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Football Coaching: Game and Clock Management 101

I love watching college and professional football but a few things about the sport drive me crazy. Among those things: television timeouts both before and after a kickoff, trash talking on nearly every play, excessive flags for defensive pass interference in the NFL, the lack of a playoff system in college football, and play-by-play announcers so old they can't keep track of who is playing. The thing about football that infuriates me the most, however, is the incredible stupidity of so many head coaches when it comes to game and clock management.

I have never played a down in an organized football league. I probably wouldn't be able to devise an effective offensive or defensive game plan. I wouldn't know how to develop a football player's talent or sell a football program to a potential recruit. I wouldn't know how to deal with the media. However, after three decades of following football, I know that I would do a better job than most college and pro coaches when it comes to game and clock management. It absolutely amazes me how often a head coach, earning hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars per season, screws up the simplest of game and clock decisions. Bill Simmons of ESPN once mentioned that football teams should have a coach that specifically deals with these types of decisions. I couldn't agree more. Many NCAA and NFL seasons have been ruined because of dumb game and clock management by the head coach.

Below is a list of suggestions (which are not appropriate for every team and every situation but pay dividends more often than not). Of course, I'm writing this for fun. I don't really expect any football coaches to read my suggestions but writing it will at least give me a chance to type away my frustrations.

Punt Less Often in Opponent Territory

Over the years, I've read several studies statistically showing that coaches don't go for it on fourth down nearly enough. The analytics show that going for it on fourth and short (short being 1, 2 or 3 yards) outside of the red zone results in a first down more often than not. This study from shows that NFL teams have a success rate of about 75%, 60% and 56%, respectively, on 4th and 1, 4th and 2, and 4th and 3. I'd guess that college teams have an even higher success rate on fourth and short.

So, in most cases, the head coach should go for it on 4th down outside of field goal range in opponent territory. Let's say, for example, it's 4th and 2 from the opponent's 40 yard line. Based on the percentage above, there is a 60% of getting a first down and that first down will likely result in points. You still have a 40% chance of not getting the first down, but failing on 4th down still leaves your opponent about 30 yards from field goal range. In other words, you have a 60% chance of being near or in field goal range and a 40% chance of the opponent being 25-30 yards from field goal range. Punting will probably net 25-30 yards of field goal position, but how much is that really worth in today's game where 400+ yards of total offense is so common? That decision should be a "no-brainer" for most teams. If you are playing a dominant defensive team, punting becomes a more legitimate option simply because your odds of successfully converting on 4th down would be much lower. Also, the decision process changes dramatically as you enter makeable field goal range. In that situation, you could be surrendering three points by going for the first down and not getting it. This is a tougher decision and really depends on the quality of the offense, the defense and the kicker.

Go for the two point conversion if it can put you ahead by 3/7/14/21 in the final ten minutes of the game

Thankfully, most coaches understand the logic here. A coach would have to be incredibly stupid not to follow this rule. Enter Hue Jackson, whose Raiders were ahead of the Lions 20-14 on December 18th when they scored a touchdown with 7:47 left in the fourth quarter. Jackson decided to kick the extra point to put the Raiders ahead 27-14 rather than going for two in hopes of making the score 28-14. The Raiders had nothing to lose that late in the game. The potent Lions offense rallied and won the game 28-27. This was the biggest coaching blunder I've seen in a long time. By the way, the Raiders broke an NFL record for both penalties and penalty yards in a season. Fortunately for Raiders fans, the incompetent Jackson was fired after one season.

