I am doing my best not to let this post come down as high and mighty or give the impression that I am omnipotent. I'm not going to harp on how I was once a coach, because the sport I coached was completely different from football and did not involve the split-second decisions I will be discussing. Nor am I suggesting that I could do a superior job to the men patrolling the sidelines on Saturday and Sunday. However, with all that said (which was my tribute to "I don't want to disrespect my teammates but..") there has been a multitude of mistakes made by coaches in end-of-game management this season. Perhaps coaches have always been making these errors but in the era of DVR, instant replays, and week-long second guessing they have been magnified even more. A few examples and extrapolating after the jump.
While there have been many examples to pull from, these are some that stick out from the season.
I know the Packers-Bears Sunday night game took place weeks ago, but it sticks out in my mind. The Packers were driving with the game tied 17-17 when James Jones fumbled the ball on right in front of the Packers sideline to set up the winning Bears' field goal. This started a very odd chain of events. Packers coach Mike McCarthy decided to challenge the fumble. The ball clearly was fumbled and kept in-bounds by the Bears defense. McCarthy essentially tossed away a timeout. Then as the Bears drove deep into the Packers' red zone they were allowed to run down the clock to four seconds as Robbie Gould kicked the game-winner.
This is from a game probably most of America did not see but I attended this past Saturday. After Rutgers stormed back with 14 fourth-quarter points to tie Army at 17. Rutgers then pinned Army deep and forced a punt. The Scarlet Knights took the ball to the 31 yard-line with no time outs and about 33 seconds left. Now they did not haphazardly lose those timeouts, they used them on Army's previous possession to stop the clock and get the ball back. From there Rutgers coach Greg Schiano ran a horribly drawn-up QB scramble to get the ball on the correct hash for his kicker. The play lost two yards so here is the ball at the 33 which makes for a 50 yard try. Did I mention this was in the New Meadowlands Stadium where the wind was blowing at a light 20 mph? Army then granted Rutgers a reprieve by calling timeout to set-up their defense. Rutgers then spends the timeout trying to figure out what to do at which point the QB misplaces his helmet and costs the team a delay of game penalty. Back another 5 yards, out of FG range. The next play by Rutgers results in an Army sack and ends any chance of winning in regulation. Rutgers did win in overtime 23-20.
Scenario # 3
South Carolina, or Sakarlina as they are becoming affectionately known as, was happily blowing the doors of Kentucky 28-10. Then the Wildcats produced a furious rally. The Gamecocks trailed 31-28 down the stretch but were able to get the ball down to Kentucky's 20 yard line. With the clock stopped at 11 seconds South Carolina called a timeout, their last one. Then, the old ball coach called in a deep pass play to go for the win. Stephen Garcia threw into double coverage, the ball was tipped and intercepted by Kentucky. Instead of a 37-yard field goal to tie the game, the game was over.
Scenario # 4
The granddaddy of them all. Much like end of the movie se7en, the conclusion of the Tennessee-LSU game will be puzzled over and studied and followed forever. With LSU driving late in the game down 14-10, this happened.
Is it saying too much that both coaching staffs lost their grip on this game? After the Vols somehow let LSU march down the entire field on them, it turned into a goal line stand. LSU decided to run the ball on 3rd down with 30 seconds and no timeouts. I guess that would be fine except they seemed to have no clue what they were doing once the play failed. They then scrambled some kind of mess onto the field and would have had the clock run out on them only their center snapped it before the clock ran out. Of course Jordan Jefferson was not prepared and the snap went into the backfield and should have ended the game. That is, until it was revealed the Vols were equally as insane in their final defensive stand. After stopping the Tigers on 3rd down, Tennessee reacted to the LSU panic by panicking themselves. They tried to match the Tigers with substitutions and got caught on the very wrong side of mathematics. They ended up having 13 players on the field after they had 3 guys run on and 3 start to run off, only to have two of those running off turnaround and run back on. What they should have done was stand pat with their personnel, or at least make sure they had 11 on. Vince Dooley was furious and indignant at the end of the game but the refs gave the Vols time to make substitutions, they just botched it. They already had goal line personnel in there, just call a defense and stand firm, LSU clearly had no idea what to do. In this case, gross incompetence was outdone by ludicrous incompetence.
Now these four examples are all different, but the theme runs the same: coaches need to be prepared for these situations. Often times the announcers and/or analysts talk about how players need to step it up at the end of halves and games. While true, the coaches need to be able to make these decisions quickly and correctly. We hear all the time about players practicing end of game situations, the two-minute drill routine. Coaches should be using these situations to put themselves in the right mind for when they arise in the games. Clearly, a lot of them are not.
In the NFL, using challenges and timeouts wisely often goes by the wayside. Coaches can be great at the X's and O's but all that can go out the window if the team is scrambling around during the final minutes and you are taking 45 seconds to make a decision that needed to be made 20 seconds ago. Poor clock management is nothing new, and Eagles fans can probably tell you all about Andy Reid and bad decisions.
In the college game, it just appears that most coaches figure they will know what to do when the time comes. There is only so much time they can work with the players each week (right Rich-Rod?) and so much devotion is paid to getting schemes right, end of game planning may go to the backburner. Ironically a lot of times a closely contested game comes down to making the right plays and calls as the clock winds down. Either through practice or prior preparation (get a laminated sheet for situations even) a coach should know what they are going to do within 5-10 seconds of a situation presenting itself. It is not an easy task, but then again neither is coaching.