Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

There are a lot of little topics clamoring around in my hard drive this week. I figured I'd clean them out while I'm getting my winter clothes out of the closet and finding excuses to not put in my storm windows.

Desperate Downs

The Bengals faced a third-and-goal from the Texans 40-yard line last week, the result of a delay of game penalty, a stuffed running play, and a 24-yard intentional grounding foul. Carson Palmer wisely completed a short pass to improve the Bengals' field goal position, but Shayne Graham missed the kick wide right.

It turns out that third-and-40 was the most futile down-and-distance situation any team in the NFL has faced in the last four years.

The second-worst down-and-distance situation in recent history also occurred this season. The Bears were driving in the third quarter against the Redskins in Week 1. On first-and-10 at the Redskins 34-yard line, Thomas Jones lost three yards. The Bears were then flagged with three straight false start penalties. Kyle Orton was sacked on second-and-28. That brought on third-and-38, not an ideal situation for a rookie quarterback making his first start. The Bears punted two plays later.

The Bears faced the worst third-and-long of the 2004 season when they played the Cowboys in Week 12. They were driving late in the half. On first-and-10 on the Cowboys 41, Jonathan Quinn dropped back to pass and was sacked by two Cowboys. He fumbled, and the ball rolled all the way back to the Bears 38 before Bears guard Marc Colombo pounced on the ball. Colombo celebrated his fumble recovery with a false start penalty. Quinn attempted a pass on second-and-36, but the Bears blinked on third-and-36, handing the ball to Thomas Jones and then punting.

The 2001 Saints were the last team to face a predicament more dire than third-and-40. In the fourth quarter of a Week 12 game against the Panthers, Aaron Brooks drove the Saints to the Panthers 43-yard line. Brooks then did what he does best: he fumbled on first-and-10, and by the time the ball stopped bouncing, the Saints faced second-and-41 from their own 26. An incomplete pass brought third-and-41. Brooks' pass was intercepted by Jimmy Hitchcock, whose long return set up a game-tying score for the Panthers. The Saints won 27-23, in what can safely be called a “wild finish.�

The Browns faced a third-and-34 last year; five teams had to deal with third-and-33 in 2004. The Vikings have had to cope with third-and-31 this season. Third-and-twenty-something situations aren't that unusual; they happen to most teams once or twice per year. The third-and-thirties are far more rare. Many teams surrender, executing draw plays on these impossible downs, but most teams pass, hoping for a miracle or (more likely) a holding penalty that yields an automatic first down.

The New Chronology

Call Mulder and Scully. Convene the Warren Commission. The NFL is covering up the Steelers-Patriots clock malfunction, the one that added 52 seconds to the game clock two weeks ago.

Okay, that's not true. The league was forthright about the mistake, issuing a detailed explanation of what occurred. And Steelers coach Bill Cowher said the incident was a dead issue, despite the fact that the Patriots used the magic minute to drive for a game-winning field goal. Cowher was so oblivious to the error that he changed his timeout strategy late in the game: when the Patriots were driving with over three “adjusted� minutes on the clock, Cowher decided to save timeouts that he might have used if there was less time left in the game.

But the gamebook, the official press release that contains starting lineups, stats, and a detailed play-by-play of the game, sweeps the fourth quarter temporal anomaly under the rug.

Here's the gamebook account of the plays in question. With 14:51 to play, Pittsburgh's Cedric Wilson was stopped for no gain on a reverse. After a false start penalty (listed at 14:51 in the official record), Ben Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass to Wilson; the clock read 14:37 at the snap. At 14:29, the Steelers punted.

Contrast that with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's account of the game. The reverse to Wilson occurred at 14:51. The Steelers huddled. Roethlisberger stood under center at 14:09. He took the snap at 14:01. Then came the false start penalty.

As the referees announced the penalty, there was 13:59 on the clock. But by the start of the next play, the clock read 14:51. Somehow, no one noticed. Referee Bill Carollo whistled for the clock to start, and the next play started at 14:37.

Everything lines up, but the mystery minute vanishes in the official account. It's as if the Wilson reverse, a long play that ended with a tackle in-bounds, took zero seconds, with the penalty occurring simultaneously with the play. It makes no sense.

