NFL coaches fail to manage clock
NFL coaches treat the clock like college students treat their alarm
Gunther Cunningham made one of biggest clock blunders in history
Norv Turner essentially gave away five seconds in loss to Jets
Something small and essentially meaningless happened Sunday evening during the Jets-Chargers playoff game. But it's the sort of small and not-always-meaningless thing that happens all the time in the NFL. And it drives me absolutely nuts. I probably would not have mentioned it this time either, except a friend wrote me about it Sunday night after the game, saying it drove him absolutely nuts. So maybe this is a common feeling among NFL fans. Maybe a bunch of people were screaming at their TVs.
Coaches in the NFL have no idea how to use the clock.
This is astounding to me. As you no doubt know, football coaches will spend hundreds of hours every week studying film to get the tiniest advantage in a game. They will look for almost imperceptible flaws -- a lineman looking down at specific moments, a linebacker who tends to get overaggressive on reverses, a quarterback who drops his arm on certain throws, a receiver who does not run out his routes on running plays. They are looking for any edge, even an edge that, 99 percent of the time, will not matter. Coaches coach for that one percent of the time.
And yet: They treat the clock like college students treat their alarm clock. If there was a snooze button on an NFL clock, coaches would hit it repeatedly. I remember a few years ago the Kansas City Chiefs were losing, and after a first down stop, Gunther Cunningham -- a very fine coach and maniacal worker -- had his player call their last timeout with (if I am remembering this correctly) 2:41 left on the clock. Maybe it was 2:43. Anyway, it was around that time.
You probably don't need me to explain why this was an appalling mistake. But to explain: If the Chiefs do not call timeout there, the opponent still has to run one play before the two-minute warning. There's a 40-second clock in the NFL and so the opponent would have to run one play. The Chiefs would then have a timeout and the two-minute warning to stop the clock.
By calling timeout -- well, the opponent STILL only had to run one play before the two minute warning. Nothing at all was gained. But something important was lost -- the Chiefs final timeout. On the other side of the two-minute warning, the opponent on third down was able to run 40 seconds off the clock that the Chiefs would have been able to save had they kept their timeout. Coaching yourself out of 40 seconds of football -- which could be four or five plays, depending on circumstances -- is like rolling the gutter ball in the 10th frame.
The mistake was bad enough. The explanation was worse. Even a couple of days later, Gunther did not quite seem to get why this was a mistake. And as he broke it down, he said that he had to call a timeout because of the "45-second clock." That's what he said. Forty-five second clock. That a longtime and successful NFL coach -- a smart man who could tell you man-for-man exactly what blocking schemes the Denver Broncos were likely to use on third-and-two in the third quarter -- could even off-handedly confuse the 40-second clock with a 45-second clock gives you a hint how little thought goes into clock management in the NFL.
Sunday, the Chargers pulled off one of those jaw-dropping time bumbles. Like I say: It didn't really matter, not as long as poor Nate Kaeding was missing field goals, and not as long as LaDainian Tomlinson continued to age a year for every quarter of football he played. But it was indefensibly bad anyway. With 2:15 or so left in the game, the Chargers had one timeout and trailed by three. Coach Norv Turner decided to try an onside kick. It was a close call -- Phil Simms* thought it was the wrong call; he thought the Chargers should have kicked off deep. You could certainly argue it both ways.
*I generally like Phil Simms as an announcer, but didn't it seem like he was really grumpy for this game? Earlier in the game, there was a fumble called on the field and the Chargers challenged. The replay -- at least from my vantage point -- seemed to suggest that it was not a fumble, but instead an incomplete pass. The referees are so picky about what makes a complete pass in the NFL anymore and I thought the receiver just didn't have it long enough. But it was really close, and Simms insisted that they got it right on the field -- a catch and a fumble. He was insistent. I thought, "Well, maybe he's right."
Then, just before the referee made his ruling, Jim Nantz smartly suggested that maybe the fumble WOULD get overruled because the receiver did not have the ball all the way to the ground. I say "smartly" because, of course, that's what I was thinking. And sure enough, the referee just five seconds later overruled the fumble and said it was an incomplete pass.
Simms seemed beside himself. I mean, he seemed genuinely angry. He snapped at Nantz, snapped at the decision, seemed to sulk, and wanted to go back to it several more times to prove his point. It was like combat announcing.
The Chargers did try the onside kick, and they didn't get it back. So the Jets had the ball with 2:12 left. Remember the Chargers had the one timeout. So the game was not quite wrapped up. The Jets ran the ball up the middle, got stopped, and there was 2:09 left, 2:08 left, 2:07 left ...
And the Chargers did not call timeout. They let the clock go down to the two minute warning.
Why? What possible reason could the Chargers have had for letting the clock wind down? If they used their timeout here, and they stopped the Jets on the next play, it would be third down with exactly two minutes left. But because they did not use their timeout, when they stopped the Jets on the next play, and it was third down with 1:55 left.
Why? Why as a coach would you just give away five seconds? And don't tell me five seconds in an NFL game doesn't mean anything ... these coaches spend hours and hours scripting their schedules to make sure to not let five seconds get away from them in PRACTICE. The Chargers could not stop the Jets on fourth down so you could say it didn't matter.
Except ... it kind of does matter. Because I think clock management is one thing the average fan really and truly understands better than professional coaches. Maybe it's because fans create these fantastic possibilities in their minds when dealing with their own team -- "OK, down 17, but they can kick a field goal here, then get the onside kick, then score a touchdown, then kick deep and use three timeouts and stop them, they should have about 48 seconds left to score the tying touchdown ..."
Fans -- at least the fans I know -- spend a lot of time thinking about when it makes mathematical sense to let the opponent score. Fans -- at least the ones I know -- spend a lot of time worrying about a timeout a quarterback wasted early in the third quarter when the five-yard delay penalty would have been the smarter play. Fans -- at least the ones I know -- spend countless hours thinking about crazy stuff like when you would free kick or how often it would be worth going for it on fourth and 1.
Coaches, I think, are too buried in the day-to-day to worry about that stuff. In college, they consistently screw up the two-point conversion decision as far as I'm concerned. In the pros, they often flop when it comes to time management. Even the best coaches seem to screw it up. The five-second screw-up by the Chargers did not cost them the game or anything even close, but it was just a staggering blunder -- like batting out of order or forgetting to call an NBA timeout during a quarter. The fact that nobody really talks much about it on TV (Jim Nantz did briefly mention it) tells you: This is just what we've come to expect from NFL coaches. They're good with schemes. They're not so good with time.
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Update: A couple of brilliant readers have suggested that perhaps Norv Turner didn't use his timeout because a timeout there would have freed up the Jets to try a play-action pass before the two-minute warning. I appreciate the effort, but I have to wildly disagree. One: With 2:08 or 2:07 left, an incomplete pass there may have stopped the clock BEFORE the two minute warning, giving the Chargers yet another free timeout. Not happening. Two: The Jets have a rookie quarterback who threw 20 interceptions, they were the best running team in the NFL and one of the worst passing teams. There is absolutely no way on earth the Jets throw the ball there.
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