November 20, 2007

Go Back, Jack, and Do It Again

What went around a few weeks ago, came around tonight for Mike Shanahan. And that gives me a chance to vent on a pet peeve of mine.

If you don't watch a lot of football, you may not know that it has become vogue for NFL coaches to try gaining an advantage of some sort by calling a timeout when the opponent is attempting a last-second field goal at the end of a game or the end of a half.

Since coaches were granted the option a couple years ago of calling timeouts themselves instead of reserving that right to players on the field, the new idea (if it can be granted that lofty status) has been to pick the exact moment to call the timeout, so that the referee's whistle cannot be blown in time to keep the actual play...the snap, the hold and the kick...from being run, but the play is nonetheless nullified.

This tactic is not to be confused with the time-honored football tradition of "icing the kicker", a timeout taken well before the intended snap with the message to the kicker being unambiguous.... "We're going to make you think about this kick before we let you try to make it."

Instead, the new message to the kicker, and the practical effect of the tactic is..."If you're going to beat us with this field goal, you're going to have to make it twice." That is, unless I have another timeout, and I want to pull this stunt again on your next try, in which case you'll have to make it three times.

This is not strategy. It's unsportsmanlike, and it's an insult to the athletes who are on the field trying to compete in a fair contest of skills. It is the equivalent of a high jumper's coach intentionally knocking the bar off the standard just as the opposing team's jumper is going into his takeoff. "Hey, no harm buddy...just do it again." It's Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown, without the cheap laugh.

Ahh...but it's within the rules, so we can't blame the coaches for using it to their teams' advantage.

Yes we can. It's idiotic. It wastes time. It's not football. It's tacky gamesmanship.

It was Denver's Shanahan who made big news with this ploy when the Broncos pulled off a win against Oakland in Week Two. The Raiders were celebrating a 52-yard, last-second game-winning field goal by Sebastian Janikowski, when the referee ruled that Shanahan had managed to call timeout before the snap. Genius. And I wouldn't be here writing about it if Janikowski's second attempt had been good. Denver wins in OT.

The following week the Raiders, having learned at the knee of the great Shanahan, pulled the same stunt against the Browns in a last-second situation, achieving the same result. Cleveland's Phil Dawson made a 40-yarder as time expired. But, owing to the leading edge coaching of the Raiders' Lane Kiffin, who somehow, by a feat of incredible timing, managed to trick the Browns into thinking that they only had to make one field goal to win the game, the Raiders were allowed a second chance to block Dawson's kick. And they did. Raiders win. The legend grows.

The following Saturday I watched that slave to fashion, the U. of Florida's genius coach Urban Meyer, pull the same deception at the NCAA level. If I recall correctly, the opponent made both field goals, but Meyer had joined the club. Great...now I can watch this lunacy on Saturdays too.

It was apparent right away that this silliness would only be mitigated in one of two ways. The most sensible would be to insist that the NFL Competition Committee do away with this invitation to deception. One reasonable solution would be to prohibit a timeout call with less than five (or ten?) seconds on the play clock, at least in those situations at the end of halves.

The other way to stop it is to let a few coaches get burned with the ploy by nullifying a first kick miss, and then watching an opposing kicker nail his second try at it. So it did my heart just a little good tonight to see that scenario play out in the MNF game....and to see it happen to Shanahan was a bonus. The 56-yarder that the Titans' Rob Bironas made at the end of the half was made on his second try, after Shanahan had nullified an attempt on which Bironas missed badly. Unfortunately, it didn't cost Shanahan the game. Baby steps.

One of the things that has amused me about this whole misguided, anti-competitive nonsense is the intensity and studied earnestness that Shanahan and his lodge brothers affect, as they tackle the challenge of this shrewd and complicated maneuver. Right up in the ear of the official on the sidelines, they watch the opponents line up over the ball, all the while making sure the official knows that they are about to commit coaching innovation....pretty soon now...I wanna call.....this is touchy.....just one more second...Time Out!

How do they do it? Move over, Paul Brown.

UPDATE 12/3: I was reminded by a David Freddoso post at the Corner that the second consecutive trick timeout I suggested above would be illegal in the NFL, and that just such a scenario occurred in yesterday's Bills-Redskins game. After making a 51-yarder in the final seconds, only to have it nullified by a Joe Gibbs timeout, Gibbs called another one on the re-kick, and the resulting 15-yard penalty made the Bills kicker's eventual game-winner much easier, from just 36 yards out. A Hall of Fame coach...reduced to this kind of silly gamesmanship. Say it ain't so, Joe. Glad you got burned.

Posted by dan at November 20, 2007 12:19 AM