It's a minor issue, to be sure. But the gamebook becomes the primary source of game information for researchers like me and my fellow Football Outsiders. A simple note about the clock malfunction would explain why the times at the start of the fourth quarter don't quite line up, and it would be better than just shoehorning events into an incorrect chronology.

Inventing a number just to make things line up is wrong; 85.75% of fans would certainly agree.

Fifth Down Conversions

The Steelers clock error was reminiscent of one of the most amazing finishes in college football history: the infamous “fifth down� play in the 1990 meeting between Missouri and Colorado.

The Buffs trailed 31-27 at Missouri but were driving late in the game. On first-and-goal at the Missouri three-yard line, Colorado QB Charles Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock with 31 seconds left. On second-and-goal, Eric Bienemy rushed to the one-yard line; the Buffs called timeout with 18 seconds left. Bienemy was stopped on third down.

The officials stopped the clock briefly, claiming that Missouri players were stalling by not lining up quickly. Once the clock was restarted, Johnson spiked the ball again. Wait a minute … that was fourth down! But someone lost count and forgot to change the Dial-a-Down. So Johnson plunged into the line on fifth down to score the game-winning touchdown.

Missouri fans rushed the field, thinking their team had won. An official signaled a touchdown. All heck broke loose. Missouri tried to challenge the ruling, but the NCAA, a governing body that has rules about how many bacon bits a player is allowed to take from a hotel salad bar, had no mechanism for overturning the result. Colorado won, and a few weeks later, they had a share of the national title.

Times had changed since 1940, when Cornell traveled to Dartmouth boasting an 18-game winning streak. Dartmouth led 3-0 late in the game on a Bob Krieger field goal (Do it, Bobby, do it!) when Cornell drove down to the five-yard line. Referee Red Friesell lost track of the downs at that point, and the Big Red scored on what turned out to be fifth down.

But the Cornell coaches spotted the mistake two days later when reviewing game films. The coaches allowed the players to vote on what to do next. They gallantly forfeited the game, congratulating Dartmouth of their victory by telegram. The official records state that the Cornell winning streak was snapped by a 3-0 loss to Dartmouth. You can look it up.

That's the way they do business in the Ivy League. Or so I'm told. I went to a Big Five school; we probably would have burned the game film.

The Colorado-Missouri gaffe may have been the worst officiating error in history; after all, it affected the national championship race. But in 1996, a fifth down error marred the Texas high school six-on-six football state championship game.

Gordon High School beat Whitharral 51-50 in the title game that year, but they needed an extra down to win. With a minute to play, Gordon QB Jim Kostiha threw a 36-yard touchdown pass, but officials determined that he stepped over the line before passing. The penalty for an illegal forward pass is supposed to be five yards and the loss of a down, but the officials only assessed the yardage. Two plays later, on what should have been fifth-and-7. Kostiha hit Jason Sizemore for the touchdown that counted.

The Lubbock Avalanche Journal reported that the game officials weren't aware of the exact call on the penalty. They were probably confused by all of six-man football's unique penalties, like “seven men on the field.�

The Wrong Side of the Ball

I wrote about the Texans offense last week. I probably should have said something about their defense, which ranks dead last in the league in our advanced DVOA metric (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, as shown here).

The Texans are assembling some wacky defensive statistics in the early part of the season. Their defensive line has zero sacks and just two tackles for a loss. Their secondary has two sacks and three other tackles for a loss, but no interceptions and just three passes defensed.

The Texans execute a 3-4 defense, and 3-4 teams often get little statistical production from their linemen. The Steelers, for example, use an almost identical defensive scheme and have no sacks by linemen this season. But Steelers linebackers have nine sacks and three other tackles for a loss, while their secondary has picked off three passes, broken up five others, and recorded five sacks, several of them against the Texans.

The Texans are the only team in the NFL without a takeaway. They have more sacks (four) than the Browns (three), but Houston's sacks have yielded just 10 yards. Opponents average 8.4 yards per pass attempt against them, the third-worst total in the league.

So naturally, the offensive coordinator got fired. Only in the NFL.

And Finally

Seattle is considered one of the most liberal cities in America, but the city council voted recently to enact some of the toughest rules in the nation regulating gentlemen's clubs.

