Imagine driving down a highway with no signs. No speed limit indicators. No exit alerts.
That’s akin to the final moments of an NFL game, and many times at the end of the first half, too. It can be chaos.
And the way some teams butcher time management makes you wonder how they get to the stadium on time. But the way some handle it spurs expansive — and well-deserved — praise.
Joe Montana used to wink at teammates or crack jokes in the huddle before and during two-minute drills. So did Brett Favre.
Tom Brady stares down opponents in such an intimidating manner, you expect defenders to skulk away rather than try to stop him.
Yet other star quarterbacks and heralded coaches also have had major struggles with handling the clock. That includes Favre and Donovan McNabb among accomplished QBs, Andy Reid and Marty Schottenheimer among successful coaches.
Just last week, Kirk Cousins blew a chance for more points at the end of the first half against the Giants by getting sacked within field goal range. The Redskins rallied, helped by Eli Manning being picked with the game on the line.
Several coaches have headed home from losses with timeouts in their pockets. Wonder where they used those.
“The criticism that comes with it a lot of times is a little unrealistic,” says Brian Billick, who coached the Ravens to the 2000 NFL title and now is an analyst for NFL Network. “People will comment on it as if there is an absolute right or wrong in how you do things.
“Someone in technology figured out there are a billion possibilities with regards to score differential: where you are on the field, time remaining, timeouts remaining, personnel on both sides of the ball, all of that. Maybe 500 million possibilities I can do,” he adds with a laugh. “The other 500 million I struggle with.”
Billick’s point is well taken. Much of how teams handle clock management has to be intuitive. And while the coach or coordinators might be coming up with play calls, they need the players to execute. The old cliche of 11 guys on the same page is specifically appropriate in those situations.
For example, at what tempo do you want to run the offense? Are you in need of a quick score or can you use up most of the remaining time to score? Need a touchdown or a field goal?
Do the players recognize the need to get out of bounds — or perhaps stay in bounds?
And there’s sometimes more to consider.
“Even in some situations that are similar, there’s usually something in there, the conditions on the field, or the game, or the wind, or something else that adds another variable in there besides just point differential and time and timeouts,” notes Bill Belichick, who has been blessed with Brady running two-minute and four-minute offenses. “It’s interesting how after all of these years … and still every week there are new situations that somebody will bring up, or will come up in another game, or something that we’ll talk about and kind of review our strategy and just say, ‘Well, this is normally what we would do here, but you know, the way that situation came up, that’s not really quite what we want. We want something just a little bit different than that.'”
Colts coach Chuck Pagano has felt the wrath from many sides concerning clock management. In the opener against the Lions, he was criticized for not taking more time off the clock or forcing the Lions to use their timeouts during a drive in which Indianapolis scored the go-ahead touchdown. Detroit drove downfield for a winning field goal.
In last Sunday’s victory over San Diego, Pagano joked that after T.Y. Hilton broke free for a touchdown, that “he left too much time on the clock.”
Billick believes that make-believe can lead to doing the real thing right. He knows that every coach and coordinator in the NFL recognizes that.
“You have got to practice it and practice it and condition your players to understand that this is not panic, but it’s a higher level of tempo,” he explains. “Increase your pace without panicking, understand the parameters. Staying in bounds or getting out; throwing a pass to stop the clock or running because you don’t want the clock to stop. Keep a lot of people coached up as best you can in a game.
“Sometimes you have to be Captain Obvious.”
One secret to success is certainly having a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback or other clutch veteran players making sense of the madness. It’s not essential — Billick, for instance, succeeded with Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer at quarterback. But it helps immensely.
“Take a Ben Roethlisberger, who certainly has the experience to do it, but also because of the confidence he has to hang in there, to take a hit to make a play,” Billick says. “Sometimes that catches up with a quarterback. But obviously he is good at it and knows what he can get done.
“The Peytons and Bradys of the world are really good at it,” adds Billick in his best Captain Obvious mode. “Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, as you can imagine. What has happened on the field that they have not seen?”
Of course, they don’t succeed all the time battling the clock. When they don’t, they’re certain to hear about it.
“The criticism,” Billick concludes, “is one of the ultimates in hindsight.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Canavan, Kyle Hightower, and Michael Marot contributed.