Trailing late in the game, use your timeouts on defense

It's pretty simple math. Assuming no timeout is taken, a team that is ahead late in the game can run about 40 seconds off the game clock on a running play where the ball carrier is tackled in bounds. A team in the hurry-up offense will lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 seconds on a play where the ball carrier is stopped in bounds if they don't use a timeout. Most coaches are pretty good about following this rule but there are exceptions. In the 2011 Belk Bowl, Louisville was trailing 31-24 with under four minutes remaining and NC State had the ball with a first down in Louisville territory. Louisville stopped NC State on four consecutive rushing plays but their coach, Charlie Strong, elected not to use his two timeouts. So Louisville got the ball back with 1:35 remaining (and two timeouts), rather than getting it back with about 3:00 remaining (and no timeouts). Clearly, having 3:00 and no timeouts would have given Louisville a much better chance to tie the game. Louisville used those timeouts but lost the game largely because the clock became a bigger enemy than it needed to be. With nearly 3:00 remaining, Louisville could have mixed in some running plays to keep the defense honest. Thanks to Strong's poor clock management, NC State was able to focus on the pass and clinched the game with a good pass rush.

Trailing late in the game with two timeouts, use your timeouts on first and second down

Quite often, you'll see a situation where a trailing team goes on defense late in a game with only two timeouts remaining. The opposing team, in most cases, will run the ball on first and second down. If the coach on the trailing team is smart, he'll use his final two timeouts on first and second down. The coach for the team leading in the game will now be compelled to run the ball on third down because he knows doing so will mean another 40-45 seconds or so off the clock because the trailing team has no more timeouts and by passing he might risk an incomplete pass that will stop the clock. Knowing that a running is a near certainty gives a tremendous advantage to the defense. But what if the trailing coach decides to use his two timeouts after the 2nd and 3rd down plays. Let's make the safe assumption that the team on offense runs on first down. About 40-45 seconds come off the game clock. On second down, the trailing team uses the timeout and stops the clock. Now we have a critical third down play, but the coach of the team leading in the game is not compelled to run the ball because he knows the clock is going to stop after third down either way (via the incomplete pass or the trailing coach using his last timeout). By running the ball, he guarantees that the last timeout will be burned but that's only worth 10-15 seconds later in the game if his team doesn't convert the first down. In other words, calling a pass and trying to get the first down (which may put the game away) is probably worth the small risk of leaving the opponent with one more timeout. The defense can't assume a running play. Obviously, if the team with the ball gets a first down on first or second down, none of this will matter.

Don't use challenges if you don't have much to gain by overturning the call (NFL)

NFL coaches start each game with the ability to challenge two calls per game. If the coach challenges and the call is not overturned, his team loses a timeout. If the coach is successful on his first two challenges, he gets a third. Obviously, these challenges can be very valuable. Some coaches hold on to their challenges as if they were gold bars while others spend them like Dunkin Donuts coupons. There's a happy middle ground. The coach should challenge if overturning the call can have a major impact on the game and there is a reasonable chance that the call will be overturned. Examples include a turnover, a potential turnover, a third down play that results in a first down, a third down play that could result in a first down, and a play that goes for more than 25 yards. A five yard pass completion on 1st down should never be challenged. The spot of the ball should only be challenged if it's on a fourth down play or if it's very late in the game. The spot of the ball isn't changed very often so it's a challenge that should be used rarely.

The worst offender when it comes to poor challenge usage I've seen recently is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis who used his first challenge in the first half of a playoff game against the Texans to challenge a spot on a second down play. Second down! It was a challenge that he had little chance of winning and the Bengals would still be left with third and inches to go for the first down. Lewis lost that challenge and threw another ill-advised red challenge flag not long after that which left him with no challenges for the second half of a playoff game.

Playoffs + Little Chance of Reversing the Call + Not Much to Gain = Very Poor Coaching

Get your key players out of blowout game as soon as possible

This particular coaching blunder is near and dear to my heart because the biggest offender is Bill Belichick. The Patriots can be up by 35 points in the fourth quarter and Coach Belichick will still have Tom Brady in the game throwing passes and doing quarterback sneaks. Belichick rarely removes a starter from the game. It's foolish to risk an injury to a key player (and even more foolish if he's a franchise quarterback) unless that player is rusty and needs the snaps. In football, you can't remove all of your starters in a blowout game, but the quarterback, starting running back, All Pro receivers and tight ends should be taken out of any game where the lead is more than three possessions (ie. 25 points or more) in the fourth quarter. If, by some miracle, the game gets tight, the coach can always put those key players back in. In that situation, the risk of a key injury is far greater than the risk of losing the game.

Get your key players out of meaningless Week 17 games if you are playing the next week

Texans coach Gary Kubiak lost both his starting and backup quarterback this season because of injury yet he allowed his starting quarterback in the playoffs, TJ Yates, to play in the Texans' meaningless Week 17 game. After Yates was sacked early in the game, Kubiak came to his senses and took him out. The Patriots lost Wes Welker in a meaningless Week 17 game in the 2009 season. If a team has a playoff bye, the coach may want to let his starting quarterback and key starters play the in the first half of the Week 17 game. Two weeks off will likely create rust (just ask the 2011 Packers). One week probably will not.

If you are down by 15 points in the final ten minutes and score a TD, go for the two point conversion

Down by 15 points late in the game, a team needs two touchdowns and one successful two point conversion to tie the game. Football coaches in both the NFL and college always kick the extra point after scoring the first touchdown. By doing so, they cut the lead to eight points (a one possession game). Their hope is that they will not give up any more points, score a touchdown later and get the two point conversion after that touchdown. That may work out but it is the wrong strategy. In this situation the coach should go for the two point conversion immediately if his team scores a touchdown. Here's why. Let's say you are down by 15 and score a touchdown with 7:00 remaining in the fourth quarter. You kick the PAT and cut the lead to eight points. You kickoff, your defense holds and you score another touchdown after you get the ball back. You are now a two-point conversion away from tying the game. Because your team was only down one score, they probably used most of the fourth quarter clock to get that TD so if the two-point conversion fails, the game is essentially over. However, if you had gone for the two-point conversion after that first touchdown and failed, you would still have a chance to rally from the nine point deficit with 7:00 remaining. You are in a tough position but you still have a chance to win if you fail on the two-point conversion with 7:00 left. You don't really have a chance to win if you fail on the two-point conversion with ten seconds left. My strategy makes more sense and I'm sure many college and pro coaches would agree but they probably follow the strategy that everyone else does out of fear of being second guessed by some moron in the media or a team owner who isn't smart enough to understand the logic. I was trying to remember a time when the Patriots were in this situation and couldn't recall one. I'd be curious to see if Bill Belichick, who doesn't care what the media thinks, would do it my way.

Don't "Chase the Points" With Early Two-Point Conversions

Sometimes coaches will go for the two-point conversion in the first half or early in the third quarter. This only makes sense if your offense is potent enough to score on more than 50% of their two-point tries. Of course, if that were the case you would be well-advised to always go for two. For most teams, it makes sense to always kick the extra point in quarters 1 through 3.

Be more aggressive offensively when you are down by 3 points late in the game

Far too often, teams in this situation play too conservatively. They are so fearful of turning the ball over and not getting the field goal to tie the game that they lose sight of the fact that the other team is still more likely to win the game if they settle for the field goal. I'm not advocating for risky plays in this situation, but the main objective of the play calling should be to score a touchdown as it would be earilier in the game. A TD in this situations puts you ahead by four points and forces the opponent to score a TD to retake the lead. By settling for a field goal, the opponent only needs a field goal of their own to win the game and they get the ball next.

Be more conservative when you are ahead by 6-8 points late in the game and in field goal range

In this situation, discretion is the better part of valor. Let's say your team is in the redzone and ahead by 6 points with just under two minutes remaining. The best thing you can do in this situation is run clock (or force the opponent to use its timeouts) and assure a field goal that will put you ahead by two possessions. Most coaches understand this and employ the right strategy though sometimes the quarterback loses focus and throws an interception or incomplete pass. This is why the coach should not be calling passing plays in this situation.

When you are down by 9-11 points with 20-30 seconds remaining, kick the field goal as soon as possible

Obviously, this is a desperate situation that will require a successful onside kick and probably a successful Hail Mary pass to the endzone. Unless you are the New York Giants, the odds of pulling out the victory in this situation are close to zero. But, if you use the remaining 20-30 seconds to score a touchdown, the odds are exactly zero. Why not give yourself a chance by kicking the field goal?

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