Seattle strip joints will no longer have private rooms. Lighting must be kept above the brightness level of a typical parking garage (I forget my college physics light intensity units ... how many "dingy basements" in one "parking garage"?). And dancers will be required to maintain a four-foot distance from patrons while on the job, making the lap dance a thing of the fondly-remembered past.

Exotic dancers in the Northwest are preparing for a new reality: a work environment in which contact will be strictly forbidden, leaving them to go through the motions and shuffle around ineffectually.

But there's no truth to the rumor that they are preparing for the new laws by watching film of the Seahawks secondary against the Redskins.


44 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2005, 10:39pm

1 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

I lived in Seattle about 10 years ago and they proabably needed to do something like that. It was really turning into massage parlour central. I guess if all you do all day is drink beer and lattes and stare into the rain, you need something to lift your spirits. Or maybe that was just me.

3 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

...the fact that the Patriots used the magic minute to drive for a game-winning field goal.

Come on, now, this is getting old. Yes, the Pats drove for a late, winning field goal, but simply stating that the late drive used the 'mystery minute' added over ten minutes prior to that drive is silly.

Nothing about adding the minute determined that the Steelers would score to take the lead but leave enough time for the Pats to come back; nothing about not adding it would have determined that the Steelers would gain the lead and not leave enough time for a comeback.

4 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Wow Noah, touchy much? I mean, picking up on a clause stuffed in between two explanations of how Cowher said and acted in a way to make it a non-issue... you sure you're not Rodney Harrison?

5 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Ever notice how when an offense faces 3rd and 20+ yards, the announcers invariablly say "they don't have a play in the playbook to gain x yards" Well, why don't the teams? NFL teams practice all sorts of crazy situations, and the playbook is thicker than a phonebook, why not draw up a play that's designed to gain 25 yards. Or put in a couple flexible yardage plays where the receivers run to the sticks? I know in some situations the best play is to take a short yardage and kick/punt, but if you're down big, or in a situation where 10 yards won't get to fieldgoal range, why not go for it?

6 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Not surprised about Seattle. Liberals don't like strip clubs. They know what's best for strippers, and it is not dancing in clubs.

7 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Re: #5

I'd bet that teams have 20+ yard plays in the playbook, if only for the end-of-game situations where you need to move 30 yards in 15 seconds to kick a field goal. The lesson, as always: announcers are idiots.

8 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40


I'm pretty sure they do have a play in the playbook for 3rd and Obscenely Long (or 4th and Obscenely Long).

The Eagles called it "74 Double Go."

They also call it "everyone run to the first down marker and catch the friggin ball."

9 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

#6: How does that explain the lap-dance bans in Florida?
#7: I should have known.

10 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

There was a similar incident in the NFL in 1968 about the refs losing track of downs, but it was in the opposite direction:

The Rams were playing the Bears and found themselves behind by 1 in the last few minutes; they were around midfield, ran a play, and a penalty was called. The Bears accepted, the yardage was marked off, but the ref with the down marker on the sidelines flipped it to 2nd down. The Rams ran a couple more play, then went for it on "fourth down" (which was actually third down, of course) failed, and the Bears took over.

I remember being amazed at the time that NO ONE on the Rams bench or booth picked up on the error

The NFL was so embarrassed/pissed that they shitcanned that crew. That crew had done something equally stupid earlier in the year, but I can't remember what it was.

11 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Re: #6

Actually Loophole, it was the more conservative city council members who voted for the tougher regulations. The progressive "liberal" ones voted against it.

But nice try!

12 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

was CJ the buffs quarterback then? I know he was a WR in the NFL, but maybe it was a different Charles Johnson, I don't really remember. I remember Sal Aunese and Kordell, but there's a gap of 4 years or so between them.

13 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Any idea as far as what the fartherst a team has had to go on a 4th down (in which they had to go for it)?

Of course, as an Eagles fan, I'm always looking for more references to 4th and 26.

14 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Re: #9
Wait - you're kidding about the lap dance ban in Florida, right?

15 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

I thought Darien Hagan was the Buffs QB for the pseudo-NC year for the Buffs (Georgia Tech was unbeaten, while the Buffs were once beaten and should have been twice beaten).

