More Sports:

February 04, 2016

Time's [not really] yours ... Or: poor clock management in football and our flawed analysis of it

Eagles NFL
020416_Reid-Pederson_AP Orlin Wagner/AP

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, left, talks with former offensive coordinator and new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson during 2015 training camp.

All NFL coaches know the importance of "the process" vs. "the result." While each is inseparable from the other, they are very different parts of a larger game. And all too often, the analysis surrounding the game neglects to make that distinction.

At times, the result -- in this case winning or losing -- can be directly linked to the process -- the coaching decisions and player execution -- leading up to it. Other times, however, a correct gameplan can still lead to a loss. Despite the lack of influence a coach has between snap and whistle, we're all too eager to find fault in their "process" rather than giving credit to an opposing player or realizing that sometimes a pass gets dropped or a kick missed.

"Time management is only critical when you lose. The only time that time management really gets evaluated by the media and TV experts is when the game is lost, and they think it was lost because of time management," former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil said.

Amid all the variables rapidly changing as the game reaches its most critical point, there is one constant: time. To coaches, time can be an invaluable resources and also a tremendous burden; the less of it you have, the more it weighs on you.

In a town as football-crazed as Philadelphia, time -- or rather, the management of that time -- doesn't always appear to be on our side.

During his 14 years as the head coach of the Eagles, Andy Reid did a lot of winning. And whether or not you were happy to see him go, there's little question that he was, at the very least, a good NFL coach. He was far from perfect -- show me the coach that is -- and one of his most notorious flaws was his in-game coaching abilities, specifically his clock management and the way he used timeouts.

Enter Doug Pederson -- a rookie coach plucked right from the Reid coaching tree. In fact, his entire career as an NFL assistant came under the tutelage of the winningest coach in Eagles history, the last three as his offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Clearly, Reid has had a big impact on Pederson. And while that brings with it somewhat of a comfort level, it also likely scares those that fear Pederson will fall short in many of the same areas as Reid, a problem only compounded by his lack of experience.

Dr. Ciarán Dalton, a Philly-based sports psychologist and soccer coach at Swarthmore College, believes that regardless of experience, a ticking clock will always have an impact on both mind and body. 

"All coaches, Andy Reid included, they all have their weaknesses," Dalton said. "I just think something like bad clock management gets a whole lot of attention because it does have a big impact on the game. … One of the things that can happen in those pressure moments is that our mind just goes blank and we may have this plan put in place. But then when we have to implement it and think about it, we just kind of fall apart."

Even coaches that have reached the pinnacle of the sport are not immune to these kind of mistakes.

"I’ve made a mistake a number of times and when the game's all over I wish I would have done something else," former Eagles coach and Super Bowl XXXIV champion Dick Vermeil said during a recent phone interview with PhillyVoice. "Not when we won the game, but when we lost it." 

"That’s it," he continued, as if he suddenly rediscovered the differences between how outsiders and coaches analyze performance. "Time management is only critical when you lose. The only time that time management really gets evaluated by the media and TV experts is when the game is lost, and they think it was lost because of time management."

Nail, meet head.

*        *        * 

Now, slightly more three years removed from Reid's ouster, the Birds have parted ways with his successor, Chip Kelly, and have since moved on to Pederson, their second coach of the post-Andy era.

The Reid-Pederson bond goes back much further than the start of former quarterback's coaching career. It goes back further than Reid's first year as a head coach, when he benched Pederson in favor of Donovan McNabb. It goes all the way back to their days in Green Bay, where Reid was the QB coach and Pederson was backing up Brett Favre.

“I think the biggest [advice Reid gave me ] was ‘be yourself,’” Pederson told 97.5 The Fanatic’s Mike Missanelli during a radio interview Tuesday afternoon. “And No. 2, be honest – be honest with the guys. Build relationships in the building. Don’t isolate yourself from anybody. And I think that was the biggest thing Coach Reid shared with me during this process.”

And it's that kind of kinship that has some running for the hills. Others, however, even those that don't know him, see their relationship as reason to believe.

"I really don't know him," Vermeil said of Pederson. "I just can’t imagine Andy Reid recommending somebody he doesn’t have great confidence in and would want to hire himself."

Fears that the 48-year-old rookie coach inherited his clock management skills from Reid were only amplified during the duo's final game together on the Kansas City sideline, a seven-point loss to the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. Making matters worse was that the game was played the Saturday between when news of the Pederson hire first leaked and when the Eagles confirmed it.

Down 27-13 in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs took possession with just over six and a half minutes left. Instead of running the hurry-up, Pederson -- who admitted he was calling the plays at the time -- allowed Alex Smith and the offense to methodically march down the field, ultimately scoring a touchdown with 1:18 remaining (and all three of their timeouts).

The Chiefs would never get the ball back and the Patriots would go on to win, 27-20.

