Jets wisely have an assistant focus mainly on clock management
Posted: Thursday October 14, 2004 10:11AM; Updated: Thursday October 14, 2004 2:40PM
Herman Edwards was frustrated last season because the Jets burned several unnecessary timeouts.
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
The game is entering its crucial phase. On the sideline, all is madness.
"When do we burn our timeout?" is coming through the coach's headset from his offensive coordinator. "If we have to punt, do I send six on their first play," his defensive coach is asking him. "Coach! Coach! I think Jimmy can go!" the trainer is yelling.
"You what? I can't hear you."
"Challenge it! Challenge it!" his players are screaming from the field.
Thrashing, screaming madness, and is it any wonder that they'll occasionally screw up the clock, or the timeout situation, or even the game strategy itself?
Either Titans coach Jeff Fisher or his offensive coordinator, Mike Heimerdinger, messed up the clock at the end of the first half of the Jacksonville game and left themselves a lot less time to mount a drive than they could have had. Joe Gibbs left himself with no fourth-quarter time outs in two straight losing contests. Mike Holmgren could have run the Rams' clock down to under 30 seconds at the end of the Seahawks-St. Louis game, but he didn't, and the 1:14 was just enough time for the Rams to send the game into overtime.
It happens to all of them, the near great and the very great, such as TomLandry, one of history's finest game strategists. Nov. 9, 1980, Giants vs. Cowboys in the Meadowlands. Dallas was on its way to the NFC Championship game. The Giants had just lost eight straight. Somehow the score was tied at 35 -- all late in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had a fourth and one on their own 47. They went for it and Brad Van Pelt stopped Robert Newhouse for no gain. The Giants took over, kicked a field goal and won. I talked to Landry very late, after the Cowboy locker room had practically cleared out.
"I violated one of my own most important principles," he said. "At the end of a close game, you always have to ask the question: 'What's the easiest way for us to lose?' And then you have to make sure to avoid it.
"The easiest way for us to have lost was to have gone for it, gotten stopped and given them a short field. And that's exactly what happened. Why did I do it? Late game excitement. The players are all screaming, 'Go for it!' You lose track."
For years I have always felt that it is too much for one human being, to run the sidelines and the clock, and manage the game at the same time. Teams have capologists to handle the salary cap. Why not have clockologists, to relieve the head coach of the instant sideline decision, to combine clock management with game strategy as well, everything based on percentages carefully mapped out ahead of time? He would simply say, "Time out, coach," and that would be it.
You would have to have the right kind of person, of course. Calm, probably of older vintage, well respected. Not the sort of chap to get flustered, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..." as Kipling wrote. And then he would have to be the sort of person in whom the coach had the utmost confidence and trust. Sideline harangues are not good for team morale.
The Jets, it seems, have found their man. Dick Curl, 64 years old, a veteran of 36 years as an assistant and head coach at practically every level, 11 times a grandfather, low key, non-confrontational. Perfect.
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The idea of Curl as a sideline guru started when head coach Herman Edwards, reviewed the 2003 season and found that the Jets had squandered time outs, too many of them. They had burned five in the first and third quarters and five in the first half of the last quarter. Something had to be done. The situation had to be reviewed and resolved, and he knew just the guy to study it.
Curl, the oldest and calmest member of his staff. He coached the tight ends but had a real feel for research and development. He studied everything, and this season the unbeaten Jets have yet to burn an unnecessary time out. And during the course of Edwards' many sessions with Curl, another idea arose. Why not let him handle time outs, as well, and even game strategy?
Presto, a sideline clockologist, even a stratego ... uh...a strategologist was born. Football pioneering, to be sure. Sideline division of labor.
Well, that's the way I would envision it, but of course, it doesn't work in exactly that manner. Curl does not have slam dunk, my way or the highway, authority. He'll stand next to Edwards and make his recommendation, which can be accepted or rejected.
"No rejects so far," he says. "I'll say, ' Coach, we might have to use a time out after the next play.' He'll just say, 'Fine.'"
Wait a minute, wait a minute, this seems just a little too smooth. How about when you want to do one thing, and the coach wants another?
"I haven't been put in that position yet," Curl says.
How about sideline arguments?
"No arguments. Herman's very good about listening to advice. Of course there might be a situation where he's real busy, and I'd tell him, 'Just remember to do so and so,' and he'd say, 'Oh yeah, right.'"
Well, you can't argue with success. The Jets put together two picture perfect drives to close out each half against the Bills last weekend, the final one resulting in the field goal that won the game with 58 seconds left. They called one time out to stop the clock during the Bills' last possession of the half, and used their last two during their own field goal drive, which ended as the clock expired. On the game winner, they didn't use any time outs, in an effort to take as much time away from the Bills as possible.
"At the end of the half," Curl says, "we might have been able to run another play. Some people would have said let's go for it, but we might have gotten a sack, too, which would have knocked us out of field goal range. So I recommended running down the clock and kicking it, and that's what we did.
"I've worked up a chart on how long just about every phase of the game takes. If you're killing the clock and protecting a lead, and the other team is calling time outs, well, a kneel takes two seconds, a running play eats up five. If there are two minutes left and they have one time out, if you run three times, they'll get the ball back with 29 seconds left.
"If you're driving at the end, you can figure that a quarterback like Chad Pennington can average seven seconds a play. If you've got 40 seconds left, he can run off five or six of them in that period. If you've got one time out left, that means you can use the middle of the field one time.
"But when you're talking about Pennington you're talking about a quarterback who's very intelligent, very alert in the two-minute drill. He really gets his team out of the huddle and up to the line in a hurry. Not all of them are as good at it as he is"
Sounds like an ideal situation for a sideline clock and strategy guy, a bright, talented QB, an appreciative head coach. So tell me, please, Mr. Curl, have you screwed it up yet?
"Everyone's going to pull some dummy play at some time," he says. "It's got to happen. I had one that really haunted me. Second game of the year. We score in the fourth quarter against San Diego and go up by 12. I should have told them to go for two. I didn't.
"I got so aggravated ... when we got to the airport I said, 'Herm, I blew it.' I agonized about it for days. Finally my wife said, 'Would you please forget it. We won the game.' I said I couldn't. We wound up winning by six. We could have been ahead by seven. It still bothers me."
No harm, no foul. The Jets have yet to suffer their first loss. Someone's doing something right.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.