16 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

There is a similar ban in Georgia, but we still have private rooms here, and last time I checked (for Loophole's sake), outside of Atlanta and Decatur, Georgia's pretty darned conservative, as is the majority of the Bible Belt.

17 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

#14: Technically it was just the City of Tampa, and I think the band was repealed, but yea.

18 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Re 12/15 ... Two different Charles Johnsons, one a QB, the other a WR. Anyway, the first CJ was a backup to Darian Hagan and played that Missouri game when Hagan, who succeeded the late Sal Aunese as CU QB, was out with an injury, I believe. I also think that CJ played a significant chunk of their Orange Bowl win over ND that clinched a share of the national championship at 11-1-1.

19 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Note to all in the greater Seattle area: Deja Vu on Lake City Way is about 30 yards north of the city of Seattle and its draconian laws. FYI.

20 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Following up to #18 - Rocket Ismail had a kickoff return for a TD called back on an arguable clipping call in that Orange Bowl. Usually I subscribe to the credo that bad calls end up evening out, and I apply that to the Orange Bowl game - admittedly a close call. Those are the breaks.

But the 5th down mistake is inexcusable. And it's not like the Steelers game, where, other action followed that would be impossible to unravel. If the Colorado-Mizzou downmarker guy does his job, the game's over.

22 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

I like how he calls him "Mr. Tanier" and then calls him a moron, using your versus you're. Classic.

23 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Re #6: You should visit a Portland strip bar sometime. I hear that city's a bit left of center itself.

Re Colorado-Missouri: Terrible cock-up, of course. The thing I could never understand was why Colorado was allowed to win the national title after that. After the referees' failure, there were at least two sources of redress at least with respect to the bowl race: the Colorado program (yeah, right. Bill McCartney had an ethical DVOA of -87.3%.), and voters in the polls.

The referees screwed up, but we're all human and it happens. The Buffs' galling display of mean-spiritedness was according to where their bread was buttered. The balloteers had neither excuse; it was a complete abdication of responsibility. They should have treated the game as a loss and punted them down the rankings.

24 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Or the exotic dancers can head on down to Portland. The Oregon Supreme Court just ruled that live sex acts are Constitutionally protected free speech. And that the 4 ft. rule inhibits the dancers rights to free expression.

(Though that expression ain't free...)

25 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Just a comment about the Houston-Cincy game. After Cincy had 3rd and goal from the 40, on the next drive (i believe) for the texans, carr took two straight sacks on 2nd and 3rd down, and ended up with 4th and 41.

As a cincy fan, i felt relieved that at least the bengals managed a lesser 4th and forever than the texans. :)

26 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

I've said it once and I'll say it again. I don't see how anyone with even a modicum of football knowledge can claim that the extra 52 seconds let the Patriots win. The extra 52 seconds was added at the start of the quarter, not during the final drive. I would bet anyone that if you went over the game tape of every game played in the NFL, you would find clock errors in every single game. What do I mean? I mean that the clock is wound incorrectly all the time. Players are called down in bounds when they weren't or called down out of bounds when they were down in bounds. This results in clock errors. Now does this mean that the opponent was robbed of the game?!? Of course not.
And why the ridiculous focus on this clock winding anyway? What about all the penalties that don't get called? Or all the bad penalty calls? Why not mention every missed holding call or phantom block in the back? What about every bad pass interference or poor spot of the ball? I guess with parity and all, nobody outright wins a game in the NFL. It is all just ref mistakes favoring one team over the other.
Sorry for the rant, but this is getting ridiculous. And no, I am not a Patriots fan (as a colts fan, the pats are probably one of my 5 least favorite teams). I am just tired of this story getting so much play. It shouldn't even be an issue.

27 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

I always thought GT should have won the full share of that title, and if they had taken care of business against UNC instead of tying they would have. GT was unbeaten with a tie; UC had a loss, a tie, a loss-but-the-refs-gave-them-a-win, and should have lost their bowl but for the totally bogus clip (note: not homerism, I hate ND, but they got jobbed).

For 3rd and longs, just to show how much I hate ND, I'll bring up a game against a team I hate almost as much: Miami. Remember the Catholics vs. Convicts series? There was one where Miami had a 3rd and forever, where the QB was throwing from his own end zone - and they converted. I was absolutely stunned - they had no business converting, and I don't think ND had a bad defense called or anything. Just a great play, and unfortunately it worked well for Miami, but at least it was against the Irish.

