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There was always something a little cold-blooded about the way Staubach went to work in the last two minutes. Johnny Unitas was very cold-blooded, too. Stabler is. But there are other two-minute styles: the hot-blooded approach of a Jim Zorn or a Brian Sipe, both scary two-minute quarterbacks; the hectic, near-frantic manner in which Fran Tarkenton got the job done.
"It helps me that our basic offense is a little crazy anyway," Zorn says. "Sometimes we run four wide receivers on first down, no matter what part of the game we're in." Seattle Offensive Coach Jerry Rhome shakes his head. "It may seem like madness when Jim takes us on one of those last-minute drives," he says, "but it's a controlled kind of madness. He always knows exactly what he's doing. It's amazing how some people come apart in that time, how nerve-racking it is. I've seen quarterbacks throw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock on fourth down. I've seen receivers step out of bounds to stop the clock when there's no one within 30 yards of them. I've seen it in high school and college and the pros."
In the eyes of Len Dawson, "There's one constant in the two-minute game, and that's the confidence of your teammates. The guy who seemed unbelievable to me last year was Sipe. I covered five of Cleveland's games—Houston, the Jets, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Miami—and he pulled four of them out at the end. I talked to the Cleveland players, and they really believe he can get it done. The receivers feel he'll get them the ball if they get open. So the linemen are going to try to hold their blocks for that one extra split second. Now you've won it. Everything's a sales job when you get that many people involved."
It's an unpredictable time, those last two minutes, and sometimes the clouds part when things look darkest. The Immaculate Reception was really the result of a good defensive play; trouble was, the ball was knocked into the hands of Franco Harris. San Diego beat Kansas City 29-23 in overtime in 1978, but the Chargers almost blew it when Dan Fouts misread the clock and threw a pass instead of setting up a point-blank field goal; a K.C. defensive back slipped, and John Jefferson caught Fouts' pass for a TD while on his back in the end zone.
These are the grace notes of Two-Minute Football, though. "The whole idea," Landry says, "is to have the poise when it's fleeing away from you."
And the courage. "In my second year in Philadelphia," says Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil, "we had a chance to tie Washington in the last 30 seconds. I called my kicker over, and he looked at me and said, 'What about a fake?' We tried the field goal and he missed it. The guy was just looking for a way to shift the responsibility. Last year in Dallas I asked Tony Franklin if he thought he could make a 59-yarder, and he said, 'You're damn right!' And he made it."
Confidence can be an extension of the coach's outlook. Vermeil's quarterback, Ron Jaworski, calls the two-minute period "my turn to have fun." Most coaches who call all the plays will give the quarterback latitude to call his own stuff at the end. "You can waste as much as 10 to 15 seconds per play by having it sent in to you," Dawson says. "Our quarterback is on his own as soon as it becomes impractical for plays to come from the sidelines," says San Francisco's Bill Walsh. "Usually, that's with a minute or so to go. If we have a first down, goal to go, we'll have a set order of plays to be called. We go for the end zone with our best play on first down, a strategy not many people agree with. Once, when I was with Cincinnati, we scored on Pittsburgh from a yard out on a screen pass. You simply couldn't run it over from there on Pittsburgh. It couldn't be done."
Walsh is acknowledged as one of the NFL's master architects of quarterbacks, of offenses. He builds statistics from nothing. Walsh looks at the final moments of a game this way:
"When it's down near the end, and we're in a no-huddle situation, we've got the first two plays called before the series starts. Usually the second play in the two-play series will be a bomb, because that'll stop the clock for us, one way or another, and then we can call the next two plays without wasting time. You can figure the defense generally will be the same on the second play as it was on the first, unless they've blitzed the first time. Two no-huddle plays of no yards can knock you on your rear end, and so will an incomplete pass, because now you have to set something up. This gives the defense time to catch its breath and develop strategy. That's what you're trying to take away from them.
"When the clock is running out, you can go to a third no-huddle play, but before you call a fourth-down play, you should take your time-out. That is, if you've got any left. There are three final plays we use: We attack the weak side with a tall man down the middle; try a hook-and-lateral, where a guy catches the ball inside and pitches out to a trailer; or go with Big Ben."