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11 Oct 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: On the Clock

By Russell Levine

My goal in writing this column every week is to present things from the point of view of the football-watching fan, because it seems to me the common observer's perspective is often missing from mainstream media coverage.

Take, for example, Sunday's St. Louis-Seattle game, perhaps the most important matchup on the Sunday NFL slate. By now, you probably know all about how Seattle blew a 17-point lead in the final eight minutes to lose in overtime, 33-27.

The tying score was made possible when St. Louis, out of timeouts, sacked Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselback on a 3rd-and-5 play with two minutes remaining and forced a punt. Had Seattle converted, the Seahawks could have taken a knee and run out the clock.

The Associated Press recap that appears on every major sports site and in many newspapers devotes a couple of paragraphs to that key sack, but complete ignores the most critical play of the game, which came two snaps earlier.

The game was big enough that ESPN.com sent John Clayton to Seattle to cover it. His sidebar about the Rams' incredible comeback also ignores the critical play of the sequence.

The TV crew in Seattle, Fox's Kenny Albert and Bill Maas, did little better, barely noting the significance of the key play. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, doing highlights of the game on NFL PrimeTime, didn't delve into it.

The funny thing is, any fan that watched the game in his living room or local sports bar most likely recognized the key moment as soon as it occurred. Some of you even commented on it in our Extra Points discussion. But because none of the major media outlets devoted much attention to it, it's almost like it didn't happen.

But "it" did happen, and in my best Bill Clinton, I'm here to provide you the definition of "it."

"It" was the play called by Seattle's Mike Holmgren on 1st-and-10 from the Seattle 36-yard line. Let's run through the sequence leading up to this key moment. After St. Louis scored to pull with 27-24 with 3:30 remaining, the Rams elected to kick off deep instead of attempting an onsides kick, even though they were out of timeouts.

Knowing the clock would stop at the two-minute warning, the Seahawks still needed at least one first down to ice the game. The NFL play clock gives the offensive team 40 seconds to snap the ball, starting from the whistle ending the previous play. Assuming five seconds for the actual running of the play, the Seahawks could count on taking 45 seconds off the clock with each down, provided they didn't commit a penalty, throw an incomplete pass, or go out of bounds.

Seattle ran its first play of the drive with 3:24 on the clock, meaning it could count on snapping its second play at 2:39. The third play would snap at the two-minute warning and take the clock to approximately 1:15. In other words, if they just ran up the middle three times and punted, the Seahawks would be punting with approximately 1:15 on the clock.

So what actually happened? As I mentioned, Seattle needed at least one first down to have a chance to kill the clock, so the Seahawks came out passing. Hasselbeck hit Koren Robinson for a 10-yard gain and a first down on the opening play of the drive -- a risky call by Holmgren, but a successful gamble that put his team in position to not have to take another one. From that point, three straight runs up the middle would have left the Seahawks punting with approximately 30 seconds remaining.

But it was here that Holmgren made the critical mistake that may have cost the Seahawks the game. Having picked up one first down, he got greedy and called another pass play. The fact that Bobby Engram was wide open on the play and was simply missed by Hasselbeck is insignificant -- it was a horrible decision by Holmgren. The one thing the Seahawks could not do in that scenario was risk not taking the clock all the way to the two-minute warning on the first down play, but an incomplete pass did just that.

On 2nd-and-10, Seattle did run the ball, leaving 3rd-and-5 and taking the clock to 2:00. Another run would have meant a worst-case scenario of a punt with about 1:15 left, but Seattle attempted to pass again. Hasselbeck was sacked and fumbled the ball (Seattle recovered) then inexplicably called timeout before punting, stopping the clock at 1:25.

Unfortunately, the Fox broadcast did not show the play clock on the screen after the third-down sack. On screen it appeared as if the game clock stopped briefly after the fumble as the referees sorted out possession and spotted the ball. In instances like that, the play clock doesn't start until the ball is spotted and is only 25 seconds in length. The Seahawks couldn't get the punt off in time and called timeout with at 1:25 before kicking.

To review, Seattle took possession with a worst-case scenario (three runs, assuming they didn't commit a penalty, go out of bounds, or fumble) of punting with about 1:15 left. Once Seattle gained its initial first down, the worst-case scenario improved to punting with about 30 seconds left. Yet, because of Holmgren's play-calling, they ended up punting with 1:25 left.

