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12/29/13 Niners clock screw-up almost costs them final game of regular season

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright 2013 by John T. Reed

The Niners won today dramatically. The drama was a manifestation of poor clock management.

They started their next-to-last possession at 3:20 left and ran six plays before kicking a field goal to take a 20-17 lead. They use 1:35 counting the field-goal play. That play probably took about :04. So the six run or pass plays consumed about 1:35 - :04 = 1:31. In a max slowdown, you can run off about :46 per play. The Cardinals called timeout after one play so SF could have run :46 off on five plays and :06 on one play before the timeout. That would be 5 x :46 = 230 + :06 = 236 seconds or 3:56. So why did they only run off 1:31? Here’s the play-by-play of the game.

The first play of the SF next-to-last drive took from 3:14 to 2:32—:42—good. cardinals should have used a timeout. They did not; dumb of them.

The next play—an incompletion—only took :04. My rule for that situation says to prefer running plays or high percentage passes, but getting first downs is the priority so it is a bit of a judgment call.

The next play was a completion where Boldin got knocked out of bounds stopping the clock. That violates my stay-in-bounds rule for that situation. A reader said Boldin couldn’t help it considering where the pass was thrown. So don’t throw it there. Maybe no one else was open? Possibly, but the pattern should have been a stay-in-bounds pattern where all the receivers had the ability to stay in bounds after the catch. Going out of bounds lengthens the game by :40 and in this case it’s :40 the Niners don’t need but AZ does

The next play was a run around the end. Good, but it only burned :20 seconds because the two-minute warning occurred. The Cards seemed to be following the rule on that from my third edition or earlier—refraining from calling timeout between 2:39 and 2:00. The announcers commented on it but did not definitivey say it was a mistake as I recall. It was a mistake.

In the current 5th edition and in a supplement I was puting in the box with the 4th edition, I said the defense should prefer calling timeouts between 2:39 and 2:00, not avoiding it as I had said in the earlier editions. The reason is complex and explained in the book. So the Cards screwed up that aspect of clock management. They should have used all their second-half timeouts after plays that did not stop the clock between 2:39 and 2:00.

The final play before the successful 56-yard field goal was an incomplete pass—again to be avoided if you can still get the first down you need—therefore a bit of a judgment call. It was only 3rd and 2 when they snapped the ball so I think there should have been a running play that had a decent probability of getting the two yards. The incomplete pass sure as heck did NOT get them.

They should have been using Appendix C of my book Football Clock Management, 5th edition, which is titled: “NCAA/NFL Field-Goal Pace Graph.” The new 5th edition arrived at my house on Friday 12/28/13) With 3:14 left and about 46 yards to go to have a good FG success probability, they should have been snapping the ball with about :16 left on the PLAY clock each time. That is the pace at which the game clock would have run out while the game-winning FG was in the air. They snapped it too soon.

You continue to consult the pace graph after each play. There was also an out-of-bounds play and two incompletions, each of which stopped the clock.

As you see each clock/situation change as each play unfolds, you adjust when you snap in relation to the play clock to make sure the whole game clock is run off prior to the field goal attempt which should be snapped at :03. Because of the two plays that stopped the clock, the pace graph would have told the Niners to go to a max slowdown early in that drive.

The Niners repeatedly snapped too soon. As a consequence, they gave the ball back to the Cardinals at 1:45, which time AZ used to tie the game 20-20 with a field goal of their own.

The Niners then got the ball back at their own 36 with :29 left and managed to get into FG range and kick a 40-yard FG as time expired. SF won 23-20. Had they managed the clock competently on their next-to-last drive, the game would have ended with the 20-17 FG in the air, not the 23-20 FG.

The Niners were lucky to go 42 yards in the final :29 to win. They should have burned more time on that next-to-last drive—which would have make it their last drive—and thereby giving AZ little or no time for their final drive.

If they keep screwing up the clock management like that, I expect they will eventually be less lucky, thereby producing a totally unnecessary, heartbreaking, playoff or maybe a SuperBowl loss. You read it here first.

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