Many things can be said about the game-play in Super Bowl LI, from the Falcons offense looking to be unstoppable through the first 38 minutes to Tom Brady channeling his inner GOAT to pull off what most people could only imagine as achievable theoretically. However, the biggest difference between the New England and the Atlanta was that the Patriots knew who their opponent was and the Falcons did not. The real opponent for both teams was the clock. The Falcons needed it to run as fast as possible, while the Patriots realized that each second was precious, with a 25 point deficit to overcome.
It seems strange that with all of the analytics used in sports nowadays, the degree to which each aspect of the game is individualized (I mean, there are actually separate coaches for inside linebackers and outside linebackers), and the number of times that clock management can affect the outcome of a game, that there is not a position solely dedicated to how to manage that clock.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking at the 2017 NFL playoffs, there were three close games, two of which were decided largely by late-game clock management. The first game was the Packers vs. Cowboys in the divisional round, and the second was the Super Bowl.
The clock mismanagement in divisional round was by the Cowboys, who were attempting to comeback from a 15 point 4th quarter deficit. For a two score comeback to occur, both the offense and the defense must play well, but clock management becomes crucial. The biggest misstep for the Cowboys came on their final drive. They received the ball with 93 seconds left in the game. In the final drive, two critical clock management decisions to look at are the spike on 1st and 10 from the Packers 40 yard line with 1:07 on the clock, and 2 plays later with a passing play on 3rd down with 44 seconds left. Perhaps a clock management coach looks at these situations and plays them somewhat differently. From using their final timeout or running a play on first down, so as not to ‘waste’ a down with a spike. That same coach may realize that a successful short pass and a successful run will likely have similar outcomes on 3rd down, but an incomplete pass stops the clock and a running play short of the line to gain keeps the clock running. That running clock may be just enough to make sure Aaron Rodgers does not have time to orchestrate a game-winning drive, and instead push the game to overtime.
In the Super Bowl, the clock mismanagement will be credited to the Atlanta Falcons, who needed only to hold on to a 25 point lead in the middle of the 3rd quarter. Reread that sentence, there is no typo. The Falcons had a four score lead with just over 17 minutes left in the game. There are once again two key plays that involve clock management, they may have swung the game and final score into the Falcons favor. The first was the catastrophic fumble with 8:31 left in the game, and the Falcons possessed a 16 point (two score) lead. Many will say of course you run when you know that a sack fumble is happening, but even not knowing that a pass is much riskier than a run in that situation, especially when your running back, Devonta Freeman, is averaging over 8 yards per carry at that point. The risk is way to high for a 3rd and 1 pass with a 16 point lead and 8:31 left on the clock, compared to the reward. A clock management coach realizes that and runs the ball. The second decision comes with just under 4 minutes left, again a pass play over a run, this time on second down on the New England 22. The play results in a 12 yard sack and the Patriots use a timeout. No big deal, still in field goal range to make it a two score game. 3rd down attempt #1 is a completed pass that doesn’t get a first down but gives them a better shot at a field goal, but there is a hold. Now they are out of field goal range and are forced to pass to get back into range. 3rd down attempt #2 is an incomplete pass and the Falcons are forced to punt without being able to run the clock. A clock management coach realizes that a field goal in this situation is practically just as good as a touchdown, since it pretty much guarantees that the Patriots will have to complete a successful onside kick if they score. Instead, the Patriots get the ball back with just under 4 minutes left, and Tom Brady becomes the GOAT of all GOATs.
Isn’t clock management the job of the head coach? Can’t the quarterback figure these things out? Two great questions, but in the heat of battle, having a numbers guy whose sole job is to analyze the game based on the amount of time left, could prove to be invaluable. Just ask Arthur Blank if he would’ve coughed up an extra $150k to have a clock specialist on the coaching staff.