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1997 Football Clock Management news

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright by John T. Reed

These items are in chronological order with the most recent at the bottom of the page. This page got so big that it began to download too slowly so I broke it into a separate page for each year.

Winning the overtime toss in high school or college

This is not a correction so much as an I-told-you-so. On page 121, I said you should choose to go on defense first if you win the toss for a high-school or college overtime. In the game I mentioned elsewhere on this page, the team that won the overtime toss, celebrated winning the toss, then chose to go on offense first. Dumb. Fatal, as it turned out. The coin-toss winners failed to score in their four downs. The coin-toss losers failed to score in their first three downs, then kicked the game-winning field goal. They would not have even attempted that field goal had they gone first.

Clock stopping on change of possession below high school varsity level

High school rules say that the clock will start on the next snap after a change of possession in high school. But in a recent youth football game, we recovered a fumble with four seconds left in the half. We sent in a play but the refs started the clock and picked the ball up before we could snap it. When we protested, they said a local meeting of officials had decreed that only high school varsity games would abide by the new rule. The fact that I was not at that meeting was unpersuasive to the officials.

In general, you should make inquiries about the inapplicability of clock rules before the game when you are coaching below the high school varsity level. As I said in the book, below-varsity refs tend to ignore new rules that have the effect of lengthening game durations. This rule, 3-4-3b was adopted for the first time for the 1996 season.

The ostensible reason for ignoring the rule is to avoid delaying the following game. But that is no excuse for freshman games, which are played all by themselves on Thursdays, or the final game of a four-game youth day of football. And actually, it's a pretty lame excuse in general. Statistics reported in the Spring 1997 National Federation Coaches' Quarterly indicate that games were nine minutes longer on average, apparently as a result of the new rule.

Seems to me the officials ought to be less conscious of leaving early and more conscious of coaches' need for a uniform set of rules, as well as the reason the rule change was made to begin with. A turnover near the end of a half can be a dramatic development that makes the game far more interesting and exciting. But having the great opportunity to score just peter out because only a few seconds were left on the clock and the defense and offense had to get off and onto the field is no fun.

I generally think the fan/coach admonition to"Let them play!" really means "Let my side cheat." But this is a case where I think "Let them play!" is really an appropriate complaint. Until the rule is adopted by all levels, lower level coaches need to train their defense, I repeat, defense, to line up fast and spike the ball so that the offense can get onto the field and run a play.

PAT guides only apply near the end of a game

Sporting goods vendors give out free guides showing when you should go for one or two on a P.A.T. I discussed that issue at length in Football Clock Management. But I failed to emphasize that those tables and my discussion only apply when your opponent is likely to score just one more time before the end of the game. If it is early in the game, like the first half, you should go for one or two according to which is likely to get you the most points. Generally, if you make your two-point conversions more than half as often as you make your one-point conversions, you should go for two. It would be stupid to consult a P.A.T. guide to see whether to go for one or two early in the game because no table can forecast what point combination is best when each team is likely to score a couple of more times. The possible margins are too numerous.

Take a knee on the :06 kick return, or lateral

I just watched the 10/4/97 Wisconsin-Northwestern game. Wisconsin kicked a field goal to take a one-point lead with :06 left in the game. The game clock starts when the receiving team touches the ball. On the ensuing kick return, a Northwestern middle-row returner grabbed a squib kick and slowly lumbered toward the center of the field. It did not look to me as if that particular player had the breakaway athletic ability to run the ball all the way back for the touchdown. But he did have the athletic ability to run the entire six seconds off the game clock during his search for a few meaningless yards, which is exactly what he did. The clock expired during his run and the game ended when he was subsequently tackled.

He should have taken a knee as soon as he got control of the ball so his team would have a chance to run a scrimmage play which did have a chance to win the game, like a Hail Mary. Or he should have lateraled as he was about to be tackled, to a teammate, or even just lateral to the ground behind him---anything to keep hope alive. By running until time had expired, then allowing himself to be tackled, he foolishly killed any slim hopes his team had to win.

Let's give it a name: "terminal zigging"

Maybe the reason zigging the remaining time away, which also happened at the end of the 1997 Rose Bowl, is so prevalent is that no one has ever put a name on the mistake. I suggest we call it "terminal zigging." Terminal zigging is the ball carrier of the trailing team running around with the ball so long that time runs out on the half during his run, which does not result in a touchdown. If it becomes clear that he cannot score a touchdown on the play, he should either get to the ground before time is out if he has gained a first down or has another timeout or get out of bounds before time runs ou—or, if it's the end of the game—he must lateral to a teammate or to the ground to keep hope alive.

Jets take a safety by passing ball out back of end zone

On 10/5/97, the Jets were ahead of the Colts 16-10 near the end of the game in their own territory. On fourth down at :16 left in the game, they snapped the ball to the quarterback who trotted back a few steps, watched the oncoming defenders, then, when they got close, turned around and threw a pass out the back of the end zone at :11 left in the game. That's a safety. On page 65, I said you could do that, but that it is a foul. The fact that it is a foul only comes into play if time runs out during the play, which did not happen in this game.

Is throwing the ballout the back of the end zone a good idea? I would not have thought so. What if it slips out of the quarterback's hand? Or if he gets hit while throwing? If it hits the goal post, it is just as dead as if it did not because the goal post is out of bounds [NFL Rule 8-4-4(1)]. It also stops the clock in the NFL when you throw a backward pass out of bounds.

The danger on a running safety is that you trip and fall or get tackled short of the goal line. The danger in a backward pass is that the ball does not make it out the back of the end zone. In fact, there is virtually no danger with either the pass or the run. Also, throwing the ball out the back of the end zone runs less time off the clock than running it out.