Just a few days after the loss, Pederson was introduced as the Eagles new head coach. And reporters wasted no time questioning the moves he made in the fourth quarter of their loss to New England.

"[The final drive] took us time because No. 1, we did not want to give Tom Brady the ball back," Pederson said back in January at his introductory press conference. "We knew we were going to score. We knew we had timeouts and time. We were also limited with the number of receivers; we had Jeremy Maclin out of the game at the time. We were down numbers. We felt like at that point, not to give the ball back to Tom Brady. We still had timeouts and time, even with the onside kick, to put ourselves in a position to tie the football game."

There are more than a few questionable parts of that response, but basically he's saying they liked their odds of recovering an onside kick over giving the ball back to Brady and the Patriots offense. 

While on The Fanatic, Pederson was pressed by Mike Missanelli on the issue of clock management and specially his above response.

Doug Pederson: “Who would want to give Tom Brady the ball back?”

Missanelli: “Yeah, but you also had a two-touchdown deficit and you had to score as quickly as possible.”

DP: “And we had timeouts in our pocket. You had time and timeouts. That’s what you want at the end of a football game.”

MM: “So you would not revise that answer you gave at the press conference?”

DP: “No, because in those situations, head coaches evaluate those situation, coordinators evaluate those situations. And we sat there on Sunday morning, we evaluated it and said, ‘You know what? We would’ve done the same thing.’ And then I take that now, and I learn from it, and I move forward."

Making the wrong decision is one thing. Failing to realize that mistake, even in hindsight, is something much worse. If Pederson still believes their approach was the right one, how could he possibly have learned from the situation? There's a big difference between believing in your process and blindly defending it in the face of obvious mistakes. 

"One way to look at it," Dalton explained, "is it’s pretty much the normal human response when you feel this really heightened emotion -- whether it's significant sadness, really high anxiety, or you feel that pressure or overwhelming anger -- one of the first things that happens is that our judgment gets a little bit cloudy, we make bad decisions."

Sometimes -- as was nearly the case in Pederson's finale with the Chiefs -- those bad decisions defy all logic and don't cost you the game. Even after all the time Kansas City wasted scoring that fourth-quarter touchdown against New England, this was the difference between a potential game-tying pick-six and the game-sealing first down.

And the fact that something this random can be the difference in how we analyze nearly everything leading up to it is beyond flawed.

*        *        * 

Now retired from coaching, Vermeil is able to look back specific points in his career as if they are still photographs, singular moments frozen in time, that when viewed in aggregate reveal a long and storied career. In real time, however, the life of an NFL coach moves at a much different speed, a speed so fast that it ultimately breeds the "should haves" and "could haves" Vermeil can now reflect on individually and through the perspective of hindsight.

By his own admission, Vermeil made more than a few mistakes during his 15 years as an NFL head coach, the first seven of which were spent coaching the Eagles.

It's nearly impossible to think of a coach that excels in clock management. If you can think of one with a spotless reputation in that regard, odds are they haven't been coaching very long. Even Bill Belichick, respected as one of the smartest coaches in the league, was criticized heavily following his team's loss to the Broncos in the AFC title game. That's because we rarely credit them when a late-game decision works, and all too often focus blame on their decision-making when things go wrong. 

That is a result of our troubling inability as a whole to evaluate the process. Instead, much more attention is paid to the result. When talking about how the game impacted playoff seeding, that may be all that really matters. But when attempting to analyze why and how the result came to be, the process should carry far more weight.

"The person that was going to complain when he went for it and didn’t get it, is the same person that would complain if he played it safe and still wound up losing. That’s just the nature of it."

Take Belichick's 20-18 loss to the Broncos, for example. After a pair of failed fourth-down attempts -- both with his team in field goal range -- the Patriots finally got in the end zone to cut Denver's lead from 20-12 to 20-18, and was a two-point conversion away from tying the game.

They failed to convert and went on to lose. Immediately after the game, Belichick was ripped for opting to go for it twice on fourth down instead of kicking field goals. Had they made both, his team would have been down two points (not eight) on their final drive and rather than needing a touchdown and two-point conversion just to tie the game, they would have been able to win with one more field goal.

Despite the outcome, the process was sound.

With just over six minutes left in the game, and his team already in the red zone, how was Belichick to know that his defense was going to force the Broncos into back-to-back three-and-outs? Furthermore, his team nearly tied the game anyway. Had the Patriots won it in overtime, those criticizing the veteran coach's play calling would have remained silent. But they didn't win, and Belichick's process was labeled a flawed one.

It was funny to see how quickly it turned; not even a half hour earlier, Twitter was full of praise for Belichick's gutsy move to go for it. Where were all these people that wanted him play conservatively hiding prior to the failed fourth-down attempt? Most likely, they were too busy frantically tweeting for Belichick to go for it before he even made the call himself. How else could they take credit for it later?

