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Clock Management

Keep hope alive - With a Downfield Lateral
by: John T. Reed
Author, Football Clock Management
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A year ago, I wrote a book called Football Clock Management. In the course of writing it, I did a great deal of research. One category of that research was games that were won in dramatic fashion in the final seconds.

That category contains a surprising number of downfield-lateral plays-although fewer in recent years than in the past. It should not be that way. In fact, there should be infinitely more downfield laterals in today's football games.

The most famous downfield-lateral play in football history was Cal's five-lateral game-winning kick return in the 1982 Big Game against Stanford. That sequence actually involved a cornucopia of clock management mistakes by Stanford.

Cardinal quarterback John Elway called his fourth-down field goal timeout with :08 left in the game. He should have waited until the clock was down to :03 or : 02, thereby making their go-ahead field goal the last play of the game.

Stanford's plavers swarmed the field celebrating the field celebrating the go-ahead field goal, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. That shortened the distance the Cal ball carriers had to go to score the winning touchdown. And had the five-lateral play failed, Cal would have gotten another chance because the Stanford Band marched onto the field during the five-lateral play, thereby drawing another unsportsmanlike-conduct flag.

The Stanford band had been taught not to go onto the field until the game was over. But no one taught them that the game ends on the final whistle, not the final second. Band members inadvertently helped block for the Cal ball carriers. The trombone player who became famous when he got run over was deep in the end zone. Cal won 25-20.

In December, 1997, Lansdale (Penn.) Catholic High School "went down fighting," to use Coach Jim Alegro's words, in a close loss to their league co-champion, Upper Perkionien High School, with a seven-lateral final play of the game.

With two seconds left in the game, down 29-20, Lansdale threw a hook-and-ladder pass to senior tight end Tim Hermann. That started a sequence of seven laterals, two of them blind, which culminated in Hermann receiving the final lateral and scoring a touchdown.

Alegro says they did not practice the play per se, but that his players liked to play "keep away" with a football during the summer at the Jersey Shore and they sometimes had the scout kick return team do backward passes to teach lane discipline to the kickoff team.

NFL Films has a video called the 100 Greatest Touchdowns. They rank the touchdowns. Number one is Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception, a sort of accidental downfield lateral. The lateral was not a factor in the Rozelle-era touchdowns. But many of the "100 Greatest" were from earlier years and many of those involved downfield laterals.

For example, "Greatest" No. 28 was a blind, over-the-shoulder lateral by the New York Giants in a 1950 game against the Steelers. The ball carrier who scored on that 70-yard interception runback was Tom Landry.

Why did downfield laterals become unpopular? Turnovers. In recent decades, coaches have become appropriately aware of the importance of turnovers, and have discouraged behavior likely to lead to turnovers, like downfield laterals. But they have overdone it.

Normally, turnovers are extremely harmful. But there are two situations where they are risk-free: two-point conversion plays in high school and NFL games, and the last play of the game by a trailing team.

In high school and pro football, there is no turnover risk in two-point conversion plays. The rules say that the defense cannot advance the ball in PAT plays. Neither does their acquiring possession of it give them any field-possession or subsequent-play benefit.

A turnover on a high school or a pro two-point conversion has the exact same effect as being tackled short of the end zone. Accordingly, no high school or pro two-point conversion play should ever end in an offensive ball carrier being tackled.

The PAT ball carrier should always lateral when it becomes apparent that he is about to be tackled short of the end zone, regardless of whether his team is ahead or behind. He should lateral to a teammate if he can find one. If he cannot find one, he should lateral to the ground in the hope that a teammate will pick the ball up before an opponent falls on it.

Lateraling to the ground resulted in a touchdown for the offense in a 1981 Colts-Browns game. The Colts attempted a field goal from the Browns' 18. It was blocked. A Colt picked it up and tried to run. As he was being tackled, he lateraled to lineman. He, in turn, was about to be tackled when he lateraled to no one. The Colts holder picked the ball up and ran it in for a touchdown.

College teams cannot take the same "what have we got to lose attitude" on a two-point conversion, other than the last play of a game in which they are trailing, because NCAA rules say that the defense can advance a PAT turnover for a two-point touchdown.

Because football games have clocks, coaches and players must shift mental gears toward the end of close games. There comes a time when the leading team needs to sweitch from a "more" mindset to an "enough" mindset.

The take-a-knee play that I wrote about in the last issue is a classic example of a team ceasing their quest for more yards and more points and recognizing that they already have enough yards and points to win. By the same token, as time runs out, the trailing team must shift mental gears from a "be careful" mindset to a "what have we got to lose?" mindset.

In his book, The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman ("Dr. Z") of Sports Illustrated tells of Fran Tarkenton's greatest game-a 20-13 loss to Dallas on a Monday night in 1971. Zimmerman described Tarkenton's final minutes in a game as a "quarterback in a competitive frenzy." The game ended with Tarkenton's desperate lateral to a lineman.

The question I have is why don't all games end that way when the trailing team has the ball? Why is Fran Tarkenton singled out for being in a "competitive frenzy?" Seems to me that every player and every coach of a trailing team should be in a competitive frenzy on the last play of the game.

The standard last play of the game in football today, at least when the trailing offense is outside the red zone, is the Hail Mary pass. I have no objection to that play.

But an argument can be made can certainly be made that coaches should also consider other plays. Grand Valley State coach Tom Beck likes to fake a Hail Mary and throw a screen pass for his last play. I would add that his screen pass receivers should be taught to lateral if they are about to be tackled on that play.

Here's the rule I think all coaches should follow: when behind by eight points or less, your last offensive play of the game should be either a pass to the end zone or a lateral-before-you-are-tackled play. The lateral-before-you-are-tackled play can be a run or pass that is caught short of the end zone.

The phrase I use to teach and remind my players of the lateral-before-you-are-tackled play is a Jesse Jacksonesque "Keep hope alive." We yell "Keep hope alive" out to the players, and the players say it to each other, both when we practice the play and when the appropriate situation arises in a game.

To be sure, some of the "100 Greatest Touchdowns" came off laterals that ended up in the wrong hands. But I am not advocating a general return to the downfield lateral throughout the game, a la the leather helment days. At least not in this article, though an argument could be made that judicious increase in the use of the downfield lateral, a normal practice of option teams on quarterback keepers, might be wise in situations other than the PAT and last-play.

I am only advocating increased use of the downfield lateral in this article when there is no increased risk of losing the game because of it. If your team gets into the habit of lateraling willy nilly throughout the game, you will probably suffer a deleterious increase in turnovers.

The "Keep hope alive" play must be practiced, at least a little. I taught my ineligible receivers that they are should generally block on such a play and my eligible receivers to position themselves to receive the lateral. If you don't teach it that way, you may have 10 guys looking for laterals and no one blocking.

One of my linemen asked, wide-eyed, if it was legal for an ineligible lineman to receive and advance a lateral. I reluctantly admitted that it was, but I quickly added that someone has to block and that linemen, who are not known for their hands, must play that role.

There is a defensive coaching point here as well. If a defensive player on a leading team acquires possession of an errant last-play-of-the-game lateral, he should immediately take a knee or run out of bounds. That's the more-versus-enough principle. His team has enough points to win, especially now that the game clock has run out.

If he tries to pad his own stats by running it back, he is keeping hope alive for the other team-running an unnecessary risk that a Don Beebe-like hustler will knock the ball out of his Leon Lett-like hands short of the end zone, thereby sending the ball back the other way again.

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