If you are far from the end zone when you want to take the safety, the pass makes the most sense. Although you do have four downs. If you were far from the end zone, you should have run backwards doing quarterback-keep-sweep slides on the previous three plays so that you got closer to the end zone and could run it in for the safety. If you failed to do that, I like the backward pass as a way to eliminate the danger of a long run to the goal line.

"Yellow" panel on Northwestern sideline 10/4/97

In Football Clock Management, I urged coaches to adopt a colored-panel signalling system to tell the team on the field what speed they should operate at. Red for top-speed hurry-up, yellow for medium-speed hurry-up, and green for slow down. I also featured the Northwestern-Wisconsin game of 1996 prominently in the book. Last Saturday, 10/4/97, I was watching the 1997 Northwestern-Wisconsin game, when I spotted a guy on the Northwestern sideline carrying a yellow-colored panel that also had the word "Yellow" written on it. I guess that's so color-blind players can read it. Either Northwestern got an early copy of my book and adopted my clock-management signalling system, or great minds run in the same channels. Or, maybe more likely, Northwestern's yellow panel has nothing to do with clock management.

Cowboys lose chance to tie when tackle Erik Williams late getting set 10/5/97

In the 10/5/97 Dallas-Giants game, the Giants were up 20-17 when the Cowboys got the ball at their own 36 with 48 seconds left in the game. With the clock under ten seconds, Aikman completed a 32-yard pass to Bjornson at the Giant 17 for a first down. The Cowboys had no timeouts and therefore needed to spike the ball to stop the clock and get the field goal team out to try to tie the game with a 34-yard "chip shot." Aikman did spike the ball before the clock ran out, but right tackle Erik Williams appeared to lack the required sense of urgency about getting 32 yards upfield and into position. He was not set for the requisite one second when the ball was snapped so the Cowboys were flagged for illegal procedure and the game was over.

The Associated Press said Williams had hurt his ankle earlier in the fourth quarter. It appears that Williams was either hurt, loafing, or not paying attention to the clock. If he was hurt, the question arises,"Did he apprise his coaches of the extent of his injury?" If so, and they made a judgment that they were better off with a hurt Erik Williams than his uninjured backup, the coaches bear responsibility for his inability to get set for the spike. In general, the incident points up the need to practice clock-management plays, like spiking the ball, and clock-management tempo, weekly.

Tampa Bay, too

5-0 Tampa Bay did a similar thing in their 10/5/97 loss to Green Bay. Down 21-16, they got the ball with no timeouts and :38 left in the game. With the clock under ten seconds, they needed to spike the ball. But the whole team seemed to be in a fog in the TV replay. The clock ran out while they slowly recovered from the previous play, a four-yard pass completion to their own 46. They seemed either unaware of the clock and score, or as if they had forgotten how you hustle to the line to spike the ball.

Tampa Bay probably would not have won the game even if they had spiked the ball and run off one more play. But to preserve their season's psychological momentum, their 5-0 start should have ended with the "bang" of a failed Hail Mary, not the "whimper" of an inept spike-the-ball play.

Pass just before take-a-knee in Dallas-Redskins Monday Night Football game 10/13/97

The Redskins were in what I call "green" (maximum slowdown) in the MNF game against Dallas. One of my rules for green is that you "prefer the run to the pass." (page 68) Some people forget that I said "prefer." I did say it and it's exactly what I mean. If you need a first down, and you conclude you are more likely to get it with a pass than a run, you should pass, even when you are in a slowdown. Clock management does not mean being conservative when you are ahead. It means being smart. Not getting a first down because you afraid to pass is not smart.

With about 1:30 left, leading 21-16, the Skins threw a third-down out pass complete for a first down. That put them into the take-a-knee period. The Skins did the right thing, got the first down, then took a knee and won the game.

But the chance they took should be commented upon. As Tennessee coach Bob Neyland once said, "When you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad." In Washington's case, they would not have been bad, they would have been disastrous. An intercepted out pass is often run in for a touchdown. The defense should be in an intercept, rather than bat-down, mode that late in a game in which they are trailing. Even an incompletion would have been a big deal. In the NFL, a post-two-minute warning inbounds play runs about 40 seconds off the game clock. But an incompletion only runs about five seconds off. Had the pass fallen incomplete, Washington probably would have had to turn the ball over and Dallas would have had 35 additional seconds to work with. That's enough time to run six or seven clock-stopping plays.

Congratulatory-handshake touchdown at Shawnee Mission South (KS) High School in 1982

On page 60 of Football Clock Management, I warned readers to beware the congratulatory-handshake touchdown play. I said I had heard that it actually happened somewhere. Rick Burgess of American Football Quarterly says it happened at Shawnee Mission South High School in Kansas in 1982 and was written up in Sports Illustrated at the time. Maybe that was where I heard the story. I'll research it when I do the second edition. In the meantime, if any readers know the details of that incident or any other interesting clock-management stories, I hope they will contact me.

I was contacted by Phil Barnett who says he was a junior tight end on the losing team. Here's the email he sent me:

"I was a Junior on that Shawnee Mission South Team, I played Tight End in two Tight End
sets which we used quite a bit. Anyway, it was the last play of the game, there were about 6 seconds left. Our QB Butch Ross took the snap and just ran around with it, he did not drop to a knee. When the clock hit :00 he held the ball up in the air and started jumping around. John Richert the Shawnee Mission West QB/Free Safety came up, and Ross stuck his hand out to shake his hand. Richert stole the ball out of his hands, and ran it about 30 yards into the endzone for a TD. Well our coach John Davis jumped up and down, and it was chaos for awhile, but it was a good call.

West won the game with :00 on the clock, it was a regional playoff game in front of about 6
or 7,000 people at Shawnee Mission South stadium. Even SI had a little article about it,
and they had a reunion of Ross and Richert a few years later. It was kind of funny...later,
but it wasn't at the time."