28 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Of course it was the conservatives who voted to toughen rules on strip clubs. Conservatives know what is morally best for you and will make sure you do it (or don't). Liberals are the ones that know what is best for your money and they will spend it for you.

29 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

re #23

" Bill McCartney had an ethical DVOA of -87.3%"

that cracked me up.spilled beer all over the keyboard.

30 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

I remember a futile down-and-distance scenario in a Seahawks game a few years back.

When I went to the store, it was 2nd and 6. When I returned, it was 3rd and 93. But they STILL converted the first!

31 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

About the strip clubs. That new rule is just terrrrible (Bill Walton voice). You should come to Australia. I've been living here for a couple of years and the strip clubs are fantastic (ahem, not that I go that often) to the point that when (if) I go back to the States I will never be able to justify going to a strip club again. They're just a rip off compared to the Australian ones.

32 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

All the strip club conversation is a bit unnerving... I mean, you guys wouldn't be playing into the nerdy sports guy archetype like that... right? Right?

I'd say something about how converting on 3rd and Obscenely Long is just a matter of changing into a redskins uniform, but I'm pretty sure I'd get in trouble.

33 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

I just love Bill McCartney. Every time he had a microphone in front of his face he told the world about how his Christian values led him to do the right thing always. But then when his team wins a game on a clear mistake, and precedent exists for teams winning in those situations forfeiting, he won't even consider it. Oh, and he was the leading face for a political campaign to crack down on people's private sex lives, even though you'd think he'd realize you can't control the private sex lives of others, since his own daughter was commonly known as the team slut.

34 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Isn't McCartney the founder of the promise keepers? Didn't his daughter have two kids by different players on the team? Kind of undermines her fathers ability to keep people in line.

35 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Yeah, McCartney founded the Promise Keepers, which is all about being a good husband and father. Meanwhile, he admitted to having an affair, which drove his wife to bulimia and depression, and his wife wrote in her autobiography that she thought he cared more about football than he did about her. And his daughter, Kristen, didn't just sleep with the two football players who fathered her two children -- several other football players had to take paternity tests to determine which ones were the fathers.

36 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

found this...

Leroy Hoard's 43-yard run on third-and-37 last week in Denver was the longest third-down conversion by a run since that statistic was kept starting in 1992. . . .(from 1999 sporting news)

37 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

And to pile on about the extra 52 seconds...perhaps you all noticed what the Pats did with the "extra" 52 secs. They ran down the clock with a short pass and not calling a time-out when Vinatieri came on the field. As coach "In Bill We Trust" Belichek said, "we were going to play for last shot, like in basketball. Either we were going to make it, or we were going to OT. We weren't going to let them get the ball back."

38 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Why would Colorado forfeit that game - if the Down marker said 4 then presumably they wouldn't have spiked the ball.

39 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Impressive column.
I genuinely respect anybody who is willing to take three paragraphs to set up a one-liner.

40 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

As a Steelers fan I would say that the extra 52 seconds made NO difference in the Steelers-Patriots game. Had the Steelers took the lead with 52 seconds left in the game, it would have mattered, but here there was so much time left that it was irrelevant. Both teams played according to the clock and the Pats smartly ran the clock down to get the last score. Now if the Steelers would have pass blocked or got pressure on Brady in the second half, now that would have made a difference in the game.

Still, it is good that they point it out so that we do not have things like this happen again. Maybe they need an extra official to watch the clock and make sure that someone does not reset it :-).

41 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

Late 1960s in San Francisco the strippers were so prolific and pervasive,that on their half day off on Sunday, they'd gang up in the stands at ole run down Kezar stadium,drum up some business for later in the day(since every neighborhood bar had them)and festively aid in loosing track of down distance and day for 49er party hardies.John Brodie managed to stagger his team to the playoffs by 1970.

42 Re: Too Deep Zone: 5th-and-40

#38, I was waiting for that.

I'm not a Colorado apologist, and it's unfortunate that the Refs cost Missou the victory, but the Buffs did no wrong. The down marker said third, they spiked the ball.

If they ran an offensive play on the (actual) fourth down and failed, then there would be a clear reason to forfeit.