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For NFL teams, it's a game of beat the clock

Sammy Watkins could have used a built-in excuse, pointed his finger at the easy target. Nobody would have blamed him. The NFL admitted the ruling was incompetent.

An official clearly botched the end of Monday night’s loss to the New England Patriots. Watkins caught a pass along the left sideline as precious time dwindled. The Bills’ receiver, untouched by a defender, alertly rolled out of bounds to stop the clock with two seconds left, enough time for a 53-yard desperation pass that might’ve tied the game.

Except head linesman Ed Walker made that windmill motion with his arm, instructing the clock operator to keep it running. The clock hit 0:00.

Oh, how easy it would have been to use a lame call as the crutch for why Buffalo lost. Watkins looked deeper instead. He indicated the offense had crippled itself by wasting so much time earlier.

An official took away the Bills’ last two seconds, but they misspent minutes. They were irresponsible with timeouts. They lollygagged much of the fourth quarter.

“I just don’t think we had a sense of urgency,” Watkins said Wednesday while walking off the practice field. “We had a lot of time. Guys were just moving around slow, as a team.

“I think we could’ve handled that better, got the call in and run the play. We would’ve been in a better situation. You need to be aware of those situations.”

Fans were screaming at their televisions after the Bills, trailing by 10 points, got the ball at their own 25-yard line with 7:35 to play. The Bills already had taken two timeouts, one with 8:48 left in the third quarter to avoid a delay-of-game penalty and the other 44 seconds into the fourth quarter because the defense had only 10 players on the field at the start of a possession.

All that in mind – and with long-accepted mathematical analysis stating an NFL team must average 12 yards for every point scored – the Bills needed to play at a tempo that would yield 120 yards in short order. Yet the Bills took 3:21 to run a chunk of six plays on a field-goal drive. That’s an average of about 34 laid-back seconds a play.

Alas, slipshod time management is common throughout sports.

Football coaches entered the profession to motivate men, draw up plays, design schemes, defeat opponents and teach fundamentals such as blocking and tackling.

They didn’t yearn to apply mathematics to chronometers.

“Some coaches just don’t have a clue,” said Tom Holmoe, a safety for Hall-of-Fame coaches in college and the NFL, a former head coach at Cal and now Brigham Young’s athletics director.

“If you asked a hundred coaches, 95 would grade themselves on clock management with an A or a B-plus. If you really looked at it and really examined it, less than half do a great job.

“And why wouldn’t everyone do a great job?”

Clock management always has been critical to winning. This year, it has been even more vital. There were 84 games decided by seven points or fewer through Week 11, the most in NFL history for that span.

But how do coaches learn to control a clock well? Few become masters. Some never figure it out.

Holmoe played under LaVell Edwards at BYU and for Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers, winning three Super Bowls. Holmoe later coached with Edwards at BYU, with Walsh at Stanford and with George Seifert in San Francisco, winning another Super Bowl.

“I just don’t think too many coaches – who train other coaches, who train other coaches – talk about clock management,” Holmoe said. “Sometimes bad habits continue on through generations. It can absolutely, positively lose you games.”

Skillful clock managers recognize those moments when the enemy switches from the team across the field to the clock on the scoreboard.

They should be aware research has indicated each available timeout increases win probability about 3 percent to 5 percent. They ought to know math doesn’t support the theory that victory is easier by using ball control to keep a scary opposing quarterback off the field. They should realize purposely not scoring a touchdown or letting the other team score a touchdown sometimes is advantageous.

Among other thoughts.

Clock decisions must be made while contemplating wind conditions, the injured right tackle, when to try the two-point conversion, whether to challenge the bad spot, the receiver barking at the quarterback over a misfired throw, whether to decline the roughing penalty or punt again, the questionable pass-interference call.

Some head coaches do this while calling the offensive or defensive plays.

“When you become the head coach, clock management is probably the thing you’re least prepared for,” said NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, who coached the Baltimore Ravens to the 2000 championship. Bills coach Rex Ryan oversaw the defensive line. “You prepare for so many other things. Now that you have to live it ...

“You put the best plan together, the best stats together. You coach it up. You hope the players understand it. But the biggest decisions you make during a game have to do with clock management.”

Billick wrote the coaching manual “Developing an Offensive Game Plan” in 1996. Inside are several time-management tips.

But the most definitive book on the subject is John T. Reed’s “Football Clock Management,” which came out in 1997, is in its fifth edition and has grown to 294 pages.

