by Scott Kacsmar
It has become routine in the NFL to see at least 60 times per season where a team wins the game after trailing in the fourth quarter. Most of the memorable comebacks were the product of a successful two-minute drill by the offense. Johnny Unitas is known for inventing the two-minute drill with the Colts in the 1950s, but it has grown to be a crucial part of the game that's practiced by every team each week. Some teams even use the no-huddle, hurry-up offense to start games now.
Anyone can spot a good two-minute drill when they see it, because it is very different from the rest of the game. The offense is not substituting or huddling, plays are called quickly at the line, there's a heavy emphasis on passing, receivers want to get out of bounds to conserve time, spikes and laterals become options and even some of the rules change in regards to fumble recoveries (credit the "Holy Roller") and pre-snap penalties. The offense gets to utilize four-down football and must understand when to use timeouts. With this being such a dramatic change from normal game flow, practice is paramount.
So what are teams practicing when it comes to the less popular four-minute offense we hear about? Former Browns GM Michael Lombardi said "It probably is the most vital element of any successful team in the league." My research on the last three seasons shows that the offense runs the clock out in only 27.9 percent of these four-minute situations. While teams still won 91.5 percent of these games, the four-minute offense seems to be an insignificant factor in that success. If mastered, that win percentage should be 100 percent. You cannot lose the game if you never give up possession of the ball with the lead.
In theory, this should be a much bigger deal than it is. All those great comebacks from the two-minute drill never have a chance to happen if the leading team's offense takes care of its own business. Yet through nearly 100 years of professional football, no one has made a Unitas-sized impact to show everyone how the four-minute offense should work. Bill Walsh said you have to practice the four-minute offense, but what should it look like? Historically, it has often looked like this: a team nursing a one-score lead conservatively runs the ball three times in a row against a defense expecting the run, the punting unit comes on, and the offense casually jogs off with hope the defense will not allow a successful two-minute drill.
That's great for my weekly column, because it just would not work without the dramatic finishes. But for anyone with an interest in strategy, this is completely unacceptable.
For all intents and purposes, the four-minute offense is football's prevent offense.
Is the Situation Aptly Named?
It is unclear who coined the term four-minute offense. Why not the five-minute offense or three-minute offense? What's a reasonable amount of time for an offense to successfully bleed the clock and maintain possession through the end? We can determine if four is suitable or not.
For years the average NFL drive has lasted approximately 155 seconds. That number is surely impacted by drives at the end of a half that are limited by the clock, so asking a team in clock-killing mode to keep possession for three minutes should be more than reasonable. Factor in the huge advantage that comes with having a first down after the two-minute warning (i.e. kneeldowns), and most of the time the team rarely has to burn a full four minutes.
In fact, of the 204 drives I studied over the past three seasons, the average start time was 2:37, or two seconds longer than the average drive duration in 2013.
The average drive also runs about 5.7 plays and gains 1.7 first downs. Since the four-minute offense can win the game and comes in a high-leverage situation, success should be a little harder than the average drive. Asking for six plays and two first downs should be reasonable. That is what makes this part of the game so strange; suddenly, it's actually better to gain 10 yards on three plays than to gain 10 yards on one play. Offensive efficiency in the four-minute offense is better described as clock efficiency. You want to gain yards, but you also want to take your time doing it, and scoring is no longer a primary goal. That break from normal NFL philosophies may be another reason why no one has created a good strategy yet.
What everyone in the NFL has to know is that if the offense gains a first down after the two-minute warning and the opponent is out of timeouts, the game is over. Kneeldowns are the only strategy at that point. Rarely does this get botched, except by Joe Pisarcik and the 1978 Giants, victims of the Miracle at the Meadowlands. That's the best lesson for what a team should not do at this point of the game. Risking a fumble by running a real play is not worth it.
Last season, Mike Smith's Falcons, usually on top of situational football, ran Jacquizz Rodgers three times for a meaningless 12 yards after the Rams used their final timeout with 1:44 left. That should have been three knees by Matt Ryan. It was a rare miscalculation.
Three knees will also kill off a team with one timeout left if the game clock is at roughly the 1:25 mark. With the defense down to one timeout, the offense can essentially burn 80 seconds just by running down the play clock twice. The time spent doing the kneeldowns and resetting the play clock should consume at least five seconds for multiple kneeldowns. Last year, Rex Ryan's Jets had 1:21 left against the Saints (one timeout) and ran Bilal Powell twice before taking the knee. That was pointless, as three knees easily would have taken care of that win.
