether you the expected value of your being more likely to score by sometimes passing minus the expected value of the opponent getting the ball and scoring is greater than the expected value of your retaining possession and maybe scoring or maybe not by avoiding passing or going out of bounds.

Expected value is result multiplied by probability. For example, if you get $100 if you throw a die and it comes up 2, the expected value is $100 x 1/6 = $16.67.

I cannot do the calculations here because I do not know how much you are ahead by. But I can say it looks like you cannot lose in terms of half-time win probability if you stay on the ground and inbounds and thereby retain possession.

If you decide to keep passing and/or going out of bounds, you either end of the same as retaining possession and not scoring, or better off or worse off. You would need to calculate or guess the probability of each then multiply it by the win probability of each end of half situation. Add them together to get the weighted average. Then you compare that weighted average to the win probability of your retaining possession and choose the one with the higher win probability.

I do the whole calculation for another situation—whether to go for two—on pages 25 and 26 of the fifth edition of my book Football Clock Management.

I think in the vast majority of field position and score margin situations, retaining possession for the rest of the half would have the highest expected value.

As I said coaches are already instinctively doing this, but only on one or two plays. I have also seen teams run my QB sweep slide play at the end of a game, but only once or twice; never all four downs of the series.

Do it all on four downs, at the end of each half, wen you are ahead and you are in the sweep-slide or take-a-knee time period.

 In the 1998 Cotton Bowl, TX A&M QB Brandon Stewart cost his team one of the greatest upsets on Cotton Bowl History by simply going out of bounds ONE TIME with 10:10 left in the first half, stopping the clock for about :40. A&M was ahead at the time. UCLA scored a TD just before half-time at :02. They later came from behind to win 29-23.

You can read the details of that game on page 38 of my book.


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