You have 26 seconds.
You're down 4 points. 2nd & goal. One yard from glory. Go.
No, don't tell me what the wrong call was. Make the call. Make the right call. Know before the snap that it's right. That's what this exercise is.
The good news is those 26 seconds are mostly irrelevant: that's the game clock. The play clock is what we're concerned with, here. The play clock gives you 40. That's more than 26 so this should be fairly easy. Let's get started.
First, we need a different scenario. Now, I fully trust your ability to maintain constant objectivity at all times, but we have some minimum level of diligence due, here. The core of science may be that ideas are tested through experimentation, and all the rest is bookkeeping, but that bookkeeping, we call it rigor. And rigor is what separates us from the beasts.
We still need something with similarly high leverage, though. I'll use the AFA Top Game Finder to pick a playoff game with high excitement levels, but comparatively modest comeback factor, just to exclude the psychodynamics that come along with notable momentum shifts (regardless of your view of momentum (I like to say momentum does exist, but merely in the minds of those who believe their opponents possess it). It's something we want to avoid because protecting a deteriorating lead or mounting an epic comeback can factor significantly in situational decision-making. A tight game. A close result in the 20s.
It was an elimination contest, with the still-contending defending champs, and the final score is the same. The champs faced a similarly critical moment, with ample opportunity to overtake the game, inside the 10-yard line.
A 16 yard completion and a 15-yard penalty put the Colts here:
1st & goal at the 9 yard line. Trailing by four, 24-48. 2:51 left on the clock.
You have all 3 timeouts. Your opponent, the Chargers, have 1 remaining. Of course the 2-minute warning will provide another clock stop. So let's step in.
The game clock is running. It stopped due to penalty, but after implementation of enforcement, it starts up again. You've already failed, by the way.
Those 40 seconds of play clock you were given? It's 25 after an administrative game-clock stoppage. And even that, you don't get to use all of it. The NFL employs a cutoff official, who disables radio communication at the 15-second mark of the play clock. You have to pick your play, and communicate it to the QB before then. You had 10 seconds.
Well that was unfair. You weren't ready yet. No problem! Those of us in the professional trade of critiquing offensive play-calling are nothing if not forgiving. We hand out second chances like they're individually wrapped by Mars, Inc. and it's Halloween. Let's try this again.
The next time you try, if no penalties or administrative clock stoppages occur, the play clock begins at 40 seconds. The 15-second cutoff still occurs, so you normally get 25 seconds, not 10. But if you were well-versed in this, you'd have known to make use of that penalty-induced clock stoppage in your play call decision-making, and that could potentially exceed 25, so it can be a good thing.
But we only get to pick scenarios when we write about them on Field Gulls four days after the fact. Real life is like Soviet Russia, where the scenario picks you. This is the scenario you were given, as arbitrarily by me as real life is by the real-life scenario-giver-outers. You get 10 seconds.
But take note, the time you took to process the game situation information wasted way too much of your 10 seconds. What's more, that's not remotely the amount of game situation information germane to our play call. We've got to understand aspects of the game narrative, and how we got here. We'll do that in a moment, but when we do, you'll need to process all of it, together, and not use up your whole 10 seconds. Got it? I'm sure you'll be on your toes and ready to kill it this time.
Up Til Now
This stuff you already know prior to the critical moment, which is good. You'll just have to be sure to keep all pertinent details in active memory when running your context-driven considerations.
Your Colts are a great team. Offense is great as usual, but your defense really kicked it this year. San Diego are the underdogs, but this year defense is their strength, their pass defense. Good pass rush, but also coverage. We won't quantify these by DVOA or some such thing, since ranking likely had little to no role in your week's preparation for this game.
San Diego's run defense is bad. Your run offense is really good. But they inexplicably bottled you up all day and you've kinda abandoned the run a bit up til now.You have some awareness of a correlation between running & winning, and some awareness that some people feel very strongly about this. You have some awareness that poor results on the back of poor effort (at least, effort as measured strictly by the number of rush attempts) against a team that produced very bad statistics regarding run defense during the regular season is ammunition in the hands of critics. You probably have some awareness as to how much pressure has mounted up til now, on yourself, your head coach, your general manager, president and owner, as well as how liable each one of them are to respond under the influence of that pressure, perhaps to save their own job, if things should come to that.
You also suck at special teams. Worst in the league. Coverage units have been bad, kick returning has been really bad. The one bright spot is your punt return game. Might need to keep these things in mind. Remember, there is 2:51 left to play. Special Teams might factor again. Do you tactically abate their potential for letting you down, here? Does that factor in your considerations?