Reed is a West Point graduate with an MBA from Harvard. He became infatuated with clock-management strategies while coaching youth football. He was unable to find information, so he created a manual with graphs, charts and case studies.

“When it comes to finding ways to improve your team,” Reed said, “the clock is the easiest to fix.

“The clock requires no athletic ability. The clock does exactly what you tell it to do. That’s why mismanaging the clock is the most frustrating way to lose.”

Bills o’clock

Stop to consider how much of the Bills’ identity is attributed to clock management.

The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls with the K-Gun, considered the most efficient hurry-up offense in NFL history. Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy and offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda had a revelation watching Jim Kelly nearly rally the Bills past the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 postseason. The Bills would have pulled it off had Ronnie Harmon not dropped Kelly’s late lob into the end zone.

The Bills’ first Super Bowl has become the exemplar for a popular coaching assumption that the best way to conquer a great quarterback is to keep him off the field. New York Giants coach Bill Parcells used a ball-control offense to deny the Bills their best opportunity to win a championship.

Or did he? More about that later.

In the franchise’s signature victory, the Bills benefited from abysmal clock strategy.

The Houston Oilers led, 35-3, early in the third quarter of their 1992 wild-card playoff game. But the Oilers’ run-and-gun offense refused to stop throwing. Not only does the clock stop with every incomplete pass, but Warren Moon also threw two interceptions. The Bills won in sudden death, 41-38, completing the NFL’s greatest comeback.

While up 32 points, the Oilers should have stopped playing the Bills and started playing against the clock.

“That’s a very pertinent idea,” Levy said. “We ran a quick-paced offense. Go, go, go. In every close game we ever played, we’d be out-timed about 40 minutes to 20.

“But if we ever got a comfortable lead, let’s say 21 points with nine minutes to go, we’d come out of the no-huddle, milk every second. Before the snap, we’d apprise our players ‘Don’t go out of bounds. Keep the clock running. Make them use their timeouts.’ "

And if any Bills fan must be reminded of the value of one second, then they need to think only of their last postseason appearance. That’s all the time the Tennessee Titans would’ve needed to execute the Music City Miracle, although there actually were 16 seconds left at kickoff.

Should the Titans have had any time at all?

One play earlier, the Bills went ahead, 16-15, on a 41-yard Steve Christie field goal. The Bills chose to kick it on first down with 20 seconds still on the clock.

1st and 3rd, nobody home

Some coaches might consider a comprehensive philosophy nothing more than a four-minute (slowdown) offense when ahead and a two-minute (hurry-up) offense when behind, applied in near-literal terms at the end of each half.

Savvier clock administration encompasses all 60 minutes.

“All you’d have to do is ask coaches to explain their strategy on-clock management during the first and third quarters,” Holmoe said.

“They’d be stuttering.”

Reed has devised intricate “pace graphs” that show how many seconds should be on the play clock when snapping the ball within every specific score, down-and-distance and time scenario.

Reed claimed it’s “coaching malpractice” to be in a hurry-up offense when winning.

To Reed, a coach’s chief concern is obvious:

“What he should be thinking every second of the game is, ‘What’s my current win probability, and what can I do to have the maximum positive affect on my win probability?’ "

Several NFL teams and coaches have purchased Reed’s self-published “Football Clock Management.” He watches college and pro games on TV and sees his some of his theories, once considered quirky, in use.

But not all of Reed’s theories.

“I’m a little too much of an outsider for the establishment to acknowledge my existence,” Reed said, “or to acknowledge that I could tell them things they didn’t already know.”

Reed admitted he takes clock management to an extreme. His general philosophy is for an offense to hurry up when trailing and to slow down when ahead regardless of how much time is left.

He even advocates a hurry-up/slowdown offense, where the offense that’s ahead immediately bolts to the line of scrimmage and goes through motions and shifts to make the defense run around – but still snaps the ball with one second on the play clock.

One gadget Reed can’t believe coaches haven’t universally adopted is what he calls the “quarterback sweep slide.”

Reed asserts when it’s time to start kneeling out the clock, rather than genuflect right behind his center, the quarterback should take off backward and diagonally toward the sideline to burn more seconds at the expense of 15 yards. This approach would allow teams to enter their victory formation earlier than the traditional approach.

A variation of Reed’s sweep slide tacks a long bomb at the end of the run to even kill more time.