Army-Rutgers 10/18/97—stay in bounds, run the slide

My alma mater, Army, barely beat Rutgers on 10/18/97. 0-7 Rutgers is arguably the worst team in Division I-A. There was some noteworthy clock management by Army at the end of the game, and a noteworthy TV-analyst mistake by FX's sportscasters.

With around 2:20 left, the announcers said Army only needed one more first down to get into the take-a-knee period. Army was up 37-35. Rutgers had two timeouts left if I recall correctly. (I research such things for my book, but not for this free Internet service.) As readers of Football Clock Management know, you have to get to :37 if you have first down and the opponent has two timeouts remaining. That's a long way from 2:20. Indeed, Army got a first down, and proceeded to try to get another, as well they should. The announcers, Steve Physioc was one, made no mention of their previous statement that Army only needed one more first down.

In getting a first down, Army's running back ran out of bounds unnecessarily. That was an extremely serious error. It made a gift of about 25 seconds to Rutgers, which could have been fatal. The FX announcers commented that he should not have gone out of bounds, but they did not make enough of it. Going out of bounds was totally unnecessary. The running back seemed to be in an early-in-the-game mind set, that is, he seemed totally unconcerned about whether he went out of bounds or not.

After they got that first down, Army figured they needed another. They were wrong. True, they had not yet entered the take-a-knee period. But they had just entered the quarterback-sweep-slide period. All they needed to do to win the game was take four successive quarterback-keep-sweep-slides for a loss. Instead, they ran a get-another-first-down play. I don't know what it was because a Rutgers defensive lineman came in so fast he disrupted the handoff. Rutgers stripped the ball from Ty Amey with 1:20 left in the game. Army was able to stop Rutgers on defense on the ensuing four downs. But the defense should never have needed to come back on the field.

Army runs a triple-option offense. One of the salient characteristics of that offense is wide line splits. It was through one of those wide line splits that the Rutgers lineman came. Had they switched to a quarterback-sweep-slide formation, with its zero line splits, and a keeper play, there is little danger that a defensive lineman would have burst through the line and there would have been no handoff to disrupt. Had the running back who got the last Army first down stayed in bounds, his team could have taken a knee, not done the dicier sweep-slide, at the point when they were still trying to get yet another first down and lost the ball to Rutgers.

10/19/97 49ers at Falcons When in red, get out of bounds

San Francisco had the ball for a two-minute drill before halftime. William Floyd caught a screen pass and ran down the sideline, but inexplicably failed to get out of bounds. Extremely bad move. His team then wasted several seconds after the end of the play before they realized that he did not get out. Then they had to burn a timeout.

With eight seconds left, the Niners snapped the ball and Steve Young dropped back. Finding no one open, he ran up the middle zigging a bit before he slid and gave an instant timeout signal. Too late. Time had expired during his zigging. Terminal zigging. Offenses need to practice running plays with under ten seconds left in the half so they get in their heads the need to either score or get to the ground or out of bounds before the clock runs out so another play can be run. Had it been the end of the game, as opposed to the end of the first half, Young should have lateraled if his team was behind and he found he could not score on the final play.

10/19/97 Broncos at Raiders, third-down pass in green

Taking a page from last Monday's Redskins' game, the Raiders threw a pass on third and eleven when they were ahead of the undefeated Broncos 28-23 with 1:24 left in the game. The Raiders were deep in their own territory. As with the Skins, it worked. And as with the Skins, this was a heck of a risk.

The element of surprise is overrated in football. Generally, the way you surprise someone is to do something stupid. The question is will the element of surprise overcome the element of stupidity. In this case, it did. But someone needs to look at the probabilities. In general, the 1996 NFL incompletion percentage was 42.4; the interception percentage, 3.39. The element of surprise may help those probabilities. You could also improve them by choosing a higher percentage pass. But still!

The 10/27/97 Sports Illustrated discussed this play. They say Raiders' quarterback Jeff George talked offensive coordinator Ray Perkins into it---"come on, Ray, let's run the boot." That reminds me of the time Rams coach George Allen decided to squib kick only to Detroit's Lem Barney. Just before game time, Allen let the team captains talk him into kicking deep to Barney. Barney returned the kick 92 yards for a touchdown. It is part of the coach's job to resist such emotional pleas from the players. The rationalizations of "showing confidence in the players" and all that don't wash. Be smart. Follow the admonition of the great philosopher, Clint Eastwood: "A man's got to know his limitations."

How did the Raiders get deep in their own territory? The Broncos had just scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to make the score 28-25 then kicked off deep. Why no onside kick? Beats me. How important is field position when you have John Elway running a two-minute drill? And what is the probability that you will prevent a team from getting just one first down? By kicking deep Denver all but eliminated the possibility that they would recover the kick and they increased the probability that they would get the ball, if at all, in Broncos' territory. And didn't the Raiders acquire Super Bowl MVP kick returner Desmond Howard in the off-season?

You cannot say for certain that kicking deep was a bad idea. But it seems likely to me that an NFL opponent will probably get one first down, therefore you must kick onside.

Slowdown all the time

On page 68 of Football Clock Management, I said that most teams run their regular-speed offense almost at a slowdown pace. As I watch games on TV this fall, with broadcasters' increased propensity to show the play clock on the screen, I conclude that I was more right than I realized. It seems like everyone is in a maximum slowdown, in terms of using all the play clock, almost the whole game. As readers of my book know, I agree with that if the team in question is ahead and not in an end-of-first-half hurry-up situation. But operating at a slowdown pace at any time when you are behind is self-destructive (except for certain last-possession-of-first-half drives).