There is no excuse for such horrible clock management. Seattle gained a critical first down, yet still managed to take less time off the clock than they could have without making a first down. Yes, the Rams might still have kicked the game-tying field goal had they gotten the ball with 30 seconds or 1:15, and there were numerous other mistakes made by Seattle in the fourth quarter, but Holmgen's decision making on the final offensive possession failed to give his team the best chance to win. For that Holmgren becomes the obvious winner of this week's Mike Martz Award, which is ironic given the Seahawks' opponent on Sunday.

If you think I'm being nit-picky or practicing 20/20 hindsight, consider the magnitude of the game. Had Seattle held on to win, the Seahawks would have been 4-0, with a 2 1/2 game lead over the Rams in the NFC West. Instead, Seattle's lead is 1/2 game, and the Seahawks play at 4-0 New England next week, while the Rams host 1-4 Tampa Bay. Come Tuesday morning, St. Louis could well be in first-place in the division standings.

Sometimes entire seasons can boil down to a critical moment. Who knows if that will be the case with St. Louis and Seattle this year, but for now, there can be no underestimating the importance of Seattle's failure in this game, and Holmgren's contribution to it.

* * *

Holmgren was of course not the only candidate for the Martz Award this week, and not the only coach to have issues with clock management.

Minnesota coach Glen Mason also had troubles with the clock down the stretch of his team's 27-24 loss to Michigan. Minnesota took possession of the ball with 4:57 remaining and a 24-20 lead. The Gophers have one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, with two excellent tailbacks in Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III, yet Mason called for an end-around on first down and the play lost five yards. Sometimes, coaches outthink themselves, and this is one of those cases. Sticking with traditional runs may have been the obvious call, but it was also the proper one.

Mason's Gophers managed to climb out of that hole by converting a 3rd-and-15, yet continued to make errors in clock management. Faced with a 3rd-and-16 at its own 47, Minnesota called its first timeout to discuss the play call with 3:18 remaining. Following the timeout, Minnesota committed a false start, making it 3rd-and-21. A run was an obvious call, so Minnesota should have been thinking of conserving its timeouts in case Michigan scored to retake the lead. Instead, Minnesota called yet another timeout after the penalty before running off-tackle and punting. Incredibly, they had called two timeouts without running a single play. I realize Mason didn't call the second tmeout, but a coach should prepare his team for that situation. It's 3rd-and-21, you're going to run anyway, the quarterback should know to let the play clock expire and run on 3rd-and-26 rather than waste a critical timeout. When Michigan scored to go-ahead touchdown, the Gophers were left with only one timeout as they attempted to come back themselves.

This section of the column would not be complete without a mention of a mangled two-point decision somewhere. This week's obvious winner is Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who curiously went for two when trailing by four points with about five minutes left in an eventual 41-38 win over Washington State (the attempt failed). The fact that Oregon went on to win the game does nothing to improve Bellotti's logic. He explained the attempt by saying he was going for the win in regulation, but kicking an extra point in that situation would have brought his team within three points. He could have attempted to score a touchdown on his ensuing position and still had the option of settling for a field goal to force overtime. Instead, he risked losing that option altogether with a foolish two-point try.

Coaches, athletic directors, NFL general managers, I reiterate the offer to serve as your two-point consultant I made right after Super Bowl XXXVIII. I'm available -- give me a call!

* * *

Now that I've spent 1,500 words or so harping on the negative things that came out of this football weekend, let me spend some time on the positives. If ever there was a weekend to be stuck on your couch from noon Saturday to midnight Sunday, this was it.

There were fantastic finishes on Saturday in Minnesota-Michigan, Cal-USC, Tennessee-Georgia, North Carolina State-North Carolina, Rutgers-Vanderbilt and more. The momentum continued Sunday with three fantastic overtime games in the NFL.

Saturday's biggest statement may have been made by a team that lost, Cal. Playing a rare game televised to the East Coast, the Bears announced their presence on the national scene by outplaying No. 1 USC on the Trojans' home field for much of the game. Furthermore, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers was phenomenal, completing his first 23 passes in leading Cal to 2-to-1 yardage edge. Predictably, the voters in both polls dropped Cal for the loss, but if anything, the Bears should have risen a spot or two from No. 7. Hopefully, the BCS bowl selectors saw the game and will consider a 10-1 Cal team for the Rose Bowl should USC go undefeated and play in the Orange Bowl.

