Mike Tomlin and the Art of NFL Clock Management

via WTAE

One of the things I’ve been hearing since first becoming a Steelers fan is how bad Mike Tomlin is at clock management. I’ve even been guilty of making such assumptions myself, as you can see from my post-game comments last week. 

A question in this week’s “Asked and Answered” feature on the Steelers website got me to thinking how easy it is to make solemn pronouncements from the comfort of our couches as we watch a game. It’s easy to assume we know more about what’s happening than we actually do, even if we are actually more knowledgeable about the game than are most fans.

So I read Bob Labriola’s answer to the following question with great interest:

[Reader question:] It seems to me that clock management seems to be an ongoing issue in the Mike Tomlin era. The end of the first half against the Patriots is yet another example. I love Coach Tomlin as a leader, but I think his in-game skills are in need of a boost. Is there a coach available to help the coach, or do you think it is a feel for the game that some coaches have and some don’t? 

[Bob Labriola:] 

Here is how Mike Tomlin addressed this at his weekly news conference:

Q. Can you assess your clock management at the end of both halves? 

TOMLIN: “I didn’t see any real issues there. I know there was a quick discussion about potentially using a timeout as we drove late in the second quarter. I thought a running clock and allowing Ben Roethlisberger to stay at the line of scrimmage would minimize what (the Patriots) would give us and would get us an opportunity to get a touchdown. Obviously, it didn’t work out. You move on from those things. But no real issues from our perspective. 

Q. In the fourth quarter, the Steelers got the ball with 2:59 left and ran only three plays before the two-minute warning. Do you have to play faster when approaching the two-minute warning at the end of the game like last week? 

TOMLIN: “We could, but it was a two-score game at that point. We were dealing with personnel issues and getting guys in and out. As fatigue set in, we would have liked to play faster, but we didn’t.” 

[back to Labriola:] My experience during 28 years in this business is that the clock management police can find issue with every coach’s handling of these kinds of things at various times, but what isn’t typically known except by those on the sideline is, as Tomlin described it, the personnel issues and the fatigue of different players at various times in the game. While there are instances – such as the game between the Giants and the Cowboys last Sunday night – where mismanagement of the clock has an apparent impact on the outcome, those don’t occur as often as you might believe. I also have the suspicion that some members of the clock management police voice their opinions in hindsight, or at least not in the real time in which these decisions must be made. And by the way, Bill Cowher used to get ripped for his clock management all the time during his tenure, as did Chuck Noll. Those guys won Super Bowls, as has Tomlin.

I went to PNC Park to see the Pirates play the Chicago Cubs on Thursday. The couple I went with had booked the tickets, and we were sitting near the top of the nosebleed section. PNC Park is small enough that you can still see everything well from literally everywhere except behind the left foul pole, and it was a beautiful evening which wasn’t spoiled by the loss, although of course a win would have been preferable.

It could easily have been spoiled, however, by the man sitting across the aisle from us. He was That Guy. I’m sure you know the type. From the tenor of his remarks, which were constant and spoken with great volume and authority, we came to the conclusion that a) he had played Major League Baseball; b) he had played every position, and also pitched, all with great distinction; and c) he had functioned as a revered coach to all of his teammates.

I assume he must have regularly won the Cy Young award, the Golden Glove, and MVP during the same season, but he was too modest to say. He wasn’t too modest, however, to note that, every time a player looked at a strike, he should have swung, or, conversely, to note he should have held his swing if he missed a ball outside the zone.

He frequently explained to the pitcher why he should have used his cutter when his fastball was hit, or his two-seamer if the four-seamer was unsuccessful. In short, he was full of detailed technical advice to everyone on the team. At one point he delivered an impassioned rant to some poor random guy sitting nearby as to how Clint Hurdle (who he had already made clear doesn’t know what he’s doing) should sit Aramis Ramirez’s butt down on the bench. (Of course, if Hurdle benched all the guys he suggested benching I’m not sure he could field a team.)

It might have put a damper on our evening, except that we entertained ourselves by quietly imitating his accent [non-Yinzer—clearly from somewhere rather south of here]  as we speculated on his many and varied life experiences as a player, coach, and teammate.

But aren’t we all like this, to a certain extent? Ivan, like an Old Testament prophet wandering the streets and crying out to a largely indifferent populace, warned us in his Training Camp for Fans series of the dangers of making assumptions about what goes on behind the scenes from what we see on Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday, as the case may be.) Unfortunately, the populace who needed to read it the most probably missed it.

I have written articles over the years talking about my experiences as a choral director, comparing it to coaching and noting that it is impossible to rerun the experiment in live performance of any sort. Therefore one can never know whether another call or decision would have had a better outcome.

Nor does one typically get lauded for making decisions resulting in successful outcomes, unless you continually dominate your competition, which is pretty difficult to do in this league. To the fans of your team, if what you’re doing works you’re doing your job. If it doesn’t work, you’re an idiot, or not very talented, or don’t work hard enough, or are lacking________(name necessary attribute according to taste.)