10/20/97 Colts-Bills game---wasted timeouts

At the end of Monday nights Colts-Bills game, the Bills had the ball and were driving deep into Colts' territory. The score was tied. The Colts had wasted two timeouts when they were unable to get plays off on time earlier in the half. They were forced to use the last one to stop the Bills from wasting time during their final drive. Playing chicken with the play clock, when you don't need to, or even when you should not because you are behind, increases the chances that you will have to waste timeouts to avoid delay penalties. One of the hidden benefits of running a whole-game hurry-up is that you rarely get penalized for delay.

In the first half, the Colts said they had to waste some timeouts because they were having trouble getting plays in because of electronic problems with their quarterback helmet radio. Be it ever so humble, my MagnaDoodle never had an electronics problem.

The Bills did a nice job of running a "green" offense at the end of the game. They had all three of their timeouts until the last three seconds of the game when they finally used one to stop the clock for the game-winning field-goal attempt, which was successful. The field-goal play itself used the final three seconds of the game so there was no need to kickoff afterward. This sounds like a good time to point out that Bills head coach Marv Levy is a Harvard man.

Dan, Al, and Frank also did a good job of commenting about the Colts' wasting timeouts and the effect that had on the game.

OK to pass on fourth down in green

On page 68, one of the slowdown (green) rules I gave was to "Prefer the run to the pass." There are two reasons for that: 1. incomplete passes stop the clock when you are trying to waste time. 2. turnover avoidance. On fourth down, there is no incomplete-pass reason to prefer the run. On fourth down the clock is going to stop regardless of whether the pass is incomplete or not. So you should change the rule to "Prefer the run to the pass except on fourth down."

If you turn the ball over on downs because of an incompletion or because your completion was not enough for the first down, the clock will stop for the change of possession at the varsity high school level and above. Even if you complete the pass and get the first down, the clock will stop for the moving of the chains and you will still be able to take the full play-clock time off the clock. In other words, the only reason to refrain from passing on fourth down when you are in a green mode is to avoid a turnover, and that's not much of a reason because if you fail to get the first down, that's a turnover, too. There is one advantage to turning it over on downs rather than an interception: the interception might be run back for a touchdown or big gain. A pass over the middle would be less likely to be returned for a big gain and may even result in better field position than turning it over on downs or punting.

Make it the Vikings

So far, I am only aware of one actual error in Football Clock Management (other than typos). My 16-year old tailback son is reading the book and pointed out that I erroneously referred to Minnesota's NFL team as the Twins on page 23.

Cavalier use of timeouts almost cost game

I went to a junior college football game on 11/1/97. The losing team was trailing by five points and got to snap the ball with :04 left from the winner's 10-yard line. Their pass fell incomplete. But it need not have been so close to going the other way.

The winning team had been ahead the whole game. When you are ahead, you should not take any timeouts. But if you must, you should take them only at the end of the play clock. This team just called their timeouts throughout the second half whenever they wanted to chat. Furthermore, they called them early, maybe before the referee had even started the play clock. That is a gift to the trailing team of about 30 seconds every time you do it. The scoreboard did not show how many timeouts each team had. But I am sure the winners used at least two in the second half, both for chatting about the next play.

Niners' Tim McDonald runs with interception, risking disaster unnecessarily, after take-a-knee

In the 11/2/97 Dallas-San Francisco game, Niners defensive back Tim McDonald intercepted a Cowboy pass with :37 left in the game. The 49ers were ahead 17-10. The Cowboys had used all their timeouts.

McDonald ended up on his back after initially bobbling the ball. He had not yet been touched by a Cowboy so he got up and ran the ball back until he was tackled. Normally, that would be a good idea. But not in that situation. He was still in a "more" mindset when he should have switched to an "enough" mindset.

In the NFL, the take-a-knee period starts at 2:02 when you have first down and your opponent has no timeouts left. The 49ers were well within their take-a-knee period when McDonald made that interception. Therefore, he should have stayed on the ground. Then the offense would come out and take a knee until the game ended. By getting up and running until he was tackled, he risked a fumble, which could have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Actually, that would be a case like the 1935 Notre Dame-Ohio State game which sportswriter Damon Runyon described as "Snatching defeat from victory's esophagus." Had he fumbled and Dallas won, Tim McDonald would be the biggest goat in the history of the 49ers. Every sports writer, radio talk show host and fan would be asking indignantly, "Why didn't he just stay on the ground?"

But in the event, no one commented about his failure to stay on the ground. That includes Fox's TV team, John Madden and Pat Summerall.

Some might say it would be too much to ask to say a defensive back should be thinking about such things. Baloney. The Niners should have had a clock-management assistant coach who held up a checkered panel indicating that the 49ers should immediately take a knee or run out of bounds if they get possession. They should have practiced it. Their defensive captain should call the defense and remind his teammates, "Take a knee on turnover." When they saw the interception, his teammates and coaches should all have yelled' "Stay down!"

Tell the ref before you fake taking a knee

"I recently spoke to Holly Newman, the high school and youth football referee who proofread Football Clock Management for rules errors, about the fake take-a-knee play. She said she recently refereed a game in which the team that was leading by a small margin at the end of the game took a knee on two plays then suddenly faked taking a knee and ran a regular play. She blew the play dead.

"The offense was outraged but a more experienced official on her staff during the game said she did the right thing. Officials are biased in favor of safety. When a team gets into a take-a-knee mode at the end of a half, the officials switch their focus to preventing the quarterback from being hurt. Furthermore, they assume sportsmanship and intelligence on the part of the leading team at the end of a game. That is, they assume no one would try to run up the score or risk losing by running a play after they had reached the take-a-knee point.

