Did you ever notice how, when starting out at their own side of the field and needing a touchdown at the end to win or tie, NFL teams often pull out the win or tie when they have somewhere close to two minutes – but, depending on exactly where they start on their own side of the field, and if they have any timeouts or not), almost never do so when they have only about 45 seconds less – or closer to one minute than almost two?
There is a fundamental reason for this that is often not fully accommodated into the strategy and play calling of leading teams when running out the clock near the ends of games, as teams often focus too much on leaving their opponent just a “little bit” (around two minutes) rather than “more,” time, instead of keeping the ball and focusing on either leaving them insufficient time, or prioritizing 1st downs and keeping the ball.
This is because in a one TD game, and moderate to long field length drive situation, there is a strategic world of difference between a team’s trailing opponent having near two minutes left or having closer to one minute left for their last, “game on the line,” TD drive attempt. And this difference is due to the physics, structure, and dynamics of the game, as well as basic math.
In these exceedingly common, and critical, end game situations, the loss of just three quarters of a minute or so, down from just under two minutes, critically, leaves little time for a bunch of 5 or 6 second of total clock time burning incompletions to be mixed in to the trailing team’s forward movement. This completely changes the dynamics and the odds – as suddenly nearly every throw has to be successful; and each play, critically, has to also not utilize much clock in between plays as well.
Sprinkling in the ability to have several random incompletions to the mix for a team in “two minute offense” mode- which having closer to two minutes allows (even 7 or 8 incompletions might only take another 40 seconds of game time) – radically changes the odds due to basic mathematics and probabilities.
If you want to understand this better, consider having to make 7 out of 14 free throws in basketball. Not too hard, right? You’ll do it a fair amount of the time. Now change it to where you need to make 13 out of 14. Or, say, 8 out of 8. Suddenly, it’s very hard.
Obviously in football the situation is more complex, as there are multiple factors, including length of any individual play, etc. But the principle is ultimately the same – having a little room for random error and thus being able to mix in multiple unpredictable (and, with incompletions, very minor clock effect) failures radically alters a team’s chances, far more than intuition would otherwise suggest.
And in football the difference is far more stark than in the pure “free throw” basketball example,, since it’s not just about about being able to mix in several incompletes – rather than the far more statistically improbable task of hitting on nearly every pass – but having some flexibility to be able to work both the sidelines and the full field.
Sure, in a two minute situation the offense usually wants to hit completions near the sidelines so the receiver can get out of bounds and stop the clock; but managed right, with enough time the trailing team has the flexibility on each play to go a second or third read dump off toward the middle of the field when the sideline passes are not there, picking up more yardage and keeping the chains moving – so long as they don’t do it too often. But it is the opportunity to do so, not the need to do so on almost every play, that ultimately matters.
With a little less time remaining, this option radically changes, as now the math of the game clock often makes such a play to the middle of the field more beneficial to the offense if the ball goes incomplete (which is to say, a critical waste of seconds when there are not many left) rather than a short complete that burns off a lot more seconds in between the whistle, hustling to the line of scrimmage, and setting up for and snapping the next play. (This is often further compounded in many late game situations by offenses not fully accommodating for this loss of time, and thus making plays to the middle of the field that they would be better off simply not even trying in the first place.)
Thus, with closer to two minutes rather than closer to a minute (again, depending on actual starting field position, the timeout situation, although often by this point trailing teams are out of their timeouts, and the ability of that team to coalesce after a successful completion and get to the line of scrimmage and snap the next play – something that can be practiced and improved with focus), not only does the offense have the ability to throw several incompletes, and therefore have a far higher probability of being able to move the chains successfully with each set of downs, and use up little time overall by normally working the sidelines for passes that are completed, but with closer to two minutes remaining, the offense can also randomly sprinkle in some middle of the field plays, and thus play the whole field.
This gives the offense – and the quarterback in particular, far more options on each play, and puts the defense at far more of a disadvantage on every single snap. That is, on top of the even more important fact of simply being able to take random incompletes, and knock little time off of the clock with each one – time that with closer to a minute left than two, a team otherwise simply does not have.
Simplified, it is for these reasons that with around two minutes left, needing a touchdown, and facing a somewhat long drive, you will often see teams come back and win. But yet with only a mere 40 or 45 seconds less, depending on the timeout situation, you will almost never see teams do it. (Although in 2013, as the rules have continued to favor offenses- and in particular offensive passing plays – over defenses – a trend only further amplified by rule emphasis for the 2014 season – and offenses have become even more explosive, there were a couple of remarkable late game comebacks that danced close to the edge of that “nearly impossible, barring a fluke” 70 second one timeout,” or “70-85 second, no timeouts” window, most notably by the extraordinary Philip Rivers and the Chargers over the Chiefs in a wild 41-38 shootout win in week 12.)
When it comes to field goals, some of the same principles apply. But for various reasons we’ll look at in another post, there is a lot more flexibility (as well as variability) built in; particularly for shorter time frame, and better field position starting, drives.