You lost Marvin Harrison in week 5. Your defense lost Robert Mathis in week 13, and Dwight Freeney back in week 9, also against San Diego. You lost that game, a close-but-no-cigar come-from-behind loss. Turnovers were the story, a wretched 6 of them. But today, you've only merely lost the turnover battle 1-3. They've been critical and timely. Generating pressure has been very difficult all day. Will you factor these things into your decisions?
Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson have both been knocked out of this game, but Billy Volek and Michael Turner still drove down the field for the go-ahead score. Your defense had been great this year, but have allowed 28 points and the backups are still scoring. This drive is your response. You just marched down the field. Game is about to close, and you're on the goal line. Ready?
Your starting offense is fully healthy, so along with total consciousness, you have that going for you, which is nice. Have you thought yet about which personnel you want to use? You might want to stick with the guys already on the field, that simplifies things. 11 personnel, but 12 has been your base package since Harrison went out. You've been rolling with 2 TEs in base, Dallas Clark and Ben Utecht. But Utecht is currently sidelined, and rookie WR Devon Aromashodu is on the field. He did pick up a 1st down for you on this drive, but also an incomplete target on another play. He was only targeted 17 times this year. Do you keep him in?
The field is shorter at the goalline. Tactics change. Subsequently, the advantages and intricacies of individuals and personnel packages change from midfield to goal line. Now that you're down here, you may not want 11 personnel. Not as good for running. Vertical speed becomes immaterial, and separation is at a premium. Utecht has 6 inches and 50 pounds on Aromashodu, nice bigger target. But then neither of them have great hands. But maybe Utecht's presence can help create a mismatch by compelling the defense to keep a LB in, maybe give an extra crease for Dallas Clark to get open.
Oh, you want your best guys, suited to your team & QB's best strengths, because this is for all the marbles, right? Pretty smart. Seems simple enough. It must be fairly obvious to the casual viewer. OK, so again, you've run the ball well all year but today it didn't go well, and you went away from it early. Once abandoned, running games aren't returned to often. Do you surprise them and go unconventionally with a running package? Or at least a package that compels the defense to respect both run & pass?
But maybe you have specific plays built for this situation, corroborated over the season by your roster, tweaked for some surprises for the postseason -- you do. All of this is true. Do you want to roll one out here?
Keep in mind, if you want that extra TE, Utecht, you have to call for the substitution now, then get the play concept to Peyton Manning, ignoring for a moment the fact that he'll likely chicken dance his way into what he wants based on the concept you send out. So you still have a few seconds to pick the play, but you need to change the personnel now or just go with who's out there. Who's out there was chosen to move down field, not to push the ball over the goalline. Anyway, the defense will substitute according to what you choose here so just go head and go with something.
What did you choose? Good choice. Undeniably the right answer, your choice. Should you Colts as a team fail to score here, it will still be apparent and obvious to the casual viewer that this choice was the right choice.
You were aware that you weren't just picking run or pass, right? We need a play. You have a handful of plays designated for the goalline. You are aware that this deviates modestly from what has been the kingpin of your offense since Peyton Manning & Tom Moore (played by you) were brought together.
Known for a handful of subtle variations out of a handful of basic formations with 11 personnel, your offense has been far less complex, far less multiple, than nearly every other offense in the league. Your offense has excelled due to superb talent, sublime execution, and your QB's peerless ability to dynamically check & audible in & out of the most tactically advantageous plays against what the defense has, is, and are trying to do. As Chris Brown of Smart Football describes it:
The Colts not only had just a handful of passing concepts, a shocking amount of the production and calls came from just three: 1) the "Levels" pass concept, 2) a three-verticals play where the receivers could break off their routes short, and a deep crossing concept.
Inside the 10-yard line, there's not enough vertical space for any of these three plays to work well. Even breaking off the routes short is a concept predicated on driving back the DBs hard to create underneath space. Additionally, the timing of the routes to the dropback must be considered. While the Colts' play concepts could be run from 3, 5 & 7-step drops, with corresponding permutations to the routes, we'll want to run with 3-step drops here. We want everything to develop quickly, and we want to be able to hit it as soon as it develops. We're not taking a shot for a chunk, we're just trying to break the plane.
By calling a GL play, you're deviating modestly from what brought you to this point in the season. A less secure football mind might think here, "if I run the ball and we get stuffed, every fan & pundit will say: you have Peyton Manning. Why didn't you throw it?" But we're more secure than that and won't waste a femtosecond of our play clock on the matter.
Let's review our choices. The Colts playbook of this era has never been leaked online. The offense has always been an outlier, an anomaly, but one of the more analogous playbooks available to this exercise, the 2006 Dallas Cowboys, opened the season with 3 GL passing concept plays.