"The leading team is entitled by rule to run up the score or to unnecessarily risk defeat by running a play. The officials will not interfere with the fake take-a-knee play if they know it's coming. But if you surprise them, they may inadvertently blow the play dead. Accordingly, she recommends two things: tell the referee (the one wearing the white hat) before the play and try to avoid dipping your knee toward the ground as part of the play. The fake take-a-knee play need not involve any dipping of the knee. Rather it need only follow a previous take-a-knee play. Partially dipping the knee might make the fake work better. But it also increases the chances of an inadvertent whistle or of the officials thinking the knee touched the ground. For example, you may tell the referee only to have the umpire blow the play dead. If you tell all the officials, you increase the probability that the defense will figure out what you're doing.

"I repeat the principle that you should only do the fake take-a-knee play at the end of the first half or at the end of the second half when you are tied. You should never do the fake take-a-knee play at the end of a game when you are leading because it constitutes running up the score and, if you are ahead by eight points or less, risking a turnover after you have reached the take-a-knee point is extreme coaching incompetence."

Terminal zigging just before half in Bills-Patriot game 11/9/97

Just before halftime, the Bills quarterback ran up the middle and slid, immediately signaling timeout. The officials ruled timeout ran out before his signal. This is yet another example of a ball carrier killing his team's chances by wasting all the remaining time in the half in order to gain a few more meaningless yards. Crowds and substitutes in the bench area should be encouraged to count down the time out loud in both halves, to help their team when it is in possession near the end of a half. Players need to practice getting to the ground soon enough to call a timeout or move the chains or out of bounds soon enough to stop the clock before time runs out.

Seahawks risks scrimmage-kick disaster when up 34-31 with 1:21 left

On 11/9/97 in their game with San Diego, Seattle was up 34-31 with 1:21 left. They had the ball at about the Charger 15 and kicked a field goal on fourth down. It was good and they went on to win 37-31. Was attempting that field goal smart? On page 189 of Football Clock Management, I said it was not.

Before the field goal, San Diego needed a field goal to tie and a touchdown to win. After the field goal, San Diego needed a touchdown to win. So the only benefit of the successful field goal was eliminating San Diego's ability to tie the game with a field goal.

How likely was San Diego to kick a field goal had Seattle gone for the first down and turned the ball over on downs? They would have to drive about 60 yards to have a 50-yard attempt, in about 1:16. The NFL success rate in 1996 from 50 yards was only 51.7%. The success rate at driving 60 yards in less than 1:10 does not appear in the league stats. But it would require an average gain of six to 20 yards per snap. In other words, there was very little chance of a San Diego field goal to tie. What did Seattle risk by doing a scrimmage kick to avoid the slight possibility of a field goal tie?

As I noted in Football Clock Management, when you attempt a scrimmage kick (punt or field goal attempt), five things can happen and one of them is bad and three of them can be disastrous. Seattle risked a bad snap or a blocked kick, either one of which could have resulted in an immediate game-winning touchdown on that play.

Even if the field goal is good, which it was, the Seahawks then have to kickoff to the Chargers. Kickoffs, like scrimmage kicks, are risky plays. The Chargers are more likely to run a kickoff back for a touchdown or long return than they are to move the ball 60 yards, all by way of plays from scrimmage.

In short, Seattle should not have risked a scrimmage kick in that situation. They should have gone for the first down.

San Francisco risks scrimmage kick disaster when up 27-19

In their 11/16/97 game against Carolina, the 49ers had fourth down in Carolina territory late in the fourth quarter. They attempted a field goal from around the Calrolina 35. Apparently because of a high snap, it was blocked, picked up, and run back to around the San Francisco 45. Carolina's drive ended with a Merton Hanks interception in the end zone at 1:44 and San Francisco gained one first down then took a knee for the win.

But was the risk the Niners took worth it? Had they succeeded with the field goal, the score would have been 30-19, thereby forcing Carolina to score twice to win or tie. On the other hand, if the Niners had gone for the first down and failed, Carolina would have taken over on downs around their own 30, with less than two minutes left.

The question is which is more likely to result in a Carolina win: two kicking plays (field goal and ensuing kickoff) or turning the ball over on downs at the Carolina 30? It is a closer call than the Seahawk-Charger game described above. But I still think the Niners did the wrong thing going for the field goal. The Niners have the best defense in the NFL. Their special teams are much improved, but you can never feel as confident about kicking plays as you can about a good defense.

Scrimmage kick plays are extremely dangerous. I am amazed at how willing coaches are to risk them when they have the option of turning the ball over on downs in the opponent's territory.

Dallas kicks go ahead field goal but leaves :04 on the clock

Dallas won their 11/16/97 game against the Redskins with a dramatic field goal. But they used a timeout to stop the clock with :08 left. The field goal itself took :04 off the clock leaving :04. That meant Dallas had to kick off to Washington. In spite of a lateral attempt by the Skins kick returner, Washington lost when time ran out during the kick return. But why did they have a chance to return a kick at all? Above, I discussed a Bills-Colts game in which Marv Levy let the clock run down to :03 before he called timeout to kick the game-winning field goal. Time expired during the kick so there was no subsequent kickoff.

Dallas should have let the clock run down farther to around :03.

Lindy Infante, Clock Management Coach of the Week

The 11/16/97 Packers-Colts game was a big enough story: the 0-10 Colts upset the defending Super Bowl Champion Packers 41-38. But I was most interested in the fact that Colts coach Lindy Infante did a great job of clock management at the end and thereby completely eliminated the possibility of a Packer comeback.

With 1:44 left in the game, and the game tied at 38, the Colts got first and goal at the Packers' one-yard line. The Packers had two timeouts left. In Football Clock Management, I discussed taking a knee only in terms of when you are ahead at the end of a half. It never occurred to me to take a knee when you are tied. But Infante did it and he was right. Shame on me for not thinking of it.

Infante ran a take-a-knee play for the first three downs. That forced the Packers to use their last timeout. Once Green Bay had no timeouts so Indianapolis was able to run almost 40 seconds per snap off the clock. Prior to the fourth-down snap, they put their field-goal team on the field, let the clock run down to :03 and called their own timeout. They then kicked the game-winning field goal, which consumed the remaining time left in the game.

My NFL take-a-knee table on page 93 says you need to get to 1:24 if you have first down and your opponent has one timeout. But 1:44 is not 1:24 so how does the Colts' situation enable them to take a knee? After the Colts gain to the one-yard line, the Packers inexplicably failed to call timeout while the clock ran down from 1:44 to 1:22. Two seconds before the Packers called timeout, the game ended, in effect, by going into the take-a-knee period.

This was a great example of a coach understanding the concept of more versus enough. There is no extra credit for scoring fast. Nor is there any benefit to winning by seven points instead of three. Infante correctly felt he needed nothing but the field goal to win and that he could and should use all the remaining time before he attempted it. Although at lower levels, like high school, where every extra point kick is an adventure, I probably would have taken a knee on the first two downs, tried for a running touchdown on third down using a fake take-a-knee play to do it, then gone for the field goal on fourth if the running touchdown attempt failed. The basic principle is that you run the play most likely to win the game. In the NFL, that's the field goal. At lower levels, look at your stats.

"Clock management, clock management" says Schottenheimer

John Elway did one of his trademark comebacks in the 11/16/97 game against Kansas City. With two minutes left, he led his team 56 yards to set up Jason Elam's go-ahead field goal, 22-21. With one minute left, Kansas City came back and kicked their own go-ahead field goal on the last play of the game. KC won 24-22.

"I was thinking 'clock management, clock management.'" said Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer regarding the last two minutes of the game. He used two timeouts on defense when Denver started running the ball to get into position for the field goal. I presume that Denver was letting the whole play clock run before each snap at that point. I could not tell from the news accounts, but it appeared Schottenheimer used his final timeout for his own field goal attempt.

This is an illustration of the principle that whatever your opponent wants, you want the opposite. Denver needed to get into field goal range. Once they did, they wanted to waste time before their field goal attempt. When the Broncos were still out of field goal range, KC should have been wasting time. They had the lead. Any time saved was most likely to help Denver. During that period, Denver was trying to save time so KC would try to waste it. But once Denver got within field goal range, the tables turned. The Broncos then wanted to waste time and KC needed to conserve time. Although KC still had the lead, it became apparent from the margin and field position that they were likely to lose the lead just as soon as Denver attempted its field goal.

You generally do not call timeouts when you are ahead. But there are times when you are ahead, but probably not going to stay ahead. That happens when you are ahead by less than three and your opponent is within their field goal kicker's probably-good range. In that case, the opponent should start to behave as though they were ahead and you should start to behave as if you were behind. That's exactly what happened in the Denver-KC game. Marty Schottenheimer, whom I criticized in Football Clock Management for a 1992 clock-management mistake, was very smart in terms of clock management against Denver on 11/16/97.

More play codes

My no-huddle chapter says one way to send plays in fast is to write a four-digit code on a white board or magnetic drawing toy. My most recent code had the players add two numbers together. The last digit of the sum was the play to run. That enabled me to use ten different combinations to send in the same play. Actually, I could send the same play in with 500 different cominations of numbers for reasons which are explained in the book but which I will not cover here.

Recently, my ten-year old son told me a riddle which offers an interesting variation. "When does five and nine more equal two?" The answer is when you are talking about the time of day. Nine hours after five AM is two PM. You could tell your players that the two digits they are to add together represent time of day in non-military time. Mathematicians would say you were using a base of twelve instead of a base of ten. Thus, Play #4 would be sent in with any of the following combinations: 0+4, 1+3, 2+2, 3+1, 4+0, 7+9, 8+8, 9+7. This might be useful when your opponent knows about your adding numbers together.

In the same conversation, my ten-year old mentioned rounding. That is yet anoter way to combine numbers in ways that confound opponents who might know about the adding-numbers play-calling code. Treat two numbers as if they had a decimal between them then round off to get the play. For example, 4 6 would be 4.6 or 5. 4 2 would be 4.2 or 4. That gives you ten combinations to send in each play.

A game between two opponents who read my book would previously have each trying to figure out which two numbers the opponent was adding together. Now, they have to wonder are they adding or rounding and is it a ten base or a twelve base? To such would-be code breakers, the great philosopher Donnie Brasco would say, "Forget about it."

More on Cal's Stanford Band five-lateral kick return

In recent comments above, I have written approvingly of coaches who use their final timeout at :03 to kick the game-winning field goal. Failure to do that cost Stanford the famous 1982 five-lateral play game.

Stanford's quarterback, John Elway, led his team down the field in the closing seconds to field-goal range. Stanford was trailing 19-17 when they got to the Cal 18. Elway called timeout with :08 left in the game. Oops. That means they have to kick off after the field goal. Elway hit himself in the helmet as soon as he saw the clock and realized what he had done. Mark Harmon's kick was good making the score 20-19 Stanford with :04 left.

Mass celebrations erupted. Stanford was penalized for the celebrations and had to kick off from their own 25 after the field was cleared. Cal's Richard Rodgers called a huddle and said, "If you get the ball and you're going to get tackled, pitch it." At first, Cal had only nine guys on the field. Two others assumed the game was over. The finally got two subs onto the field just as the ball was kicked.

Two of the guys lateraling the ball during the play were option quarterbacks in high school. The last lateral was a blind pitch back over the shoulder. College rules at the time said the game would have been over if the ball had hit the ground.