In the last four minutes, if a team converts on third down twice, it is impossible for the defense to get the ball back (even with the maximum four clock stoppages) unless the offense commits one of the cardinal sins of the four-minute offense: an incomplete pass, a penalty, or going out of bounds to stop the clock. Also, defensive penalties will stop the clock, which can be harmful to the offense. It happened last season when Baltimore played in Cleveland. A Baltimore horse-collar penalty was tacked onto a gain already good enough for a Browns first down, but the clock stopped, essentially buying the Ravens an extra timeout. If a team can afford to give up the field position, then getting a penalty (think unnecessary roughness) on a play that already gained the first down may be a cheap strategy to use, but that's some heady, on-the-spot decision making for players to consider.
Ultimately, a team is looking at one to three first downs to ice the game in the four-minute offense. Out of 204 drives since 2011, only 12 gained three first downs, and none gained more than that. Of those 12 teams, only one failed to run out the entire clock or score a touchdown. Last season, the Chiefs ran eight plays and punted the ball back to Dallas with just 16 seconds left. Jamaal Charles was pushed out of bounds (a big no-no) on a run that gained a first down. The Chiefs also converted on third-and-10 thanks to a defensive pass interference penalty on Morris Claiborne. That stopped the clock with 2:28 remaining and Dallas out of timeouts. Had the Chiefs converted on their own without the penalty, the game would have ended right there.
Sure, Dallas only had 16 seconds to work with, but all a team needs is one play to have the opportunity to score. Would you rather make the plays to win the game, or hope your opponent fails? The numbers certainly suggest most of the league has no problem with the latter.
The Four-Minute Offense Study (2011-2013)
So we should be comfortable with the idea of a four-minute offense, but how do we study it? For the last three seasons, I have used these requirements for the drive to count:
- The offense is leading by 1-8 points (one-score game).
- The offensive drive began with 4:00 or less remaining in the fourth quarter.
- Drives that were only kneeldowns or three kneeldowns followed by a punt are excluded.
- All kneeldowns are excluded from all drive stats.
- If a drive produced zero first downs and included even one kneeldown, it is excluded.
- Playoff games are included.
Perhaps the only controversy here is the time limit. Why not include drives that start at 4:05 or 4:13 too? Trust me; there were so many drives that started just outside of four minutes in 2013 that I nearly changed my rule out of frustration. But I stuck to four minutes so that I could make comparisons to previous research I had done for 2011 and 2012, and I believe this produces a fairer sample than branching out to something like 4:30.
The data's sample size would surely increase by going beyond four minutes, but we would lose some of the integrity of what the four-minute offense is supposed to accomplish. I also do not think including partial drives where there was a first down in the final four minutes would help. A drive could start at 4:04, the offense gets penalized for holding and suddenly it's first-and-20 with 3:57 left. The drive and its data have been compromised.
The elements present at the start of the drive are critical to studying it. Bad field position might make it dangerous to throw a pass with the quarterback standing in his own end zone. That's going to impact the play calling. For a study of this nature, only full drives should be analyzed.
There were at least 75 four-minute offense drives in 2011 and 2012, but this past season produced only 50. Here's a look at the drive breakdown:
|NFL's Four-Minute Offense Summary|
|Ran out clock||26||32.9%||18||24.0%||13||26.0%|
|Missed field goals||0||0.0%||1||1.3%||0||0.0%|
Roughly half of the drives end with a punt, a third are three-and-outs and the goal of running out the clock gets accomplished 27.9 percent of the time. In 2013, there were just as many teams who ran out the clock (13) as there were teams who ran the ball three times and punted. These are not impressive results for the offense. Of the 23 field goals since 2011, 16 of those drives failed to even gain a first down. They were all set up by great field position. Only three of those 16 teams attempted a pass.
Touchdowns are rare with two scored in 2013. Often times, it's better to not score in the four-minute offense. I ranted about Marshawn Lynch not needing to score his touchdown against the Saints in the playoffs, but LeGarrette Blount's Week 17 run against Buffalo was even more unnecessary. With the Bills out of timeouts and the play starting at 2:40, Blount could have gone down at any point after 10 yards to end the game, but his 35-yard touchdown run produced a 34-20 final and added to his career day, even if it meant nothing to the Patriots.