Coaches haven’t been receptive, Reed said, “Probably because the fans would think they’d lost their minds.” Holmoe conceded he was one of those reluctant coaches.

“These guys have been working their asses off all their lives and getting paid peanuts,” Reed said from his home in Alamo, Calif., where he sells real estate and writes books. “They finally make it, and their wife is a saint for putting up with it if they still have her.

“They’re making $2 million a year, and they don’t want to lose it.”

Holmoe wouldn’t consider himself a Reed disciple, but he has studied “Football Clock Management” cover to cover and absorbed some of Reed’s principles into his coaching philosophy.

A coach can divert only so far from conventional thinking and still expect to remain employed for long. Team owners, fans, boosters and the media quickly scrutinize anything unorthodox.

Clock management is especially easily to criticize. Even those who’ve never worn a set of shoulder pads know how many seconds are in a minute.

“I didn’t have the conviction that John did in extreme clock management,” Holmoe said from his office in Provo, Utah.

“He’s like the guy who never punts. That’s an interesting theory, and there’s some good stats behind it. But coaches are trying to keep their jobs and their fan base. You have other things to consider in addition to a theory.”

Some radical maneuvers eventually do make sense.

Take for instance intentionally not scoring a touchdown or letting the other team score one, concepts Reed has promoted to maximize time.

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew famously knelt at the 1-yard line when Rex Ryan wanted him to score on his New York Jets in November 2009. The Jaguars depleted the clock and kicked the winning field goal.

Ryan wanted Jones-Drew to score a play earlier, but poor communication caused the Jets to tackle him on the 10-yard line. The Jets wouldn’t have been in such a bad spot had they not wasted timeouts 2:27 into the third quarter and with 5:07 left in the game, each time because they had 12 players on the field.

Advanced Football Analytics founder Brian Burke, a former Navy fighter pilot and defense consultant with a master’s degree in operations research from George Mason University, calculated Jones-Drew’s decision to squat instead of scoring a touchdown enhanced Jacksonville’s chances to win 17 percent.

Two notable examples of a defense doing the proper thing by letting another team score a touchdown are from Super Bowls.

When the Green Bay Packers allowed Terrell Davis to score with 1:45 to play in the 1997 Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos’ win probability actually dropped from 83.7 percent to 77.1 percent.

When the Patriots waved Ahmad Bradshaw into the end zone with 57 seconds left in the 2011 Super Bowl, the Giants’ win probability dipped from 98.3 percent to 93.9 percent after the change of possession.

The Broncos and the Giants won those championships, but their chances actually decreased after scoring late touchdowns.

Does ball control work?

Tony Sparano devised a brassbound, keep-away strategy to beat Peyton Manning in 2009, and the Miami Dolphins executed it to near-perfection.

The Dolphins kept the ball for a club-record 45:07 and took 84 plays. The Indianapolis Colts ran a franchise-low 35 plays. The Colts had just three possessions in the second half – and won, 27-24.

That outcome is an outlier for such lopsided measurements. Indy became the only team since time of possession became an official stat in 1977 to win with less than 15 minutes.

Sparano is a former Parcells assistant, but coaches don’t need those roots to believe so strongly in the long-held keep-away hypothesis. Rutgers statistics professor Harold Sackrowitz discovered the data doesn’t support the bromide.

“I’ve followed football for a long time. I’ve heard all the clichés,” Sackrowitz said last week from New Jersey. “I was sure it was going to be right. But it’s not.”

With the Giants-Bills Super Bowl as his inspiration – “the ultimate endorsement of ball control,” he wrote – Sackrowitz devised a probability lesson for one of his classes.

The Columbia Ph.D., who has exchanged game theory notes with Patriots analytics guru Ernie Adams but doesn’t hear from anybody else aside from the occasional reporter, ran the calculations and was amazed.

While operating a ball-control offense keeps the other quarterback off the field, it reduces your offense’s possessions just the same. Meanwhile, your offense has taken itself out of its regular system, thereby playing at less-than-optimal efficiency.

“If you weaken your best offense just for the sake of holding the ball longer,” Sackrowitz said, “your probability of scoring goes down a bit. If they maintain their regular scoring rate on fewer possessions, but you’ve lowered your scoring rate, the math just doesn’t work out.

“The number of possessions you cut to shorten the game becomes too much to accomplish. You may end up with closer games, but you will lose more often.”