I said in Football Clock Management to teach your players that the game ends on the whistle, not the gun. Teach your band, too. Stanford's band had been told not to march onto the field until the game was over. But they were not taught that the game is not over until the last play ends. They marched out during the last play, although after the final gun sounded, thereby making their team look even more foolish and drawing a penalty flag. If Cal had not made it to the end zone, the band's penalty would have given Cal yet another chance. Cal declined the penalty and took the game-winning touchdown. Final score: Cal 25, Stanford 20. The good sports at Stanford engraved the 1982 score of Stanford 20, Cal 19 on the Axe trophy which the winner gets possession of after each Big Game.

When you are going to kick a go-ahead field goal, you should let the clock run down so only one to three seconds are left before you call timeout. The same applies to running a clock-stopping next-to-last play like spiking the ball or throwing an incomplete pass or running out of bounds when you have no timeouts left. A word should also be said about premature celebrations. I told of several that cost the celebrants the game in Football Clock Management. Coaches need to practice, maybe only once, not celebrating after an apparent game-winning event. It ain't over til it's over.

Unsportsmanlike conduct with :48 left

Sports Illustrated's 12/8/97 issue had an article called "Dumb and dumber." "Dumber" referrred to Washington Redskin Michael Westbrook's stupid stunt in their 11/23/97 game against the Giants. With :48 left in overtime, 2nd and 10 at the Giants 38, Westbrook made a diving catch near the Giants 25-yard line, but it did not count because it was ruled out of bounds. During his bad-call tantrum, Westbrook felt compelled to yank off his helmet, an act that was made prima facie unsportsmanlike conduct by a recent rules committee.

Two plays later, with :11 left, the Skins attempted a 54 yard field goal. It was short. Subtract 15 yards and it's a 39-yard attempt. In 1996, Washington's field goal kicker Scott Blanton was two for three from 50 or more yards and 22 for 22 from 39 yards or less.

In a clock situation, the importance of everything is magnified, including stupid penalties. The incidence of unsportsmanlike penalties appears to be increasing. Coaches need to find a way to eliminate them. My experience, as a coach and in other areas like army officer, civilian boss, and landlord, indicates that you simply have to increase the punshment until you achieve the desired result. The Skins apparently had not done that with Westbrook.

I read somewhere that the National Hockey League finally cut the number of fights by simply increasing the penalty until it was high enough to do the trick. I have never had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against a team where I was head coach. How so? I made a stern speech the first day of practice and repeated a shortened version every time I saw anything remotely resembling unsportsmanlike conduct in practice or a game. The basic message was that you would be done for the day and probably lose your position on first string for a long time if you got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The Skins cannot afford to bench Westbrook for such a penalty. But then they have the option of fining players a la the NHL, an option which I did not have in high school or youth football.

NBA clock operators fired after loss

In ain't football, but the same principle applies. Head coaches must make sure their home game clock operators are competent and fair and must watch away game clock operators to make sure they are competent and fair. On 11/24/97, the Portland Trail Blazers came from behind in the last seconds to beat the home team Toronto Raptors in NBA action. The game and shot clock operators were brothers. With 3.5 seconds left in the game, the game clock operator accidentally stopped the clock for 1.5 or 1.6 seconds. That made a gift to the trailing team, Portland, of 1.6 seconds. The Trail Blazers scored the winning basket during that extra 1.6 seconds. Both the game clock operator and his brother, who were paid $40 each a game, were fired four days later.

Football has often been described as a "game of inches." It is equally a game of seconds. Every second matters. And you must have game-clock and play-clock operators who get it right, to the second.

I agree with the clock operator's punishment, at least for the game-clock operator. But I must note that football coaches and quarterbacks commit the same mistake, wasting seconds, in virtually every game. Were the same standard applied to coaches, virtually every coach in America would be fired. It need not be so. You should have a clock-management assistant coach who tells you when you should be operating at the various speeds. If you do and operate at those speeds when indicated, you will not waste seconds unnecessarily.

A coach friend of mine scored early in the first quarter to take a 6-0 lead in a 1997 game. He never paid any attention to the clock. That is, he never switched to a slowdown mode, not even for one second. In the fourth quarter, with literally one second left in the game, the opponent scored a touchdown. They, too, missed the extra point. Neither team could score in two overtimes and the game ended in a tie. My coach friend failed to make proper use of around 30 opportunities to waste time, and it cost him the victory.

Poor clock management costs NJ high school team state championship

Here's an e-mail I got from reader Lee McGuire:

Jack - I came across an article in the Sports section of the Tuesday, 12/9/97 edition of the USA Today. The article "Bad Timing Costs NJ Team a title" written by Heather Burns. I'll give you a few excerpts. See if you can go back & find it. I think it would be a great addition to the clock mgmt page.

"Bernards (Bernardsville, NJ) learned a tough lesson in football clock mgmt at a terrible time Saturday. Leading 12-6 with 1:37 to go, after holding off a late drive by Shore Regional (West Long Branch), the Bernards' bench started celebrating what looked like a sure Central Jersey Group I title. But with the ball at its own 15-yard line, Bernards (9-2) botched its attempt to run out the clock, and ended up losing 19-18 in overtime. Its undoing was its final four plays. A QB sneak...and then three consecutive kneel downs. 'I don't know why they didn't punt,' Shore coach Mark Costantino said. 'Maybe they thought the clock would run out, but with change of possession, the clock stops.'

While Bernards started celebrating by pouring gatorade over head of coach Richard Tramaglini, the clock stopped with 6 seconds left. Shore Regional got the ball back, and with time for one pass, Pete Vincelli caught a 14-yd touchdown strike from Pat O'Neill tying the game at 12. The PAT was missed forcing overtime. "...we never should have given the ball back in regulation," Tramaglini said. "We wanted to use all the time left....I guess in the excitement we rushed things a little too much." Each team got possession on the 25-yd line (I thought Federation was 10?) Shore Regional scored, and kicked the PAT. Score now 19-12. Bernards comes back to score. But coach Tramaglini decides to go FOR TWO!! He felt his team was tired, so he decided to go for the win.

