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17 Mar 2004

Book Review: Football Clock Management

Football Clock Management
By John T. Reed
Second Edition (updated to include Super Bowl XXXVIII, Feb. 1, 2004)
Reviewed by Michael David Smith

Tom Brady deserves credit for late-game heroics in both of his Super Bowl appearances. But as he concluded driving his team down the field in both games, Brady made a key clock management mistake that could have come back to haunt the Patriots.

That mistake was stopping the clock too early, and if Brady had read John T. Reed's Football Clock Management, the mistake could have been avoided.

In Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, Brady spiked the ball to stop the clock for his field goal team to take the field with seven seconds remaining. The clock operator incompetently allowed all seven seconds to run off during Adam Vinatieri's field goal attempt, but if the clock had stopped properly, the Rams would have had the chance to return the ensuing kickoff. In Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers, Brady called timeout with eight seconds left, and the Patriots were forced to kick off after Vinatieri's field goal. Fortunately for Brady, no one mentioned the mistake because the Panthers' Rod Smart didn't attempt a lateral on the ensuing kickoff and was tackled on the return.

If you think stopping the clock too soon is a trivial detail, ask John Elway what happened in his final college game, when he got his Stanford team into winning field goal range and called timeout with eight seconds on the clock. Stanford kicked off after what it assumed was a winning field goal. Five laterals and a trombone player later, Elway finished his college career with a loss.

And if you think stopping the clock too soon is a trivial detail, you're exactly the type of person who needs to read Football Clock Management.

Reed's greatest strength is his willingness to take on the conventional wisdom of football coaches, players, media and fans. Reed's book has parallels with Michael Lewis's brilliant Moneyball in the way it challenges perceived truths about the game.

In 1999, Baylor led UNLV 24-21 with five seconds left and had the ball at the UNLV 1-yard line. The Bears simply needed to take a knee to win the game. Instead, they attempted to punch the ball into the end zone, they fumbled, and a UNLV player picked it up and ran 101 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

After the game Baylor head coach Kevin Steele said he ran the play to "create an attitude of toughness." Steele and many coaches like him would rather show that they're tough than make a cerebral decision to win the game.

Consider the idea of allowing an opponent to score. Many coaches find the thought of letting a guy in the opposite-colored jersey stroll into the end zone so anathema that they simply wouldn't consider it. One coach told Reed, "You never give up points." And yet, as Reed clearly demonstrates, in some situations it is the right move.

In the Jets-Texans game in October of 2003, the Texans led 14-13 with 1:27 remaining, but the Jets had second-and-goal from the 8. The Jets were essentially assured of a go-ahead field goal, and the Texans had only one timeout left, so Texans coach Dom Capers told his defense to allow the Jets to score. Lamont Jordan ran the ball in for an eight-yard touchdown, the Jets failed on the two-point conversion, and they led 19-14 with 1:21 to go. Although the Texans failed to score on the ensuing possession and lost the game, Capers made the right call. He would have been wrong to try to prevent the Jets' offense from scoring when it was a near certainty that they could run down the clock and kick the go-ahead field goal.

This is where we get to the real strategy debate of Reed's book. It's not enough to say that Capers made the right call. We must also say that Jordan made the wrong decision. He should have run to the 1-yard line, and then taken a knee. He scored too fast, giving the Texans plenty of time to mount a come-from-behind drive (which ended at the Jets' 9-yard line). Is it too farfetched to think Jordan should have had the presence of mind to take a knee when all his life coaches had told him to run to the end zone? No. Professional football players need to understand the intricacies of clock management.

In another October game last year, the Seahawks led the 49ers 20-19 with 1:21 to go. Shaun Alexander received a handoff and ran 12 yards for a first down, which allowed Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to take a knee and end the game. But if the 49ers' defensive players had been well coached in clock management, they would have allowed Alexander to run into the end zone. If he had, the 49ers would have gotten the ball back, down 27-19, and would have had a chance to tie the game.

When a reporter asked 49ers coach Dennis Erickson why his defense didn't allow Alexander to score, he replied, "That didn't even enter my mind... You should've called me."

One of Reed's best ideas is that coaches could use computer simulations to help them practice clock management. Most coaches would no doubt scoff at the idea that they could learn something from playing video games, but if an airline pilot or a chess player can hone his skills using a computer, why not a coach? Coaches get very little practice coaching in truly competitive circumstances. A computer simulator could give them all the practice they want.

Reed advocates scheduling come-from-behind drives. A coach should have a chart in his pocket that shows, for instance, what types of plays he should call if his team has the ball at its own 30 and trails by four with 3:00 remaining. A schedule showing the best way to get 70 yards in 180 seconds would be helpful for the coach who wants to score, but doesn't want to score too fast.

Most of Reed's football experience is as a youth football coach, which sometimes leads him to generalize about strategy without making clear that the strategies in football played by 10-year-olds are dramatically different from the strategies in the NFL. His biggest weakness is over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. He describes the 1995 Army-Navy game (Reed is a West Point graduate and frequently cites examples from Army's football team) as one in which Navy lost the game because it went for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with a 13-6 lead. Navy failed on the play and Army mounted a 99-yard drive that culminated in a two-point conversion for a 14-13 Army win. Reed says Navy should have kicked the field goal to go ahead by two possessions.

I don't necessarily disagree with Reed in that case, but what's troubling is he doesn't seem to have thought about one fact that all football analysts should realize: field position is fluid. If Navy had kicked a field goal in that situation, Army would have gotten the ball, most likely, somewhere between its 20 and its 30 rather than its 1. That Navy lost does not necessarily prove that Navy made the wrong decision.

The mere fact that Reed managed to fill 234 pages with nothing but information on such a specific topic as football clock management is an impressive feat in and of itself. Simply writing a book with a title as straightforward and potentially limiting as Football Clock Management took quite a bit of audacity. But Reed delivers with an impressive volume that every player, coach, commentator and fan should read.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 17 Mar 2004