Next are the four-minute offense drive averages for the last three years. The "End time" is the average time left in the game after the drive ended while the "End time*" is the same, but excludes drives where the team never gave the ball back. So when teams do get the ball back, they typically have at least 80 seconds to work with, which can be an eternity in today's fast-paced NFL.
Teams leading by 4-8 points were more likely to run out the clock (30.6 percent) than teams leading by 1-3 points (21.7 percent), but I do not think we have enough data in this sample to draw any sweeping conclusions on that front. I did find it interesting that 21.7 percent of the teams leading by 1-3 points settled for a field-goal attempt as opposed to 7.6 percent of teams leading by 4-8 points. Kicking the field goal to take the dreaded 4-6 point late lead is nowhere near as advantageous as the field goal is for the team already up by a touchdown.
One thing I will speak conclusively on: whether the lead is a field goal (84.8 percent) or touchdown (86.1 percent), NFL offenses grossly favor running the ball in the four-minute offense.
The splits for play-call ratios by down for 2011 and 2012 led to one of the most consistent tables I have ever prepared. I have added 2013 and also made two adjustments for every season. Scrambles by quarterbacks on designed passes are now considered passes and plays negated by penalty are included as well.
|Four-Minute Offense: Called-Play Ratio|
Why even bother defending the pass on first down when teams run the ball 94.6 percent of the time? That's 297 runs to 17 passes since 2011 -- the very definition of predictable. There's a little more passing on second down, but it's not until third down when you can actually doubt a team's willingness to run. Even then, that can become obvious based on distance and time remaining.
The sad part is this seems to be a league-wide epidemic where even the teams with the best quarterbacks conform to the run-heavy, conservative approach.
The most egregious example in 2012 was Peyton Manning's Broncos. When two first downs would have knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs, the ball went to Ronnie Hillman on the ground on five consecutive plays. Thanks to that, Jacoby Jones and Rahim Moore will always have a place in NFL lore. The Broncos did take that situation to heart this offseason and were the most successful four-minute offense in 2013. They had a league-high three drives to run out the clock (twice against San Diego). In the AFC Divisional round, the Broncos exorcised the playoff demons with a four-minute drive that included four passes -- something only done one other time in my database of 204 drives. The Broncos looked like they were quickly headed for a three-and-out drive, but the Chargers left Julius Thomas wide open on third-and-17. It was an aggressive, successful drive to close out a playoff game, which is exactly what you should get from a record-setting offense.
New Orleans also has one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but the Saints epically blew the four-minute offense in 2013. It was so bad they picked up two of the league's four losses thanks to game-winning drives in the final minute by the Patriots and Panthers. While Rob Ryan's defense gets the majority of the blame, the problem started with Sean Payton's loaded offense failing to get any first downs. I have detailed the unbelievable clock mismanagement the Saints suffered in Foxboro before, but here's a reminder. With two plays needing to gain a total of eight yards to win the game, the Saints handed off to Pierre Thomas for a yard and called a naked bootleg by Brees on third-and-7. Cue Tom Brady and Kenbrell Thompkins for the win.
Going into Super Bowl XLVI, former Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said "you need to attack, not step back" in the four-minute offense. I only have three drives in the sample from the Giants over three years. They ran the ball nine times and had zero passes. At least they produced a touchdown and ran out the clock once, but that's not the mark of an attacking offense.
The Colts were very good in the four-minute offense in 2012 behind Andrew Luck with a league-high four drives that ran out the clock. Last season, they only had one opportunity. In Houston, Trent Richardson carried the ball twice, so needless to say the drive lost yardage and was a three-and-out. Houston ended up missing a 55-yard game-tying field goal with no time left. A lack of aggression nearly forced overtime.
In 2013, the Patriots were the only team willing to go for it on fourth down, and this time it was not a fourth-and-2 in their own end. A botched snap against Atlanta failed and the Patriots hung on for the win thanks to red-zone defense. Atlanta faced the only other fourth-down play, but it was a very strange call by the Saints to let Brees lose 11 yards on a give-up play, losing field position in exchange for time. Again, the Saints were not very sharp in this department last year.
Dallas had one of the season's biggest errors in Detroit when Tyron Smith was penalized for holding after a third-down run. That stopped the clock at 1:07 and Dallas kicked a field goal to take a 30-24 lead. But that's too much time for Matthew Stafford to lead one of the game-winning drives of the year, finishing with a quarterback sneak score with 12 seconds left. Dallas even had two cracks at the four-minute offense in that loss, but only gained one first down (via penalty).