The former statement is true, of course—winning is your job, although your organization or your circumstances can make it pretty difficult. But the latter is a much more dubious proposition.

Obviously some people are better at such things than others. Some are better at talent evaluation, player development, and all of the host of things which go into being a head coach. But I’m not entirely convinced that most of those looking on from the outside can even know for sure who those people are.

For example, let’s say that instead of being hired by the Steelers, Mike Tomlin’s first head coaching job was with the Browns. One can surmise he wouldn’t have been there long, because the most notable attribute of that franchise, at least in its current iteration, has been a lack of patience.

Everyone is going to have a certain number of non-optimal outcomes, whether through the circumstances they find themselves in, the people they’ve been given to work with, or what have you. And as a young and untested head coach it might have been a while before Tomlin had another crack at a head coaching job. The genius of the Rooneys is, they do their due diligence and then they stand behind their decision.

A head coach’s duties are many and varied. Every head coach will do some of them better, or less well, then another person might have. But I’m not convinced you can know with certainty from the outside which are the aspects of the job in which the coach is less competent and and those in which he is successful. While the whole point of the exercise is winning games, the win/loss record is actually a rather crude measure of much of a head coach’s job.

There are a whole host of things over which the head coach has no control which can derail a team and/or a season. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to make at least some bad decisions which end up with good results through the luck of the draw.

We had a couple of different views here on the infamous Antonio Brown gadget play last week. There were those who said it would have been a bad call even if it had succeeded, (and asserted they would have said as much if it was a success,) and those who probably represent the majority of the fan base, who would have gone crazy with delight if it had resulted in a touchdown. Todd Haley told the press yesterday that it was a bad call. When pressed, he said it didn’t work, ergo, it was a bad call. Did it carry inherent failure within itself, like some sort of hamartia? Maybe so, but that would be surprising.

I don’t know enough about football to say whether it was a bad idea or a good one, although I do take the point of those who said that what the Steelers were doing was working, and why would you mess with it. On the other hand, I have heard, more times than I can count, supposedly knowledgeable fans bemoan the fact that the Steelers’ play-calling is too predictable, that everybody knows you’re going to________(fill in the blank—run on first down, or whatever.) As Gilbert and Sullivan might have said, an offensive coordinator’s lot is not a happy one.

But as usual I’ve headed off on a tangent. Let’s bring it back to the specific charge of poor in-game clock management. Clearly the ability to judge, in real time, how to use the few precious remaining moments of a half is an invaluable skill. And I say “skill” advisedly, because while one may be born with an above-average gift for clock management, surely it is primarily a learned skill, forged in the heat of battle.

As usual when faced with a question such as this I tried a Google search. (And no, I don’t get kick-backs from Google, although they know where to find me if they wish to institute them.) I tried searching “coaches who are good at clock management NFL.” One of the first articles I looked at was from Deadspin. My goodness, they have a colorful way of expressing themselves over there. But the article is very much to my point, and although it was written in 2013 there are some surprisingly current references in it, by sheer coincidence.

Here’s a sample, talking about the firing of Lovie Smith. It is lightly edited to fit within the suggested guidelines for the site:

The Bears have said publicly that they fired Smith because their offense was perpetually [wretched], with Smith bringing in new coordinators every year only to watch them fail. But the reason a lot of fans busted on Smith was because he was [very poor] at clock management. No one wasted timeouts early or threw needless challenge flags quite like Lovie, and it drove fans [crazy]. 

The problem is that a LOT of coaches are [wretched] at clock management, and it’s such an easy thing for fans to notice and harp on. Fans are often LOOKING for clock blunders, because that’s an easy way to feel like you know more about football than the coach does. This isn’t true, of course. You and I know NOTHING about football compared with Lovie Smith. If you were each given a team with equally talented players and you played on a neutral field (WICHITA!), Lovie’s team would beat your team 85-0.

Author Drew Magary continues:

…it’s easy to cherry-pick a bad challenge or a wasted timeout and say, “That guy [totally] [stinks].” I know because I’ve done it a million times. Managing the clock is one of those tasks that, on the surface, seems relatively easy to do. Any idiot knows that you have to save your timeouts until the end of the game, and then you use them when A) the other team is ahead and has the ball and you desperately need it back, or B) when you are behind and have the ball and you want to maximize the number of plays you run, and therefore the number of chances you have to score. All that seems obvious. But as I’ve said before, it’s a whole other story when YOU are the one on the sidelines, with a million things to do and 70,000 people screaming at you and your QB’s helmet speakers occasionally going haywire. You and Bill Simmons would butcher the clock just as badly, if not worse. I bet coaches [indulge in an unduly large number of alcoholic beverages] together and [complain] endlessly about how naive fans are about keeping your [stuff] together during a game. 

There are any number of books and theories as to how to better manage the clock, but it’s hard to have all that strategy memorized and ready to put into place in the span of mere seconds. Even revered coaches like Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick have [messed] up clock management. If anything, you should applaud coaches who manage to get through an entire game without [making a serious mistake in this regard].

