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THE SNAP OF THE BALL SETS OFF A TIMER—AND A SERIES OF BATTLES ...
... TO BUY A SPLIT SECOND FOR THE Q UARTERBACK OR STEAL IT FROM HIM ...
... AND WITHIN THREE SECONDS, A PLAY IS WON OR LOST. TICK. TICK. TICK.
It's a warm summer morning at 49ers training camp in Santa Clara, Calif., and the team is running seven-on-seven drills, with no defensive linemen. Behind the offense sits a scoreboard clock set at five seconds—the same five-second timer that San Francisco has used in most organized team practices over the past year. When the ball is snapped, the countdown begins: :05 ... :04 ... :03... . At :02, a horn blows. The clock keeps running. At :00, the horn blows again.
The purpose? The Niners want their quarterback, Alex Smith, to get rid of the ball before the first horn—that is, in less than three seconds. And they want him to know that after five seconds, the play is effectively over.
Smith takes a snap and looks through his progression of receivers. :04 ... :03... . He cocks his arm and prepares to throw ... :02. RRRRRRRNNNNNT! "Get rid of it!" offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye yells.