Sackrowitz’s research showed teams using a “time-consuming” offense decreased the chances of winning by a remarkable 12 percent against an opponent that remains in its regular offense.

“That’s not say at the end of the game, when there aren’t all that many possessions left, you shouldn’t use up time,” Sackrowitz said. “But teams sometimes start that way right from the opening kickoff.”

So about the Giants’ ball-control offense, thwarting the K-Gun ...

True, the Giants kept the ball for 40:33 in a 20-19 victory. But that’s not because the Bills didn’t get the ball. The Bills had 10 full possessions.

The Bills also had 10 full possessions (apart from kneeling out the clock at the end of either half) when they hung 51 points on the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship Game and a week earlier, when they scored 44 points against the Dolphins.

Buffalo’s problem in the Super Bowl was one third-down conversion after converting 44 percent in the regular season.

The Bills produced only two possessions longer than six plays. On a 12-play touchdown drive in the second quarter, they gained six of their 18 first downs. Their final drive, ending in Scott Norwood’s missed field goal, lasted nine plays.

As for the Giants grinding it out on offense, they actually passed slightly more with backup Jeff Hostetler than they did in the regular season with Phil Simms. The Giants ran 56 percent of the time in the regular season, 53 percent in the Super Bowl.

“They claim the Giants did this great job of ball control,” Sackrowitz said. “Actually, the way they did it was by taking the ball away from Buffalo. Buffalo had a reasonable number of possessions. They just didn’t score.”

Help around the clock

Coaches can’t cope with all the in-game decisions and permutations.

They do have help, although teams won’t identify their clock-management assistants on their websites or in their media guides.

“You don’t want that title because, believe me, you won’t have it long,” Billick said. “You’re going to get thrown under the bus quickly if that’s your actual title.”

Teams aren’t allowed to use computers to help them maximize in-game scenarios, including the clock. Even-keeled assistants provide counsel with situational charts and their brains.

Ryan relies on Chris Palmer to manage the Bills’ time. Palmer’s official title is senior offensive assistant. Nowhere in Palmer’s official Bills bio does it mention his clock duties.

But Palmer has optimal traits. Palmer, 66, is plenty experienced. He’s a former Browns head coach and a three-time NFL offensive coordinator. He was the Giants’ quarterbacks coach when they won the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. He doesn’t coach a position for Buffalo and watches from the press box, separated from the sideline chaos.

“That person needs a good analytical mind and has to separate the emotion from it,” Billick said. “They need a good grasp of the numbers and the situations. You don’t want your hothead doing it; that’s for sure.”

Adams is a material component to the Patriots’ reputation as the best clock managers. He is said to have a photographic memory and is in Bill Belichick’s ear at every critical juncture of a game.

Around the rest of the AFC East, the Dolphins assign clock duties to special-teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, while the Jets rely on outside linebackers coach Mark Collins.

Time and again

Many watching Monday night’s game thought the Patriots were botching their chances to beat the Bills. The Patriots led by seven points when they began their final possession, with 3:28 to play at their 25-yard line.

LeGarrette Blount ran three times, including on a third-and-3 play. The Bills were forced to use their last timeout – they charred their first two timeouts long before – and then wait for the two-minute warning. The Patriots punted.

Analytics suggested the Bills would need to conjure 84 yards of offense (they gained 287 through the first 58 minutes) to send the game into overtime, where they would have a 50-50 chance to win. The Bills had zero timeouts, decreasing their win probability roughly by another 9 percent, according to calculations Burke published in January 2014 on the value of a timeout.

The odds were stacked in New England’s favor.

Yet analytics wouldn’t have factored:

• New England was punting to Leodis McKelvin, who’d already fumbled once.

• Tyrod Taylor had suffered an apparent shoulder injury earlier in the fourth quarter, and EJ Manuel was warming up.

• Buffalo had demonstrated meek clock-management acumen since the season began.

Belichick, Adams and Tom Brady merely had to sit back and hope Buffalo didn’t get supremely lucky.

The Bills didn’t cross midfield.

“Where so many coaches get hurt is they believe much of it is up to chance,” Holmoe said. “There’s probably less stress with coaches who go into those situations prepared.

“I’m not talking about a receiver dropping the ball or a lineman jumping offside. Those things will happen. I’m talking about calling the plays they want, but the clock isn’t used in their favor.

“It’s like they think the other team doesn’t have a strategy on clock management either.”

email: tgraham@buffnews.com

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