In trying to find a 2013 team which took an aggressive approach, Joe Philbin's Dolphins are about as close as it gets. Against San Diego, Ryan Tannehill started the drive with back-to-back pass plays on first down. That's two of the league's six passes on first down in 2013. He also had two passes on second down, dropping back five times total on the drive. A second-down pass backfired against Buffalo when Tannehill was sacked and fumbled, setting the Bills up for a game-winning field goal. Miami only had one such drive in 2012, but that also featured a rare second-down pass.
Before giving Miami too much credit, let's wrap up this 2013 review with one of the most glaring examples of why the four-minute offense needs better results. Against Pittsburgh, the Dolphins led 31-28 and had a first-and-goal at the 9 with 2:23 left. Since they could not get a first down without a touchdown (at least not without a penalty), Miami's best strategy was to go for the kill and get the touchdown to take a 38-28 lead. Instead it was the most conservative approach possible: three straight runs, allowing the Steelers to use the two-minute warning and final timeout to get the ball back with 63 seconds and 80 yards needed to win the game.
Now that might be a dire situation for the Steelers, but we have seen teams pull this off before. Miami gave them the chance. What sounds even grimmer is having to go 74 yards with three seconds left. Well, after a couple of laterals, Antonio Brown was inches away from doing just that. Brown barely stepped out of bounds before scoring what would have been one of the most improbable game-winning touchdowns in NFL history. You could put it up there with Stanford-Cal and the River City Relay.
As long as the offense is on the field in a one-score game, they always have a chance. The way to prevent allowing these chances is the four-minute offense, so stop making it the most predictable and risk-averse part of the game.
Conclusion: What's a Good Strategy?
The four-minute offense will never have a strategy as clear-cut as the pass-heavy two-minute drill. It's a whole different mindset of offensive football, but it has to get smarter than 95-percent runs on first down. At least give the illusion of a pass on first down. That might improve the running success. Sometimes, a simple smoke screen to a receiver in single coverage should be an easy completion that gains yards and keeps the clock moving.
Teams cannot fear the interception. Not even 3.0 percent of passes in the NFL are intercepted these days. There's practically no desperation at play with the four-minute offense, so risky passes are rarely ever called, let alone thrown (unless Ryan Fitzpatrick is your quarterback).
Don't get me wrong. The four-minute offense should continue to lean on the running game, but the split cannot continue to be over 80 percent. Mixing in some safe passes on first and second down will bring that number down and should increase the rate of teams successfully running out the clock.
Nothing will stop the few teams built on running the ball and playing defense from sticking with the conservative approach in the four-minute offense. Frankly, as we have seen, no matter what an offense does in the last four minutes, they still are likely to win the game. The record is 176-16-1 (.915) since 2011. But I'm still focused on the 16 losses and the numerous close calls that did not have to be had the offense kept the defense on the bench.
The four-minute offense didn't help the Jets beat Tampa Bay in Week 1 last year. It failed and Tampa Bay took the lead with 34 seconds left. The only reason the Jets won was a fortunate game-winning drive thanks to Lavonte David pushing Geno Smith out of bounds.
The Ravens beat the Bengals in overtime in Week 10, but that was after A.J. Green caught a tipped Hail Mary to tie the game. Why did that happen? Baltimore's rich quarterback handed the ball off three times in a row and the offense punted to set that drive up.
There's always going to be that dilemma of calling a pass when one more first down wins the game versus handing off to burn another 40 seconds. That element of time is becoming less of a burden with offenses able to move the ball quickly, often needing less than a minute these days. Since 2010, there have been 27 one-minute drills to win a game. There were 26 in the entire decade of the 1990s and 36 in 2000-09. The game is slowly changing, but the four-minute offense remains untouched and undeveloped.
Ever get the feeling more games are lost in the final minutes than are won thanks to these "prevent" offenses and defenses? Somehow, much of the league has adopted late-game strategies that do not allow the best players to do what they do best. If you have a good quarterback, let him continue to throw and win the game. If you are having success with blitzing, keep bringing pressure.
If something worked for 56 minutes, then why not stick with it for the final four? When the Saints really need a first down in the first half, they don't usually depend on Khiry Robinson, right? So why are they using him and a fullback to invite a loaded box with the game on the line? That's not who the Saints are.
The only thing worse than the prevent defense is the prevent offense.