Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Timeouts and Coaches' Challenges

Today’s lesson explains timeouts and strategies for using them, and the coach’s challenges.  You may have already seen the challenges in action during the preseason, and there are some changes to replay procedures that may affect how often you see challenges from here on out.

Each team is given three timeouts during each half of the game (i.e., three to be used during the first two quarters and two for the second two quarters).  You either “use it or lose it”; if you only use one timeout during the first half of the game, you still only get three to use in the second half, not five.  As a rule, coaches would rather save their timeouts for the end of a half, especially toward the end of the game.  They would rather not have to use a timeout at the beginning of the game because, for example, the players are confused and aren’t sure what the play is going to be.  It’s embarrassing, and they’ll probably wish they had that timeout back as they approach halftime.
Why call a time out?  Glad you asked.  There are lots of reasons.  Here a few--some that are obvious and some that are more interesting:

1.      Avoiding a delay of game penalty:  The offense has only 40 seconds after a play is over to snap the ball for the next play.  These 40 seconds are counted down on the play clock, which is separate from the game clock.  If the play clock runs out (or “expires”) before the next play starts, the offense is penalized with a delay of game penalty and loses five yards.  Most of the time teams get the next play started without a problem.  However, things can go wrong (the wrong players are on the field, there are too many players on the field, the quarterback can’t hear the signals from the coach, etc.) and the offense has to call a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty.
2.       Preserving time:  A team that is behind in the score close to halftime or the end of the game will call a timeout to stop the game clock.  If that team is on offense, stopping the game clock gives the team more plays to run, and opportunities to score.  If the team is on defense, stopping the game clock forces the team that is in the lead to make plays instead of trying to “run out the clock” by taking their sweet time between plays.  This way, if the offense fails to make a first down, the team that’s behind will get the ball back and have a chance to score.
3.       To avoid a procedural penalty:  There are other penalties beside the delay of game penalty that can be called on either the offense or defense before the next play starts.  These generally fall under the category of “procedural” penalties.  Examples include illegal substitutions, or offside, where a defensive player may still be on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.  If a coach or player sees that his team might be about to incur such a penalty, he will call a timeout.
4.       To ice the kicker:  You’ll see this happen a lot, and it is often the subject of debate as to its ethical status.  Say a team is behind by two or three points at the end of the game.  There is one second left in the game and that team has brought out its place kicker to attempt a field goal to win, or tie the score.  Even if that team has called a timeout before sending its kicker onto the field, the opposing coach can call a timeout a split second before the ball is snapped to the kicker.  This is called "icing" the kicker, and  is an attempt to psych out the kicker'  The coach calling the timeout will actually place himself right next to the official on his sideline so he can call the timeout into the guy’s ear at the exact right moment.  By the time that official has blown his whistle to stop the play, the kicker has probably already kicked the ball.  Of course, it won’t matter if the kick was good.  This tactic is seldom effective, though, and the kicker usually makes the field goal on the next play.  Unless, of course, it's a very long field goal attempt, like this instance where icing was successful:

Each coach is given two challenges to use during the game when he believes that the officials on the field made the wrong ruling about a play.  The error could concern several things, including:  whether a touchdown was made; whether a player stepped out of bounds; or whether a fumble occurred. 
When a coach thinks the officials got it wrong, he throws a red flag onto the field where the referee will see it.  The referee (who, as you know from a previous post, is the head official) will then come over to the coach, who will explain what, exactly, he is challenging.  The coach needs to be clear about what his challenge is because the referee must confine his review of the play to that issue.
Once the referee hears the coach’s complaint and determines that the challenge can be considered, he will then step over to a covered video monitor where he will watch replays of the play in question.  Note I said that the referee has to determine that the challenge can be considered.  A coach cannot challenge certain rulings, such as a penalty or an instance when a penalty was not called but maybe should have been.
    If the referee confirms the ruling, the team that raised the challenge will lose one of its timeouts.  Therefore, a team must still have at least one timeout remaining for the coach to make a challenge.  The coach also needs to decide whether it is worth the risk of losing a timeout.  If the ruling is reversed, however, the team does not lose a timeout.  If a coach uses both of his allotted challenges, and is correct on both, he will earn a third challenge for that game.
And so we come across another reason for calling a timeout.  A team might call a timeout to buy time to decide whether it should challenge the last play.  Most teams now have an assistant in their booth in the press box who will look at the replays and determine whether the coach should challenge.  A timeout gives them time to make this decision. 
Coaches may not use their challenges in the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters.  Instead, officials in the press box will review a close play before the next play starts and page the referee to let him know that he needs to review that play.  Thus, another reason to call a timeout; a coach may want to give those officials time to see the replays. 

The NFL has changed its procedure for reviews.  Starting this season, every touchdown is being reviewed by the off-field replay officials.  Once they review a touchdown, they send a page to the referee to tell him that the score is confirmed or that the referee must review it.
Two thoughts on this change.  First, this is too conservative.  In my opinion, the League is moving too far in taking the human element out of the officiating.  Most judgments made by the field officials are based on events that take place in mere seconds, and often only fractions of a second.  That there may be mistakes in the course of a game is a fact of life and teams must be able to overcome this element of chance to be real contenders.
Second, this will impact how coaches decide to use their challenges.  For example, I would expect we'll see a dramatic decrease in the number of challenges used over touchdowns.  If a coach knows that a touchdown is already getting a second look, he is more likely to save his challenges for other situations.  Also, most coaches will probably accept the call from the reviewing officials once they send their message to the referee.  To me, this takes a considerable amount of the drama out of the game, which isn’t really a good thing.
But that’s just my humble opinion.  We’ll have to see how it goes, but with this and other rules changes this year (see the post on kickoffs), I’m already missing the old days.

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