The article doesn't say how many (if any) timeouts Shore Regional had left.

John Reed comments: This is yet another example of premature celebration. It is also apparently an example of not understanding the take-a-knee table, not understanding the quarterback-keep-sweep-slide table, not knowing when to take a safety, not knowing how to run a green offense (maxmimum slowdown), and the rules pertaining to clock management, like the fact that the clock stops when one team turns the ball over on downs.

No referee "housekeeping" time after first down or penalties

In Football Clock Management, I said that the game-clock time consumed from one play to the next falls into three categories:

the play itself

referee "housekeeping" time (placing the ball and getting into position to give the ready-to-play signal)

play-clock time

There is no referee "housekeeping" time in the NFL when the 40-second play clock is in use. Upon further review, I want to note that no referee "housekeeping" time comes off the game clock on a play which gains a first down or which has a penalty flag. On those plays, the officials stop the game clock when the play ends. They will restart the game clock after the chains have been moved or the penalty has been enforced or declined.

On page 77 of Football Clock Management, I said that Arizona State University Rose Bowl quarterback Jake Plummer appears to have called for the snap about 15 seconds too soon on the first-down play after his completed pass to the Ohio State eight-yard line for a first down. I was wrong. He waited until 22 seconds had run off the play clock. That also ran 22 seconds off the game clock, because after a first-down play, the game clock and play clock start simultaneously. I thought Plummer must have called for the ball when only ten seconds had run off the play clock because I figured about 15 seconds must have run off during referee "housekeeping" time. But I forget that there is no "housekeeping" time during which the game clock runs after a first down or penalty play. Plummer did about as well as he could do. My criticism of ASU coach Bruce Snyder for calling a too-quick timeout after the second-down sack play on that series still stands.

Apologies to Bill Montgomery

On page 5, I state my assumption (based on the era) that Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery called a play that failed in the 1969 Arkansas-Texas game. Reader Mark Malcolm of Richardson TX wrote to point out a quote from Arkansas coach Frank Broyles in J. Neal Blanton's book Game of the Century: "We would not have called a pass if we had an average quarterback." We can therefore conclude that Broyles and/or his offensive coordinator Don Breaux, not Montgomery, called the fatal pass.

New Year's not a good day for spiking the ball

The 1998 Rose Bowl game ended with Washington State's Ryan Leaf spiking the ball to stop the clock as time ran out. The snap was at :02 left in the game. That's not enough time for a spike play. But it is enough time for a regular play. They should have run a Hail Mary or other final attempt at scoring instead.

The first half of the 1998 Orange Bowl ended similarly with Tennessee's Peyton Manning trcying to run a spike-the-ball play. He couldn't even get the officials to get out of the way so he could call for the snap.

If you plan to spike the ball, it is better to do it one play too soon than one play too late. Both Washington State and Tennessee should have spiked the ball one play earlier, if the situation permitted, or they should have just run their last regular play instead of trying to stop the clock.

Error in 1995 Army-Navy score

In his kind review of my book, Col. Morris J. Herbert of West Point's alumni magazine Assembly pointed out that I fouled up the score of the 1995 Army-Navy game. I said Army trailed 13-6 and went for a two-point conversion to win. Actually, they trailed 13-7 and only needed a one-point conversion to win. Why did I screw up? No excuse, Sir!

"Response" from Bruce Snyder?

This is not an error per se. But on page 80 of Football Clock Management, I said I sent Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder a copy of an early version of my Slowdown chapter. That chapter says Snyder probably lost the 1997 Rose Bowl because he called a timeout too fast when he should have been in a slowdown mode and therefore waited until the play clock had run out. I asked Snyder for his comments. He did not reply. But I was interested to note a quote from him on page 126 of the August 25, 1997 Sports Illustrated. The article is about ASU's loss of the Rose Bowl. It said,

It took Snyder three weeks to bring himself to watch the game tapes. "I got a letter from Dick Vermiel," he says. "He had done the game on TV. He said that when he was coaching, he learned more from losses than he did from wins. So I pulled out the tapes, and I watched them---a lot. I've analyzed the timeouts, all the decisions I made, and I went over them with my staff."

Does that mean Snyder agrees with my analysis of the game, or at least the part about calling the timeout too fast? Can't say for sure. I wish he would talk to me. But at least we agree the timeouts were a factor.

Fake take a knee at the end of a game

On page 97, I quoted Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman ("Dr. Z") as saying,

"it makes absolutely no sense at all" to do a fake take-a-knee play at the end of a game.

I further said, "I agree." But on 9/14/97, I was scouting an upcoming youth football opponent. The score was 0-0 and as the regulation time wound down, the team on offense was at midfield going into a stiff wind. It occurred to me that they should just take a knee rather than risk an interception. They had little success passing during the game.

Then it occurred to me that maybe the best thing would be for them to take a knee once or twice, followed by a fake take-a-knee in which they tried to score. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. So I no longer agree with Paul Zimmerman, and maybe he would change his mind as well if asked about a tie-ball-game scenario. I now say, the fake take-a-knee play is legitimate at the end of the first half OR at the end of the game when the score is tied and the game is about to go into overtime. I continue to agree that doing a fake take-a-knee when you are ahead at the end of a game serves no legitimate purpose.

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  • The SD Chargers lost a playoff game to the NE Patriots in 2007 after the Charger’s safety intercepted a pass late in the game and then fumbled after he was tackled attempting to return the ball. The Chargers had the lead and could have taken a knee a few times to secure the win but the fumble recovery by the Patriots allowed them to score and win 24-21. It was especially galling because the Chargers finished the season with a 14-2 record and home field advantage for the playoffs. It emphasized to me the importance of just protecting the ball when you are ahead very late in a game and secure a turnover.

    Ted on

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