That seems low. But the concepts take multiple permutations, according to protection assignments and defensive front dynamics (personnel, alignment). The passing routes have subtle variation depending on the actual call sent out to the QB: a specific permutation. They're typically predicated on a run play concept, they typically focus on either spreading horizontally or bunching to coerce extra space elsewhere. They're tricky & multiple enough to remain viably in play for long stretches, and since they're tailored across the board to both work with and exploit the constrained space, and built to target getting possession of the ball over the goalline, with no concern for YAC, the creative playground here is not as varied as one might think.
Here are a couple of those Cowboys GL passing concepts, each with two basic protection assignments:
These employ classic GL tactics. The Colts have no fullback on the roster, however. We don't use these formations. Extrapolating a bit from Chris Brown's work, we'll repurpose two of the Colts' less common midfield concepts as GL pass plays here.
This is not a great GL play; the defensive front is highly likely to have defenders in position to blitz, on the goalline, and our play must take that into account. This plays is built to beat safeties, which can still be a viable tactic in the end zone, but this is not a play built to isolate an individual to beat by fabricating a mismatch or by winning a turf position just long enough to make a reception. But we do have an ability to high-low the CB on the offensive right as the TE releases into the flat, and 2 in-breaking routes from the other side ready to exploit the additional space created by a midfielder covering the TE, stacked to help one corner get lost in the crowd as we cross.
Brown notes that Bill Walsh learned a few things about the slant. Some of it is why it's not a great GL option, but for now it's what we have. Since we are at the GL, the pertinent pieces:
- Slant is best weak.
- Throwing strongside you should use dropback and weak flow.
- Throw ball to middle of receiver and above his waist -- if anything slow him up to catch it.
- Receiver should always be aware of the relationship between corner and safety.
- Hop inside and come under control in hole.
- Ball should be caught 1 ft. in front of receivers' numbers.
You can see the inherent danger of this play; you've got to really, really thread the needle inside. There will be a couple defenders camped out, watching your QB, in the middle of the field. 1 ft. in front of your receiver, if you're throwing it to him.
Is this your play? Depends on the strengths and abilities of your guys, versus their guys. The flat TE is Utecht -- you put him back in, didn't you? -- who's not a great receiver. Our top three receivers are superb, but they excel at execution, separation and consistency. Not things to leverage much on the GL. You've done your homework, so you know Quentin Jammer has a problem with pass interference, and young Antonio Cromartie's game is primarily built on speed of recovery. Drayton Florence had a good year at nickel, and has rather kicked your butt today.
Of course since you're smart you've been making mental notes all game about how these matchups have played out, and what the implications are for the soundness of your GL plays. You don't need to spend play clock seconds NOW to decide which play is better than the other. Right? Anyway, let's see what the next option is.
This is Brown's name for it. As our GL surrogate play, we'll flatten the tops of those X & Z route, which will attack the safeties and certainly occupy them, being the two best receivers. This play is really designed for Clark. With Florence likely the nickel corner assigned to the not-really-a-TE, Clark should get a step if not two, on the defender, on the way to the sideline, and a good back shoulder throw will let Clark use his body advantage to shield out the defender. Addai and Utecht would be the 2nd & 3rd reads, here.
The Running play
Every run play is still in play for GL, remember. We're the Colts, so most of our running success has been the pin & pull outside zone:
The downside to this high-efficiency, low-explosive run play is its vulnerability to be blown up for a loss of yardage by a single playside defender beating his block. Any one of those frontside defenders gets past his man, this play is toast. We've been running really well all year. Over the long haul, this is the play, the core of our running game. On an individual play, when we really need a TD, it's a viable option but not a super safe one.
The other thing is you're removing Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison from participating as factors in the play. Reggie Wayne will be blocking, not exactly his wheelhouse. Utecht will be blocking, though, and that's not a disadvantage. You remembered to put him back out there, right?
Whichever personnel package you went with, there's a question about whether your opponent not matching your personnel warrants a contingency. When it comes to criticizing calls at penultimate moments, this is something that came into play, so we need to explore it. On the one hand, this might be a good thing. This might bring about a potential mismatch, and you might happen to have a play that's just tailored for exploiting it. On the other hand, it might not be a good thing.
Or maybe it's both. Maybe there's conceivably something that you might want to try, if you see a heavy package against your two TEs, or a dime package against your two TEs, or some other conceivable package-level mismatch, but maybe it also opens a fundamental vulnerability of some sort to your play concept, or your initial protection assignments. These Chargers are one of those assignment-confusing 3-4 fronts, with Merriman & Phillips providing strong pressure on the edges. Might be hard to be able to take advantage.
This contingency consideration is added to, let's see, how many other pieces of information that need to be considered & processed?
