Managing chaotic late-game NFL situations is about as relaxing as attempting to build a toothpick boat in a wind tunnel. Whatever decision a coach makes will be either second-guessed (if things go badly) or ignored (if things go well). You’re rarely operating with perfect information, you’re thinking about 17 other things, and you’re doing it in the middle of a maelstrom of pressure and activity.
That said, I found Jay Gruden’s timeout with 57 seconds left Monday night more frustrating than Josh Doctson’s drop in the end zone moments later.
Right, that’s what the headline says. But why?
The Doctson non-catch was probably a 9 out of 10 in degree of difficulty. You’d love to see him make that catch, but you can’t really expect it. The timeout? Well, there’s no perfectly right or wrong answer there, so it’s hard to place it on a difficulty scale. But it felt more realistic for a fourth-year coach to nail that decision than for a little-used second-year receiver to make that spectacular catch. And I’m not sure that Gruden nailed it.
Here’s the main reason: If I were a die-hard Chiefs fan, I would have been screaming for Andy Reid to take a timeout there. Bellowing. Howling. In fact, as someone who doesn’t care who wins these games, I was screaming at CSN’s Rich Tandler just then, asking why Reid wasn’t taking a timeout — to give himself a last chance if the Redskins tied it, or especially if the Redskins went ahead. But then Gruden stopped the clock for him.
— Michael Jensen (@BraveJayhawk) October 3, 2017
Let’s review. Washington had second and 2 from the Kansas City 22-yard line, trailing by three. The clock showed 1:15. The Redskins had all three of their timeouts. Chris Thompson carried for no gain, setting up third and 2. There were four realistic outcomes of that next play.
1. The Redskins score a touchdown. (And in fact, Kirk Cousins threw it in the end zone for Doctson, who very nearly came down with the touchdown.) In this scenario, Washington would want to leave as little time on the clock as possible, to prevent the Chiefs from mounting a game-winning touchdown drive.
2. The Redskins don’t pick up a first down, and thus attempt a tying field goal. (Which is, in fact, what happened.) In this scenario, Washington would want to leave as little time on the clock as possible, to prevent the Chiefs from mounting a game-winning field-goal drive.
3. The Redskins pick up a first down inside the 10-yard line. Without the timeout, there would have been about 30 seconds left after that play, and the Redskins would still have all three timeouts. If they then scored a touchdown, the Chiefs would have been left with virtually no time. If they instead ran three plays and didn’t score, they would likely have kicked the game-tying field goal at or near the end of the regulation. With all three timeouts, they would have been in complete control.
Update: Some readers have pointed out that maybe Gruden was going to call a timeout regardless to discuss the upcoming play — even had he let the clock run for another 25 seconds. And so had the Redskins converted, they would have been left with two timeouts, not three.
4. The Redskins pick up a first down, but not inside the 10-yard line. Barring a penalty, this is the only situation in which Gruden’s timeout would have looked good: because the Redskins might have wanted to run more than three plays, and the clock might have become an issue. On the other hand, the Redskins might have scored a touchdown on their very next snap, putting the first situation back in play: It would be better for there to be less time left for the Chiefs, not more. And with three timeouts and about 30 seconds, Washington would have still had several chances to win it.
So the final possibility is the one that Gruden cited after the game.
“If we got the first down, we wanted to have time to score,” he said. “I was thinking score, to be honest with you. I know we called a play that was meant to score [the Doctson pass], but we also had different options on the play. We could have checked it down and got the first down. So I was thinking I wanted to score, end the game right there. I wanted to leave ourselves plenty of time if we did get the first down.”
What about the next day?
He had the same message Tuesday, saying he didn’t regret the decision, because “I wanted to make sure I had enough time where we weren’t in panic mode if we did get the first down at the 20-yard line.”
Doesn’t that make sense?
Again, if they gained between 2 and 12 yards, yeah, sort of, although they could have taken an immediate timeout after that completion, assuming the play ended inbounds, to stave off panic mode.
But the Redskins were in a position of supreme power when Gruden called time. They had the ability either to assure themselves of overtime, or to score a go-ahead touchdown while leaving the Chiefs with virtually no time. Reid could have siphoned away some of that power with a timeout, but he didn’t appear interested. And even if there were other options on that third-down play, one of the options was a ball into the end zone. That choice would result either in an incompletion, a touchdown, or a pass interference and first-and-goal at the 1. In all of those cases, the timeout was counterproductive.
You’re taking this too seriously.
I don’t think I am. Again, it’s easy to second-guess, and things could have gone differently. But Gruden’s timeout came with 28 seconds left on the play clock. If Washington snapped the ball 25 seconds later, and if the ball still fell incomplete, Kansas City would have had been left with 22 seconds instead of 47. That’s just a completely different world. The Chiefs’ first two plays took 20 seconds. So in the non-timeout scenario — if everything else happened the same — Kansas City’s rookie kicker would have been trying a 51-yarder instead of a 43-yarder.
But I also think if the Chiefs got the ball back with just 22 seconds on the clock, they might have been content to go to overtime. And then, who knows? These are all hypotheticals. But there’s just no hypothetical in which you’d rather the Chiefs get 25 more seconds.
And obviously, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Steve Czaban:
If you want to get mad at something, get mad at Jay Gruden for calling a timeout on OFFENSE, before that pivotal third and 2. It stopped the clock for free for Andy Reid, when he was too stupid to realize he should have used at least one of his own.
He called a timeout too quickly following the Chris Thompson second and 2 no-gain play. He had a chance to huddle normally and snap the ball on third and 2 with 30-35 seconds left instead of calling timeout and snapping the ball with 57 seconds left. Bottom line … he left Kansas City with too much time after missing the third and 2. If they had made the third and 2, he still would’ve had three timeouts left to go get the touchdown.
There’s no downside to letting the clock run in this instance, and there’s exactly one downside to stopping it early: giving your opponent the time to comfortably march down the field.
And so on.
John Gruden: "Redskins smart to let the clock run. Don't leave any time for Alex Smith"
*brother calls TO w 57 seconds left*
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) October 3, 2017
Would the Redskins have won in overtime? I mean, maybe not. They would have been underdogs, after the way the second half went. But again, without a timeout, the Redskins would still have had several shots at a touchdown, with overtime almost assuredly the worst-case scenario. With the timeout, you were setting yourself up to possibly lose in regulation — and weakening the odds that a touchdown would mean a certain win.
It didn’t feel like the right call at the time; it doesn’t look like the right call in retrospect. And it was every bit as frustrating as the Doctson drop.
But really: you’re taking this too seriously.
Yeah, probably. Gruden does a million things very well. Picking on one decision that didn’t work out is necessarily petty. And maybe the defense could have held up for 45 seconds regardless.