King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Murder at the 16-yard line: The world once again turns a blind eye to senseless timeout slaughter, even though it cost the Redskins a chance to beat the Cowboys.


Salon Staff
September 28, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

Friends, as many of you know, the abuse and degradation suffered by innocent NFL timeouts moved me last year to start Adopt a Timeout, an organization devoted to saving these delicate creatures. It saddens me to say that despite your generous contributions and the tireless efforts of the ATO volunteers, the timeout's situation remains dire.

We must step up our efforts.

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On Monday night, in front of a national television audience, a timeout was senselessly murdered. The killing cost the Washington Redskins a chance at a game-tying field goal, and they could only watch helplessly as the clock ran out. The Redskins lost to the Cowboys 21-18. And yet, the slaughtered timeout is already forgotten, lost to history.

While practically every sentence devoted to this game refers to the fact that the Redskins were out of timeouts and unable to stop the clock after a long pass from Mark Brunell to Rod Gardner put them in field-goal position at the Dallas 21, not one calls the Redskins out for blithely wasting one of their allotted three timeouts, which they clearly did.

Here's a link to a reputable search engine. Go ahead, see if you can find a single printed reference to the fact that the Skins sacrificed a chance to stop the clock at the end of the game to avoid a five-yard penalty on first down in the third quarter. Let me know if this concept shows up in any radio or TV commentary you hear.

You'll find plenty of typists and chatterers typing and chattering that the Redskins were unable to stop the clock because they'd failed on a challenge, which burns a timeout, after having been "forced to use" two timeouts on a third-quarter drive. This is like my saying I was unable to make my last mortgage payment because I'd been forced to spend all my money on hookers.

It's crazy. Calling that second timeout to avoid a nearly meaningless third-quarter penalty was directly responsible for the Redskins not being able to stop the clock in the final seconds, and nobody will talk about it. Who will speak for this poor creature, the endangered timeout?

Here's what happened, and incidentally this is the second September in a row in which the Cowboys have escaped with a Monday night win because of atrocious clock management by an NFC East rival:

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The Redskins were trailing 14-3 with 8:43 left in the third quarter when they took over at their own 38. After getting one first down they faced fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 41 and were going for it, but they took too long to get organized and had to take a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. Fair enough. Fourth-and-6 would have forced them to punt, so the penalty would have been akin to a turnover.

They converted thanks to a roughing-the-passer penalty, then got another first down at the Dallas 16 with just under four minutes remaining in the quarter. They came to the line disorganized. Running back Mike Sellers lined up to the right, which was wrong. With the play clock winding down, Brunell pointed left and screamed, "Get over there!" But it was too late. Just before the play clock expired, halfback Clinton Portis turned around and signaled timeout, and Brunell did the same a split second later. The whistles blew.

Murder.

Let's think along with the Redskins, who are coached by Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, you understand.

You've already used one of your precious three timeouts. You're down by 11 late-ish in the third quarter and you're threatening to score, so it's reasonable to assume that this is going to be a close game down the stretch, and you might want to be able to stop the clock at the end. So timeouts are going to be pretty stinkin' important.

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You have a first-and-10 at the 16, and your formation is a mess. You won't be able to snap the ball in time. You now have two choices. You can call timeout, or you can do nothing and take a five-yard delay penalty. This would leave you with first-and-15 at the 21.

Let's hold it right there and do a little cost-benefit analysis. It's a simple question: Are those five yards worth as much as half of your remaining timeout allotment of two?

According to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, who can figure these things out from four years' worth of play-by-play data from every NFL game, when a team has first-and-10, they get the next first down without turning the ball over or running out of downs 68 percent of the time. On first-and-15, that figure drops to 58 percent.

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That's not nothing. The drive continuing becomes 15 percent less likely if you take that penalty. But it's not a lot either. More than four out of five times when you would have gotten a first down, you still get it. And consider this: The Redskins needed a touchdown and a field goal, and they were well within field-goal range. Even if they don't get the first down, they still likely get three points out of it.

There's no way those five yards were worth that timeout. It's not even debatable, really. And I'm not just saying this in hindsight. You'll just have to believe me on this, but in the instant between Portis turning around to call time and Brunell doing the same, I'd already thought Portis had made a mistake. I'm a timeout activist, sure, but I can't believe this kind of thing isn't obvious to anyone who's ever seen the end of a football game.

The Redskins used their third timeout on an unsuccessful challenge of the Cowboys' last touchdown. Gibbs is the first NFL coach who's made a move I think should be a no-brainer: He hired an assistant specifically to monitor replays from the press box and advise him on challenges.

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"I challenged the touchdown catch before I got anything from upstairs," Gibbs said after the game. That turned out, predictably, to be a mistake, but not one of undervaluing timeouts. It's kind of stupid to challenge a play without knowing what the replays will show -- a clear touchdown catch -- and if the guy in the press box had merely been watching the ABC broadcast, he'd have had time to tell Gibbs what the replays showed. But generally speaking it is worth risking a timeout to challenge a touchdown.

"We had two mixups on our packages and used our first two timeouts," Gibbs said by way of explaining the other two. "Obviously, we would have liked to have had those back at the end."

Well, yeah, obviously. But not so obviously that anyone will acknowledge what a stupid move it was to call that second timeout, and not so obviously that the Redskins and everybody else in the league won't make the same boneheaded mistake the next time a similar situation comes up.

And then at the end of the game, helpless to stop the clock, the losing team will click its collective tongue and say it was a shame how they'd been "forced" to use up their timeouts.

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You can help stop the madness. For just $35 a year, you can help save these precious creatures. Won't you give to Adopt a Timeout today?

Previous column: Hobbyhorse watch: NFL, college

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