Elsewhere, Oklahoma continued its recent dominance of Texas with a 12-0 win at the Cotton Bowl. That's five straight wins for Oklahoma in the series, and Vinny may have been correct when he suggested that Texas coach Mack Brown and former Ohio State coach John Cooper share the same DNA. The Sooners and the Cotton Bowl have become Brown's Waterloo, and if he doesn't figure out a way to win one of these games soon, it's going to cost him his job. There's just too much pressure at Texas and the expectations are too high.

After the game, a distraught Brown took responsibility for the loss. "If we win, the players win. The coaches lose at our place," he said, although it didn't sound like he believed the words that were coming out of his mouth.

It didn't help matters that the most important offensive player for Oklahoma, true freshman running back Adrian Peterson, is a Texas native who chose the Sooners over the Longhorns at least in part because he felt he'd have a better chance to compete for national championships. Peterson had 225 yards rushing and may have injected himself into serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy, which has never gone to a freshman.

It will be tough for Peterson to overcome the anti-freshman bias, but he his performance against Texas was the most defining effort in a big game thus far this season. Purdue's Kyle Orton will have a chance to make a big impression when he faces Michigan in two weeks, but until then, Peterson is on top of the heap.

As for another would-be contender, Texas running back Cedric Benson, he no longer has to worry about whether he'd rather have the Heisman than beat OU, since he won't accomplish either. There's no way he'll wind up with the statue after being badly out-shone by Peterson in the head-to-head matchup.

* * *

It was unfortunate that a couple of the weekend's fantastic finishes were marred by controversy. At North Carolina, N.C. State appeared to have scored the winning touchdown -- one official even put his hands up to signal the score -- on a 2nd-and-goal play in the game's final moments, only to have tailback T.A. McClendon ruled down just short of the goal line. When McClendon was stuffed on 4th down, the Tar Heels had the upset victory.

At Vanderbilt, the Commodores blew a 27-3 lead to Rutgers, but looked like they would be in position to send the game to overtime after quarterback Jay Cutler completed a desperation 66-yard pass to the Rutgers 9-yard line with 11 seconds remaining. But after a lengthy huddle, the officials ruled Cutler had crossed the line of scrimmage, making it an illegal forward pass.

The call against N.C. State appeared to be the more clear-cut mistake of the two, but it would have been nice to see both reviewed by instant replay. Perhaps soon, calls like those will be. I would be very surprised if, after the Big Ten completes its one-year replay experiment, the other major conferences don't adopt similar systems. There's simply too much on the line in these games to have them decided by obviously blown calls.

Replay is not a cure-all. The NFL has an excellent replay system, yet some calls are still missed or are unreviewable. In Sunday's San Francisco-Arizona game, the 49ers tied the score on a two-point conversion catch by Brandon Lloyd with 1:07 to play. If what Lloyd did to the defender covering him -- tossing him aside just as the ball arrived on a fade pattern -- isn't offensive pass interference, they might as well take that rule out of the book, but no flag was thrown on the play.

An NFL team that was hurt by a call that was made was Carolina. The Panthers were flagged for a false start as they kicked a game-tying field goal with 6:42 remaining. The penalty flag hit Panthers lineman Matt Willig in the facial area, and he picked up the flag in frustration and tossed it aside. That drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call, which pushed Carolina out of field-goal range. The Panthers never got close again.

Didn't the NFL learn its lesson with the Orlando Brown incident in Cleveland a few years ago? Why is it important for a lineman to throw a flag towards the players on something like a false start, which is not a spot foul? It just seems like an unnecessary risk, one that the league should avoid by instructing its officials to simply drop their flags on the ground on any call that's not a spot foul. That doesn't excuse Willig's tossing the flag, but his frustration was understandable.

* * *

Football fashion report: Has anyone else noticed the trend of players wearing a single "eye black" sticker these days? Is this some sort of tribute to the late TLC singer Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes? Now that most players use stick-ons instead of the grease pen, many seem to be placing them under only one eye. I'm sure the NFL's uniform cops will ban that any day now. Speaking of the uniform cops, I noticed that Jake Plummer put the "40" sticker in honor of Pat Tillman back on his helmet this week after saying he'd take it off. I'm guessing Plummer is betting the league won't fine him over an issue in which he'd have overwhelming public support.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 11 Oct 2004