The NFL's Clock Management Mess: How Coaches Are Fixing It

The subject can frustrate fans and confound NFL coaches

Dan Pitcher may have spent every Sunday during his three seasons as an assistant with Cincinnati sitting in a booth high above the field, focusing on Bengals receivers or quarterbacks (depending on his job title at the time), but he understands that when time gets tight, circumstances on the sidelines get crazy and decisions must be made in a split second, there is really no ready-made solution to a particular problem.

 

The number of variables that swirl around a late-game situation — or even in the closing minutes of a half — is astounding. Coaches must deal with down-and-distance, timeouts remaining, field position and time left on the clock, and that doesn't even begin to cover intangibles like which players are performing well in the moment or how various sectors of a game plan have worked to that point. Trying to find calm and reason amidst sideline chaos is extremely difficult.

 

It all seems so easy from the couch or stadium seat, doesn't it? Call the timeout, you idiot! Don't run the ball! We all know exactly what to do. And we just might. But the difference is that fans and media have no accountability for a blown call or a poor decision. And the guys on the other sideline have something to say about what's going to happen, too. Make the wrong decision at a key point late in the game or first half, and it can be the difference between a playoff berth and going home in January. Mess things up in the postseason, and the mistake is amplified. It's just not as simple as many think it is. Pitcher knows that.

 

"To think that in the heat of battle with the play clock going that you can just refer to the manual for an answer is not realistic," Pitcher says. "You can prepare and have scenarios in your mind, but you still have to react to situations.

 

"The goal is to develop some guidelines that give us the best opportunity to succeed." 

 

This season, Pitcher will do more than work with QBs. New Bengals coach Zac Taylor has added another duty to his job description: clock management assistant. It's not an official title, and no one will find it on his business card or in his official Bengals bio. But at a time when information is exploding throughout the NFL, and teams are paying more attention than ever to how they manage every part of the game — especially in the crucial late stages of the halves — it makes sense that Taylor would look for someone to help.

 

The Bengals aren't alone. Carolina has designated defensive line coach Sam Mills III as its "game management coach." Washington has named former offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh a senior offensive assistant, with one of his responsibilities to help improve the team's clock management and its two-minute drill operations. In January, Atlanta elevated Kyle Flood, who served as the team's assistant offensive line coach last year, to senior assistant, with responsibilities that include managing the team's clock operations and two-minute drills, along with providing input on replay challenges. (However, less than two weeks later, Flood left the Falcons to become O-line coach under Nick Saban at Alabama.)

 

Even if a franchise isn't hiring (or reassigning) a coach to handle the most chaotic parts of the game, everyone is looking for ways to be more effective.

 

"Clock management is critical," Raiders GM Mike Mayock says. "Some coaches are good at it, and some aren't. There are different philosophies out there about whether or not you hire a coach to manage it."

 

This is a critical part of the NFL world. Just last season, 73 games were decided by three or fewer points, a league record. That's 4.3 per week. In addition, 125 (49 percent) of the games ended in margins of seven or fewer points, the fourth most in league history. Finally, 68 percent of games last season were within one score (eight points) at some point in the fourth quarter, which tied for third most in history. With so many tight games, teams must be sharp in the waning moments, or they will be sliced by the razor-thin margin of victory. 

 

Pitcher ended up with the position in Cincinnati because he had played an informal role in helping make good decisions regarding the clock during his first few years in the league — although his former boss, Marvin Lewis, was criticized over the past several seasons for questionable choices at the ends of halves and games. During games, Pitcher would be in contact with the Bengals' offensive coordinator, but there was nothing clearly established about what he would be doing for the team, and the protocols were not nearly as established as the Bengals hope they will be moving forward. Because Taylor is putting more emphasis on the area, he approached Pitcher and discussed the possibility of a more concrete approach.

 

"It will encompass a lot of different things, including practice preparation and game-day situational management," Pitcher says. "[Taylor] envisions the role as identifying likely scenarios we will come across during the season at the ends of halves and when we might challenge calls and want to have input on things we should be aware of.

 

"That way, when something happens, we will have done everything we can to that point to be ready."

