Frankly Football: Studying the art of game management
Spending eight years in the Oakland Raiders organization was a real education -- in every area. You learned what to do and what not to do. Both lessons are vital as you craft your football knowledge. One of the most valuable things I learned was the art of game management. Game management is a term used to describe the effect each play call -- both offensively and defensively -- has on the eventual outcome of the game. It's not as basic as deciding whether to go for it on fourth down or the right time to go for a two-point conversion; it's much deeper and much more analytical. Let me offer a few examples, both positive and negative.
Let's go back to the Patriots-Chargers divisional playoff game in 2006, after the Chargers had taken a 14-3 lead at the two-minute warning of the first half: Before their final drive of the half, the Patriots offense accumulated only 67 yards and turned the ball over once. Each New England play call was critical, as the Chargers still had two timeouts remaining and a chance to get the ball back and possibly put the game out of reach. At this point, the clock is as big an opponent for New England as the Chargers.
The Patriots offense took the field in a spread formation with three receivers and ran a draw from the shotgun formation. Kevin Faulk gained seven yards and more important the clock kept moving. Next call: another shotgun spread draw, and this time New England picked up the first down and the clock continued to run. With those two draw calls executed to perfection, the Patriots placed themselves in the perfect position -- they changed field position, turned the clock from foe to friend and placed the Chargers defense on the defensive. The Patriots went on to score a touchdown on the drive to cut the lead to 14-10 and went on to win the game. All of this happened because of how they started their last drive.
Another example of wonderful game management occurred in 1995, when the Browns played the Patriots in an AFC wild-card game .Trailing by 10 points with less than two minutes remaining, the Patriots offense was moving the ball. Suddenly they faced a fourth-and-two at the Browns 30. Bill Parcells had two choices: either allow Matt Bahr to attempt a 47-yard field goal and then hope to gain control of the onside kick or just try and gain the two yards and keep the drive alive. Parcells walked over to Bahr and asked him, "Can you make this?" When Bahr hesitated, Parcells ordered the offense to stay on the field. Parcells would rather take his chances on fourth down than send an unsure kicker on the field. The Patriots ended up losing the game, but every decision Parcells made down the stretch gave New England a chance to at least tie the game.
In Week 7 last season, the Chiefs were beating Oakland 6-0 in the second quarter. The Raiders had just one first down prior to the drive. Faced with a third-and-two from the Kansas City 18, Oakland rookie head coach Lane Kiffin called for a run resulting in a 1-yard gain. Instead of kicking the field goal, the Raiders went for it on fourth down and failed to convert. The Raiders ended up losing 12-10. Many naysayers pointed to the fourth-down call as the mistake, but in reality, the third down call was the real miscue. Had the game been managed correctly, Kiffin would have known a field goal was not an option before making his third-down call. With that knowledge, the play book is wide open on third down and the potential is there for a big play.
Another example of poor game management occurred during Week 1 of last season when Denver played Buffalo. Denver had just missed a fourth-quarter field goal that would have put it ahead. Leading 14-12, the Bills got the ball back on their own 33 with 3:32 remaining. The Bills' main objective is to get at least one first down, which would have pretty much assured them of the win. If they couldn't get a first down, their next objective should be to reduce the amount of timeouts Denver had in its arsenal. The Bills ran the ball on first down, and the Broncos choose to not stop the clock. On the next play, Bills rookie running back Marshawn Lynch mistakenly ran out of bounds and the clock stopped. Conventional wisdom says the next play call must be a running play in order to get the clock moving again or at least force the Broncos to call one of their two remaining timeouts. But the Bills called a pass, which fell incomplete -- stopping the clock with 2:36 remaining.
The Bills ended up losing when Denver's Jason Elam kicked a field goal as time expired. The Bills gave this game away with very poor game management . Even if the Bills had just taken a knee the final two offensive plays, they would have won the game.
Calling plays is a daunting task in the NFL, but calling plays and managing the game for the first time is something that requires tremendous team and individual preparation. So this year, I am very anxious to see how new Redskins coach Jim Zorn will fare. When I spent time with St Louis Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who interviewed for the Raiders head coaching position in 2006, he told me that every Saturday night before a game he locks himself in his room with his call sheets. Using the college game on television to simulate the game, he makes play calls to help him prepare for the next day's events. Zorn will have to rely on his coaches and have someone very talented in the coaching box to assist him as he navigates his way through his first season.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Warren Sapp gave a vivid description of his time with the Raiders: "As dark as a black hole," he said. "Stuff went on in that organization that shouldn't go on in sports. I don't think there's one person who knows who or what is making the call. Let's just say the Oakland experience is unique. The phone rings quite a bit on that sideline. Insubordination is grounds for termination in any company." Having worked in that "black hole" for eight years, I know exactly what Warren is talking about. And those calls to the sideline are from one man and one man only. At times I have been the reluctant messenger on a few of them myself. They are never pleasant.