For Vermeil, this phenomenon of is all too familiar.

"I think that happens more than half the time," he said. "The person that was going to complain when he went for it and didn’t get it, is the same person that would complain if he played it safe and still wound up losing. That’s just the nature of it. For a person sitting with a pencil in hand watching the game on television, it’s always easier."

So perhaps it's appropriate that Vermeil's most vivid memory of a clock management mistake is likely different from the ones you remember. Mainly, because he won the game. And not just any game, but the game.

"It’s weird, but the Super Bowl that we won [is the clock management error that stands out most]," Vermeil said, well aware of the fact that he was criticizing the biggest win of his career. "When the game got tied up with two minutes left to go, we scored in one play. Now, we were geniuses for scoring from 72 yards out for a touchdown to take the lead and eventually win the game. But we were also almost idiots for scoring in one play because we had to stop them on the one-yard line just to win it on the last play of the game. It’s just so hard."

Because the St. Louis Rams were able to beat the Tennessee Titans by a yard back in 2000, the 79-year-old former coach may be one of his only critics. He even acknowledges that scoring so quickly was far from the worst thing to that could have happened -- "If we try to run more time off the clock like that, we might not score [at all]," he added -- but it was definitely less than ideal.

No one knows how that game would be remembered if Kevin Dyson's arms were just a little bit longer. And that's the point.

*        *        * 

Unfortunately for Pederson, little can be done to change the way we analyze these decisions between now and when he coaches his first regular season game in September. Therefore, he's going to need to avoid any major late-game mistakes until after he's earned himself a few wins.

Because of his ties to Reid, any questionable decision involving clock management is going to be put under a microscope by media and fans alike -- just look at what happened during his final game with the Chiefs. There will likely be little room for rookie mistakes, and far less for those that could ultimately cost the Eagles a win.

But if Pederson fails in those spots, his inexperience won't be the only reason.

"Every game is different," Vermeil said when asked if he felt more comfortable in late-game situations as his career progressed. "What you're always striving to be, within those last two minutes of the game, is in charge. You're in charge of the game and then there is no pressure last two minutes other than running the clock out. That’s your No. 1 goal. 

"When you find yourself under pressure, then you start building a decision process, which has already been rehearsed over and over through your experiences. But you can never duplicate what actually happens. You can never duplicate -- it’s always something slightly different."

Perhaps that explains why, despite two decades of experience and a pair of Super Bowl wins, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin let his team down time after time -- no pun intended -- during the 2015 season.

There's also a scientific reason even the best coaches struggle as the game races toward its conclusion.

"I think part of it has to do with the fact that, even at the professional level, a lot of athletes and especially a lot of coaches, are not exploring these weaknesses of theirs."

"One metaphor that I use a lot is that anxiety and stress is kind of like a burning fire," Dr. Dalton said. "And in these really important games, it’s going to burn pretty hot and pretty bright. But most athletes and coaches tend to add fuel to that fire with all the thinking that they do; they’re over-thinking. And then that’s when they start to get overwhelmed."

According to Dalton, that anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways.

"One of the most common symptoms of anxiety is difficulty concentrating," he said. "Some people will experience racing thoughts which make it very challenging to focus on the task at hand when in the throes of significant anxiety. Often athletes will get 'hijacked' by thoughts of embarrassing failure or catastrophic outcomes. These racing thoughts can make it near impossible to focus and perform even the simplest acts on the field and mistakes tend to follow. The same can be true for coaches. 

"When hijacked by these thoughts of failure, some coaches might freeze or make impulsive, poorly thought-out decisions."

There are ways to avoid -- or at least limit your exposure -- to this anxiety. For Vermeil, the best way to navigate these "intense" moments was a combination of strength in numbers and delegation of powers.

"What I did is I had a guy on the sideline that was in charge of [running the clock], and also the guy on my headset in the press box," he said. "So there were three people, and I was more or less third in command."

That allowed Vermeil to focus more on what was happening on the field and less on the scoreboard. But when he needed to be alerted to the exact time, all he had to do was ask.

The neurological effects of stress and anxiety on coaches are without question. And if there is no real way to prepare yourself -- after all, every situation is different -- perhaps Pederson's best course of action is to learn how deal with the physical and mental manifestations of the anxiety that's all but certain to test him this fall.

And although it may be science, it isn't rocket science.

"I think [clock management] is something that everybody can do; I don't think you have to be a genius to do it," Vermeil added. "I just think it's better if you don't do it by yourself, especially if you're running your own offense or running your own defense and calling all that stuff. Sometimes you can say, “I have made mistakes. I have cost us” when it’s all said and done. ... 

"We’ve all made mistakes and we all wish we 'would have' done something differently. But it’s only a mistake if you don’t win. Whatever you did wrong, when you win, it’s OK."

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin