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AFM Magazine

No Time to Huddle

by: John T. Reed.
Author, Football Clock Management.
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Huddling when you are behind is like lighting your cigar with $100 bills.

Let's say your team is behind by five points with 10 seconds left to go in the game. You have the ball first and 10 at midfield. You can run two plays before time runs out, if you can stop the clock after the first one. To go 50 yards in two plays, you have to average 25 yards per play.

The rule I am applying to arrive at that answer is: The number of yards you need on your next play is whatever you need to get a first down or whatever you need to win the game, whichever is greater.

Normally, four yards is enough with first down and 10, if gaining another first down is your only goal. The problem with virtually all football coaches is that they still think merely gaining another first down is their goal when, in fact, a first down is no longer enough.

If you are ahead, all you need to do to win the game is continue to gain first downs. But if you are behind, you must first score enough points to take the lead. Then and only then can you make gaining first downs your goal.

When you are behind, the math is the same as the two-plays-left-in-the-game problem above. You calculate how many yards you must gain to win the game and divide by the number of plays left in the game.

In the NFL in 1997, the average team had to gain 15.2 yards for every point they scored. Let's say you are down 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. How many points must you score to win this game? At least eight, plus you have to match every point your opponent scores in the remainder of the game.

How many more points are they likely to score? You ought to calculate that during the game based on the way the game has gone so far and the scouting reports on your team and the opponent. Let's say in this particular game, you figure your opponent will probably score 10 more points. That means you have to score 18 to win.

To score 18 points, you probably have to gain 18 points multiplied by 15.2 yards per point equals 273.6 yards in the remaining three quarters of the game.

How many plays are left? In 1997, the average NFL team rushed 454.6 times and passed 524.3 times for a total of 978.9 plays per 16-game season or 61 plays per game. So with three quarters left in the game, that means you have about 45 plays left. The typical high school game would have fewer plays per quarter (because of 12-minute quarters and fewer passes) and the typical college game would have more plays than the NFL (because NCAA rules stop the clock more often than NFL rules). Furthermore, the number of plays a team runs per game is also a function of the relative strengths and offensive schemes of the two teams in the game in question.

With 45 plays left in the game, you must average 273.6 yards divided by 45 plays, equaling 6.08 yards per play.

The vast majority of coaches would not be very worried if they were down by seven at the end of the first quarter. If you suggested to them that they had a serious problem, almost all would answer, "Nah. There's still plenty of time."

No, there's not. Teams that are down by seven points at the end of the first quarter only win about 16.6 percent of the time according to Pete Palmer, co-author of The Hidden Game of Football. That 16.6 percent also happens to be the same chance you have of winning a game of reverse Russian Roulette. Reverse Russian Roulette is where you put five bullets in a six shooter, spin the cylinder, point it at your head, and pull the trigger.

If you are down by seven at the end of the first quarter, you are in big trouble and you had better get a sense of urgency about your situation right now.

Is there anything you can do about this situation? Absolutely. Go to a hurry-up. Roughly speaking, an every-play, hurry-up offense doubles the number of plays the offense runs - taking about 20 seconds per play instead of 40. If you can stop the clock after every play, you only use about six seconds per play, but you cannot stop the clock after every play for extended periods because it would limit your play choice too much.

In the example above, going to a hurry-up would increase your remaining number of plays left in the game to 90 rather than 45, and the yards you would then need to average per play would be only 273.6 divided by 90, equaling 3.04. The average run gained 4.0 yards in the NFL in 1997; the average pass, 5.7.

The primary purpose of clock management is to increase the number of plays you can run when you are behind, and to decrease the number of plays your opponent can run when you are ahead. Actually, it's more complicated than that, but that's the general idea.

Every coach knows that short-yardage situations have a high success probability for the offense and long-yardage situations have a low success probability. But hardly any coach understands that the long- and short-yardage probabilities apply to winning the game as well as to gaining a first down.

Huddling while the game clock is running wastes time, thereby shortening the game in terms of the number of plays that can be run. That helps the leading team and hurts the trailing team.

I have never understood the purpose of huddling. The huddle was invented by Gallaudet College, a school for the deaf. Their quarterback used hand signs to communicate plays to the players and they found that they had to form a circle of players around the quarterback so the opponent could not see the hand signals.

Take, for example, Manny Matsakis, Dana Dimel's new offensive coordinator at Wyoming and former head coach at Emporia State. His teams never huddle. Like Matsakis, I don't even think there is any need to huddle when your team is in a slow-down, although you certainly have the time. Even deaf football teams should never huddle.

A huddle takes about 20 seconds. You can run four stop-the-clock-after-each-play plays in 20 seconds. Those plays take about six seconds each. The fourth play would be started with two seconds left on the game clock. For every three huddles you hold when the game clock is running, you shorten the game by 60 seconds or 10 stop-the-clock-after-each play plays.

If you are ahead, that's not a problem. Indeed, it would be bad clock management not to be in a maximum slowdown in the vast majority of cases when you are ahead. But if you are behind, huddling is crazy. It increases the number of yards you must gain per play to win.

When the world becomes more enlightened about clock management, the use of a huddle by a trailing team when the game clock is running may trigger gambling investigations by the league and law-enforcement authorities. Huddling, like many things in football, is a mindless ritual left over from a forgotten era when quarterbacks called plays.

You don't need a huddle to communicate plays to your team. For example, Matsakis sends his plays in by giving every player two wrist-worn plans: one red and one green. Each list has 40 plays numbered 1 through 40. Each number includes the formation, play, and snap count. For example, Green 23 might say "I right 26 power trap on two." On the sideline, Matsakis or his assistant would hold up a sign saying "G23." All 11 players would look at their green wrist plan for number 23 and run that play from that formation on that snap count.

If "I-right 26 power trap" was a play a coach wanted to run more than once during the quarter, he would list that same play under several different numbers and colors. For example, he might be able to call that play using green 23, green six, red 12, red 17, and red 35.

Teams that cannot afford two wrist plans for every player can use a simple number code to send in a play. For example, you might hold up a board showing four numbers. One would be a dummy, two would be added together to get the play number, and the fourth would signify whether the play was odd or even. For example, play six odd might be 26 power trap and play six even might be 26 power-trap pass.

The 26 power-trap pass play could be sent quickly to all 11 players by holding up a board that said 6972. The "6" means nothing. You add "9" and "7" to get 16 which means play six (use the last digit of the sum when the sum is two digits). And "2" would indicate that you are running the even or play-action-pass version of the play. You could send in the exact same play, "6 even," precisely 500 different ways, e.g., 1338, 9884, 6066, 7240, etc.

The huddle is not the only aspect of football where time is insufficiently taken into account. There are other common football actions which have unappreciated clock-management ramifications (see the accompanying table).

Coaches need to avoid those activities which waste or conserve time inappropriately. Some, like huddles and using messengers to send in plays, can be easily eliminated with no adverse effects. Others have some benefit that would be lost if they were not used, like motion, shifts, cadence, and audibles. However, the benefit of these actions is often not worth the time penalty paid.

For example, audibles are useful to take advantage of unsound defensive alignments or to get out of a doomed play. But audibles also take time - about seven seconds. Seven seconds may not sound like much, but it adds up. The length of the game is reduced by seven hurry-up plays (six seconds) for every six times you call an audible when the game clock is running.

Offensive schemes heavy on audibles, like the Buffalo Bills early-'90s "K Gun," are not good come-from-behind offenses, simply because each play takes more game-clock time to get going. To put it another way, offenses that frequently use audibles operate at a significantly slower hurry-up pace than offenses without audibles.

Offensive coordinators all have two- and four-minute drills in their play books. But those are only effective for short periods of time. Every offensive coordinator needs whole-game hurry-up and slow-down sections in their play books. The hurry-up play book should have more clock-stopping plays like sweeps, run-pass options, and sideline passes and relatively few plays requiring motion, shifts, or audibles. Trailing teams have no time for huddles.

John Reed can be reached at


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