The New York Times, a somewhat more stately and less colorful publication, ran an entire article about clock management in 2011: “Using Time, and Timeouts, Wisely”

By some accounts, the turning point of the drum-tight playoff game between the Jets and the Colts last weekend was not a catch or a throw, a run or a kick. It was a misused timeout. 

And after the Jets won, 17-16, Colts Coach Jim Caldwell was added to the growing list of game-management blunderers. 

Every weekend, it seems, a game is decided as much by sideline goofs as on-field plays. So many N.F.L. coaches, those monarchs of micromanagement, never fully grasp the best use of the clock at the end of games. 

Why is it so difficult?

“It’s kind of funny,” said Herm Edwards, the former coach and current ESPN analyst who, after a number of bungles and subsequent criticisms while coaching the Jets, hired an assistant coach for the main purpose of managing the clock and whispering in his ear during games to track all the details. “When you’re sitting away from it and you don’t have the headphones on, you can sit there and say, ‘He should do this, he should do that.’ ”

Bill Cowher also threw in his two cent’s worth:

“I also sometimes wonder what people are thinking when they call timeouts,” the former Steelers Coach Bill Cowher, now a CBS analyst, said. “I don’t have an answer for it, except for probably inexperience and probably not having someone to talk to about it. As a head coach you have a lot going through your mind.” 

Cowher said he did not allow his players to call timeouts in the second half of a game; he wanted that sole authority. It has become a standard game-management tenet.

These remarks are even more interesting in light of Bob Labriola’s assertion that Cowher was frequently ripped for his time management.

Michael Lombardi weighed in:

Michael Lombardi, a longtime N.F.L. executive who managed the personnel departments in Oakland and Cleveland, and who now works as an NFL Network analyst, has little patience for such coaching mistakes. In weekly online analyses, he often rails on coaches for giving away games with bad judgment. He wrote this season that Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid was “my all-time worst game manager.” 

“Andy Reid should outsource it to India,” Lombardi said in a telephone interview this week. 

Near the end of games, Lombardi said, coaches must decide who is the bigger opponent — the other team or the clock. 

“It’s about strategically giving your team the best chance to win,” he said. “That’s really the essence of it. How to do that? There’s 1,000 different ways, based on the situations. Those situations present another set of circumstances that you have to spend a lot of time reviewing, understanding, preparing for. The game is going to happen so quickly, if you’re not prepared for it, it could affect you.”

It’s worth noting Lombardi was an exec, not a coach, and never had to discover whether he understood and was prepared to make the correct calls while the game whizzed by.

There’s also a great story in the article about Edwards and Cowher and the 2005 Divisional Playoff game. The Times gave Edwards the final word in the article:

“Now, I’m watching, like, six games at a time,” Edwards said of his role as analyst. “It’s easy. I’m not making the decisions. I’m just watching the clock. ‘Maybe you should call time out here.’ It’s amazing how fast it gets away. And in every city, they call the coach out. That’s what people can call the coach out on, any time they want to. ‘Why did he do that? He should have done this.’ ”

And my Google search? I didn’t find a single instance of an NFL coach lauded for his clock management skills, although I admittedly didn’t look at all of the 8,820,000 hits, or even past the second page of results. I did find an article by Brian Burke on the site Advanced Football Analytics, which basically attributed poor clock management to excessive pessimism and/or uncertainty:

This phenomenon [teams being excessively pessimistic about potential outcomes] might be related to Prospect Theory, which says people weight potential losses more heavily than equivalent gains. In this model, both coaches would be overly gun-shy about stopping the clock because their pessimistic mental calculations tell them both that stopping the clock is bad. 

But I’d guess it has more to do with the a large degree of uncertainty surrounding the probabilities. As the Ellsberg Paradox demonstrates, people prefer known risks to unknown uncertainties, even when the more uncertain option has higher expected value. Rather than pursue the overall optimization of their chances winning, coaches seek out the choice with highest minimum plausible chance of winning, within the band of uncertainty. In other words, they are selecting the option with least-bad worst case scenario. In this situation, the highest minimum plausible expected value for both coaches is to allow time to run out. After all, letting time run out is the least uncertain option of all.

Interesting theories, but we’ll probably never actually know whether both, or neither, are correct. The Deadspin guy’s theory is, it probably doesn’t matter much anyhow:

Dubious game managers such as Mike McCarthy have won Super Bowls because they excel at a bunch of other stuff that you and I can’t see as easily. To say, “He’s a [terrible] coach because he wastes timeouts,” suggests that clock management is the only thing that matters when it doesn’t. It can be symptomatic of a coach’s greater shortcomings, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of the profession. It’s just the easiest thing for us fans to [complain] about, and Lovie Smith just found out the hard way.

Am I saying we should never question the decisions of the coaches? Goodness, no. It would be unfair to take away from fans the joy of playing Armchair Head Coach (or Quarterback, or GM.) It would certainly reduce the feeling of investment in one’s team. But in the end it might make sense to assume that, overall, the coaching staff has a better handle on the situation than we do, at least until they prove otherwise by failing on a much larger scale. Otherwise, like my vexatious neighbor at the Pirates game, we may produce more heat than light.

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