 

 

Even though Mayock admits that Oakland head coach Jon Gruden "knows way more" about clock management than he does, Gruden understands that there is no exact science to the practice.

 

"It's never perfect," Gruden says. "It helps to have another guy who is independently monitoring things and helping you. It's something worth looking at more deeply. Analytics, clock management, rules interpretation, technology: We're going to look at all of it."

 

Although coaches have been trying for decades to find ways to squeeze as many seconds out of each game as possible, there hasn't been too much study and emphasis put on ways to master the situations that arise during those waning moments, when a poorly timed run call or slow trigger on a timeout decision could blow a chance at victory. The godfather of clock management is Homer Smith, who coached in the college ranks for 36 years and spent one season on the sidelines with the Chiefs. For several autumns, Smith and his devoted wife, Kathy, watched and taped multiple games in search of clues and strategies about managing and mastering the clock. In 2004, Smith published (with Steve Axman) The Complete Handbook of Clock Management, which still maintains a presence in NFL offices. It may have been supplanted by computer-generated data, but its basic tenets continue to carry heft throughout the league.

 

The book opens with a general statement about how important it is for players to accept responsibility for their actions during and in preparation for a game. It applies a similar maxim to coaches' ability to make the right choices at the end of halves.

 

"The managing of the clock is at its best when coaches accept responsibility for the managing. When one coach blames one player for one problem, the managing is not at its best."

 

The book checks in at a lean 174 pages, containing little fluff, and it recognizes that trying to find even a few seconds to squeeze an extra play in before a field goal attempt or last-second pass into the end zone can be extremely difficult. Smith asserts that coaches must develop protocols designed to maximize their opportunities as time slips away, and as the Greek chorus of fans and media shouts suggestions, criticism and vitriol. 

 

In a 2016 Sports Illustrated article about clock management, Joe DeCamillis, who was then a Broncos assistant who provided input to the team's clock management decisions and who is now special teams coordinator for the Jaguars, likened the job of making sure things run well late in games to that of an air traffic controller. "You've got a thousand things going on. You're watching 20 planes," he said. In his book, Smith took the flight metaphor even further, comparing late-game clock management to a fighter pilot in a Mayday situation. "In neither can you make a major mistake and survive," he wrote.

 

When the Rams and Saints played in last season's NFC title game, the main thing onlookers were seeing was the lack of a flag on the ground with 1:45 remaining in a 20–20 game when Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman blasted New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis early as Drew Brees targeted the third-year pro with a pass up the sideline deep in L.A. territory.

 

Fans howled. Saints coach Sean Payton looked even more aggrieved than usual and said afterward that the league told him that not only was the interference call missed, but there was also an egregious whiff on the helmet-to-helmet hit. Even Robey-Coleman admitted he arrived too early. "Came to the sideline, looked at the football gods and was like, ‘Thank you,'" Robey-Coleman said. "I got away with one tonight." Of course, it was easy for him to be magnanimous, since he and his teammates were heading to the Super Bowl, thanks to a 57-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal in overtime that produced a 26–23 victory.

 

But those who were able to look beyond the amateurish approach to officiating noted that had Payton managed the clock more efficiently, the blown call would have been a footnote to a Saints triumph. 

 

The trouble started with 1:53 remaining and New Orleans facing a first-and-10 on the L.A. 13. The Rams had two timeouts remaining, but instead of running the ball three times, forcing L.A. to burn both its timeouts and likely hitting a chip-shot field goal with about a minute remaining — if not a broken tackle or two to produce a first down or even six points — the Saints took another tack. 

 

Instead of draining the clock, New Orleans passed twice — both of the tosses fell incomplete, including the botched interference non-call — making the Rams stop the clock just once and giving L.A. the ball back with 1:41 left and a timeout. That allowed quarterback Jared Goff to drive the Rams into position for a Zuerlein 48-yarder that tied the game with 0:15 to play. Brees threw an interception during the first possession of overtime that led to the winning kick. NFL Films microphones caught Payton telling Brees on the sideline, "Look, I want to score [a touchdown] here." Payton's desire to score a TD also led to significant criticism and could well have cost New Orleans a Super Bowl shot.

