There’s only one thing worse than losing a game: Losing a game because you did something stupid like screw up the clock.
Maybe you wasted your timeouts, maybe you left too much time on the clock for your opponent at the end of a game, maybe you even spiked the ball when you shouldn’t have and wasted a down.
We’ve all made mistakes, and that’s why Homer Smith wrote The Complete Handbook of Clock Management (link).
Homer Smith: The Clock Management Guru
Homer Smith was the head coach at Army from 1974-78, and served as offensive coordinator at places like Alabama, Arizona, UCLA, and even with the Kansas City Chiefs. During his career he gained recognition for his masterful understanding of clock management. In fact, even after he retired in 1997 he was still regularly sought out by the top coaches in the game for his thoughts on clock management all the way up to 2011 when he passed away.
This book is nothing short of a masterpiece, and it contains dozens of unique situations faced by teams over the past few decades, and what they did right (or wrong).
In case you’re wondering, yes, this book has been updated to account for rule changes in the way the clock works. Regardless, the fundamentals of his philosophy are as necessary as ever, and as we’ll see below, they’re used by the top coaches in the game.
In this review we’ll examine three excerpts from the book and tie them into a couple of real-life examples.
Squeezing In Next-to-the-Last-Plays
This is a fascinating subject, because it’s a situation where a lot of coaches assume they’re playing with house money. A lot of coaches feel like once they’re inside their kicker’s field goal range, the offense can relax at the end of a game. Not true.
Coach Smith writes:
“Case: UCLA needs a FG to beat USC. They drive to the USC 33 and call their second time-out, at 00:28. They can run and get lined up to run again. If the QB sees that there will be 00:10 when the ball is snapped, he can let the run go and use the last time-out. If he sees that there will be less, he can let the clock go down to 00:04 and call the time-out. But he gets off only one play, lets the clock move, and leaves the best field goal kicker in college football a little too far away. UCLA loses. No effort had been made to squeeze in a next-to-the-last play. The author was the offensive coordinator and QB coach.”
This is just one example of a real-life game situation used in the book.
Smith’s willingness to use his own mistakes as a teaching tool should tell you everything you need to know about him and the way he approaches this topic.
But what is Smith saying here?
If you’ve got extra time at the end of the game, don’t waste it, and don’t think that just because you’re technically in field goal range that the job of the offense is done.
If you’re not careful, your conservative approach can cost you the game. Be aware of how much time you have left, as well as how much time it takes to run a play and call a final timeout.
Taking a Knee When There Is No Time Left
This is often an overlooked situation, since the natural instinct is to just line up and kick a PAT even if you don’t need to, but this is exactly what you want to avoid.
Coach Smith writes:
“At the end of a game, if you score and go ahead by +1 or +2 and leave no time on the clock, you do no tkick for an extra point and give your opponent a chance to block the kick, scoop it up, score two points, and beat you or put you into overtime. You take a knee. There is no deciding.”
This exact scenario came up in the 2017 FCS Semifinal game between Youngstown State and Eastern Washington.
Kevin Rader made a spectacular catch in the end zone to put YSU up 2 points by trapping the ball between his hands and the back of the defender.
The catch was reviewed and confirmed but there was still 1 second left on the clock. As you’ll see on the video below, YSU lines up and takes a knee to avoid any screwups on the PAT. The last thing Pelini wanted was a great catch nullified by a special teams disaster.
(Go to 2:31:45 if the video doesn’t automatically take you there)
There was still 1 second on the clock, so YSU still had to kick off to EWU.
Yes, it’s possible Eastern Washington could’ve pulled off a crazy series of laterals to run the kick back. Even so, that possibility would’ve been the same regardless of what YSU did on the PAT.
Pelini did the smart thing and eliminated any risk of a mistake, and his team went on to play for the National Championship.
Taking A Safety
Here’s another favorite of mine, the section on taking a safety.
“The decision that you face whether to take a safety involves three considerations: (1) the position of the ball; (2) the weighing of the sure minus two against a probably minus three to a field goal; (3) the time that you will have or that he will not have to score. (1) Most teams count on 13 yards of depth for the punter (2) the minus two is not always consequential; the minus three is (3) For scoring needed, you want to have time, but you do not want him to have time.”
You probably remember when Bill Belichick took a safety vs Denver in 2003 to get out of bad field position. What you may not remember is the Patriots were down by 1, 24-23 with just 2:49 to go.
The Patriots faced a 4th and 10 on their own 1 yard line. Tom Brady had just thrown three straight incomplete passes, and things weren’t looking good. A lot of coaches would’ve just punted here. Belichick decided to give his opponent a three point lead instead. Now instead of 24-23, it’s a 26-23 deficit.
On the ensuing punt, the Patriots pinned the Broncos back inside their own 20, forced a three and out, and Brady got the ball back on his own 42 yard line. Six plays later he threw the game-winning touchdown pass to David Givens for a final score of 30-26.
Was it luck or skill?
You might think Belichick just made a risky play and got lucky. Actually, if you look at his options, Belichick made the best possible play.
Sure, Denver got the ball back up 3 points, but they would’ve got the ball back anyway in great field position. Plus, it wouldn’t take much to get into Jason Elam’s field goal range (whose career long is 63 yards) and putting you down 4 points.
Lets say you punt it away, play great defense, and force a 3-and-out. Denver still pins you right back inside your own territory, and you’re no better than you were before. Now you’re right back where you started with even less time to work with.
Or, if things get really bad, and Denver busts a long play loose, now you’re down 8 points and have to go the length of the field just for an opportunity to tie it.
Belichick’s safety play meant that he could put his defense on the field against a backup QB. Danny Kanell was filling in for an injured Jake Plummer that night and had done a decent job.
With the game on the line, he can pin them back deep in their own territory, and then get the ball back, gaining a ton of field position in the process.
Belichick’s play, though it seemed risky and reckless, was actually the exact opposite. He understood all his options in a situation where there were no great choices, and he picked the one that offered minimal risk to his football team. And that’s what good game managers do.
This Book Is A Must-Have For Serious Football Coaches
I’ll put it as simple as I can: If you’re a head coach or coordinator, and you don’t read this book, you’re doing your team and your players a huge disservice.
The Complete Handbook of Clock Management is a scientific approach to the game of football. In fact, I would put it in the same category as Bill Walsh’s Finding the Winning Edge.
As coaches we ask a lot of our players, so it’s only right that we ask a lot of ourselves as well. If we’re not doing everything we can to get better, how can we expect our players to do the same?
Buy this book and instantly become a better football coach.