- Down & Distance
- Game Clock: not just how much time do we have to score, but how much time should we try to leave or not leave, for the opponent? How likely and quickly are they liable to score? If we have no time or want to conserve time, do we want to call a play that includes motion?
- Number of timeouts for each team
- Score differential. do we NEED a touchdown? Don't underestimate how many situations still actually keep a field goal in play. Beyond 60 seconds, there is some chance & opportunity to pursue another possession. Being down by anything less than 11 points keeps a FG in play. When the urgency for a TD is not absolute, the logistics of how much we want to abate the risk of a turnover or go for broke on trying to score a TD shapes what kind of calls we might want to make. We might want to save timeouts, might want to conserve game clock...
- Design focus of the play: ...and we might want to ensure the ball is downed close to the horizontal middle of the field or toward the left hash mark (since our kicker is right-footed). If we take the low on the high-low combo on the offensive right, for instance, and wind up a couple yards closer but still outside the end zone on 4th down, we may elect to attempt a field goal. We wouldn't want to call a pass play with a combo route to the offensive right with a triangle read progression within that combo, making any success a play that finishes outside the right hash mark and subsequently set up a situation where our kicker needs to really bend it to the left to get it in.
- Offensive Personnel and their strengths & weaknesses
- Defensive Personnel and whether they've substituted DL for LB, LB for DL, LB for DB, or DB for LB
- What kind of front is the defense known for, and what are it's advantages and disadvantages relative to your offense, personnel, package, concept and situation
- Protection Assignment. What permutation of the play concept is best suited for the front & personnel?
- Does the play package entail any route adjustments or audibles? Do they remain viable & sound in the down & distance as well as personnel matchups? Maybe your GL play just has static route designations, but maybe not, and maybe you want to use adjustments to your advantage according to what the defensive tendencies have been, and you want to send in a play that's built to do so.
- Play dropback permutation: we've surmised that we want a 3-step drop, here, and corresponding routes, but we may not have predetermined that. This is a common halftime adjustment, so it may be predetermined by this point, but if we've made other adjustments, it may remain in flux.
- The game up til now. What's worked? What hasn't? We don't want to bang our head against a brick wall. Work smarter, not harder, is a mantra some folks use.
That's 13 different conceptual pieces of the puzzle, only a few of which are static facts rather than relativistic and multidimensional factors, and you have 10 seconds. Yes, about half of this will likely have been somewhat predetermined, by the time you reach the penultimate climax of the game inside of 3 minutes, but that half is still relational and contingent on situational factors that arise dynamically at the penultimate moment, not beforehand. You have a GL package to pull from, but how to tailor them to game situation as it arises is a bit of an art.
And when did you string together an end game package, anyway? During the other 15-second segments you had earlier in the game? Commercial breaks and when the other team has the ball is obviously a critical time for a coordinator, which just goes to exemplify the impact that turnovers and 3-and-outs can have on the management of one side of the ball during a game.
Alea Iacta Est
Now we're ready, right? This zeroth second has seemed to take forever. OK, we're ready. Let's do it. Call it.
Did you call the right play? Of course you did. You're a scholar and a gentleman and you know that there is no right play. There are questionable choices. Questionable choices prove themselves wise or poor, after a sufficient sample size. Individual results do not singly prove a play to be situationally bad, or football would be left with no more plays to run.
Of course plays are not proven to be situationally sound, either, until they've been run a few times and have had some success. Coaches recognize many of the flaw & vulnerabilities of a given play, but not all of them, all the time. Plays have been vetted over time, through collegiate ranks, preseason, practice, the drawing board, and so on. Virtually all of them are derivatives of proven plays that precede them, with subtle tweaks constituting a new play. You didn't roll out an experimental new play at the goalline in the penultimate moment of an elimination contest. These plays have been time-attested. They've worked. They're your go-to's.
And they're merely mini-plans. Concepts of coordination, for 11 men to work together to achieve a tactical purpose. There's little time to weigh the minutiae of marginally safe or risk calls relative to one another, and certainly not predicated on such minimalist and ignorant premises as run vs. pass or the simple fact that one very good player is on your roster. If that were the case, the Colts would always pass.
How did your play turn out, by the way? You made the right call, but as you know, that can still yield the wrong result, and vice versa. I bet you scored and won the game, being as you made the right call. For the record, because there is always a record, here is Tom Moore's actual result to compare:
Three passes to Joseph Addai? What a fucking idiot.
Teddy Roosevelt was wrong. It is indeed the critic who counts, and not the doer of deeds. Failing while daring greatly is a surefire ticket to infamy, and cold & timid souls preside on the throne of opinion, sovereign over both victory and defeat.