 

Payton certainly isn't the only coach who has struggled with clock management issues during big games. Last year, Denver fans were irate at coach Vance Joseph, who struggled throughout the season with clock management gaffes. Perhaps his biggest came Nov. 4 at home against Houston. Trailing 19–17 facing a first-and-10 on the Texans 37-yard line, with 0:43 to play and a timeout remaining, the Broncos completed a five-yard pass but let 30 seconds elapse before trying a running play that gained nothing. Instead of trying to get kicker Brandon McManus closer for a game winner, Joseph had wasted time and called a curious play that resulted in a missed 51-yarder and a loss.

 

Every week, coaches' time management skills — or lack thereof — are on display throughout the league. It is by no means a science, although teams are trying to make it one. "More and more teams are studying it," Oakland's Mayock says. "With all the different analytics out there, it's easier to present arguments about why teams did it this way or that. Teams want to go into games with set philosophies and not just react with a gut feeling."

 

****

 

It is unlikely you will see Cincinnati's Taylor standing on the sideline with a printout of every possible situation that could arise at the end of games or halves and corresponding high-percentage choices to be made. That's just not how all of this works. Trying to come up with an outcome to every scenario is foolish and would take much of the human element from the game. Instead of a definitive, "if this, then that" approach, Pitcher sees a more nuanced strategy built around preparation and consistent communication in the days and weeks leading up to kickoff. 

 

"It's important for our guys to be aware when the first time something happens, we have done everything we can to that point during OTAs, training camp and during the season on a weekly basis to prepare," Pitcher says.


Taylor's primary goal to prepare for those moments is an ongoing dialogue that begins with examining data, reviewing tape and circumstances that have arisen around the league and then coming up with a set of protocols ahead of time "made with a level head" that will allow for calm decision-making when things get crazy on game days. By examining various possibilities in advance, an organizational approach or philosophy can emerge that guides Taylor as the clock is moving toward zero, rather than presenting him with a set of absolutes that may not be perfect matches for every situation. This will allow for a more reasoned approach at a time when so much is swirling around.

 

"I think it's a great idea having someone taking the 30,000-foot view," Pitcher says. "I can examine what are the various scenarios and what could come up."

 

Different teams handle the development of their clock management strategies in varying ways. Most will have someone present information and possibilities to the larger group, with discussions ensuing from there about what the overriding approach will be. It's more important to understand the parameters under which teams will operate during these times than to have a chart of outcomes. Once the brain trust formulates its plan, it's on to the rank-and-file — the players.

 

There is no uniform way to handle end-of-game drills. Some teams stage them early in practice sessions, the better to get players' attention and to set a tone of immediacy for the day's work. Others create situations later in practice or wait until the end. The most important thing is making sure the team understands its leadership's approach to the matter, so that when decisions are made during crucial moments, no one is surprised, and execution — rather than curiosity — becomes paramount.

 

"You want to have a certain philosophy that goes to the root of what you want to do," Pitcher says. "That will guide your study and preparation, so that when the game comes, your system is in place, and your communication is good enough so that you can think on your feet."

 

The good thing is that there is copious information available, not to mention the sins of previous coaches to show what not to do. As teams gather more and more data on everything from the proper ingredients to put into players' protein shakes to when it makes sense to go for it on fourth down, they have opportunities to create their procedures based on advanced statistics and a century's worth of prior outcomes. In the end, though, there is no perfect formula.

 

"It becomes ingrained in your process," Pitcher says. "There are all sorts of models out there about when do you go for two, when do you try an onsides kick. In a vacuum, looking over a million games, you can say that ‘this decision' works 53 percent of the time. We should know that in a game and take it into account. But you have to look at how you are playing, and whether that overrides a percentage.

 

"You have a call, and you have the numbers, but you also have experience. This is the moment. This is what's important right now."

 

So, what are you going to do? 

 

The clock is running.

 

— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports' 2019 Pro Football preview magazine.

 

(Top photo by Gerald Herbert/AP)

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