I want you all to close your eyes.
Now, imagine: Week 10. It’s first and goal from the Tennessee 7-yard line. There is less than one minute left in the game, and the Titans are winning by 6 points. Matt Barkley drops back to pass, and the ball travels straight into the waiting arms of Josh Bellamy, who is standing in the end zone...
...and the ball bounces straight out of his arms. Tennessee comes away a winner, and hardly anyone is left questioning the Titans’ conservative “4-minute offense” that led to the Bears’ comeback. (Okay, you can open your eyes).
Conversely, many people are criticizing former Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator (now San Francisco 49ers’ Head Coach) Kyle Shanahan for his extremely aggressive play-calling that led to New England’s historic comeback in Super Bowl LI, even blaming Shanahan for the team’s loss.
Phrases like, “Instead of running the ball to wind down the clock,” and “[Shanahan] made several questionable decisions down the stretch, including a few pass calls when Atlanta was already within field goal range at a critical moment in the fourth quarter” are floating around the Internet-media.
Ironically, the Patriots might be the team most notorious for “running up the score” instead of running out the clock, usually to much success. But on Sunday, it was the other team staying aggressive that allowed the Patriots to come back and get the win.
Okay, now close your eyes again.
This time, picture: Week 14. The Titans had jumped out to an early 13-0 lead on the defending Super Bowl Champion-Denver Broncos, but now, things aren’t looking so great.
After giving up 10 unanswered points, the Broncos have the ball back with two minutes to go and are driving from deep in their own territory for a chance to tie or win the game.
If only the Titans had been more aggressive with their play-calling instead of neutering the offense into a predictable three-and-out machine, maybe the Broncos wouldn’t be driving for the win right now.
Somehow, through some miracle of luck or fate, the ball is suddenly on the ground and the Titans have recovered. Game over, Titans win. No one will remember this so-called “conservative” play-calling error.
Clearly, there are two opposite philosophies with which to treat an individual game, specifically in the case of having established an early lead.
Many times, teams will go into their 4-minute offense with well over 4 minutes remaining in the game. This conservative approach is sometimes referred to as “playing not to lose” versus “playing to win.”
A few years ago, Bryan Burke of AdvancedFootballAnalytics.com conducted a scientific study using data from the 2008-2014 NFL seasons in an attempt to determine the optimal point in a game for a team to switch into their 4-minute offense.
Burke set up a game simulator to compare how often teams actually go on to win based on the point in the game they commence their four-minute play selection in favor of a 'normal' play selection.
He found that, in fact, “it doesn't make sense to ever use the four-minute offense when up by four points.” The results of his simulations suggested “it would be better to keep playing with a 'normal' mindset all the way to when it's time to kneel out the clock.”
So... despite their loss, were Kyle Shanahan and the Falcons’ offense correct to continue throwing the ball in the 4th quarter?
Were Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie, although winners in the end, actually wrong with their approach, trying to run out the clock?
I think either strategy can be perfectly viable or completely ineffective depending entirely on situation and execution.
If Matt Ryan throws the ball away instead of taking a sack, or completes the pass on third down to set up a field goal, then the play-calling wouldn’t be questioned.
If Josh Bellamy holds onto the football to score the game-winning touchdown, the Titans would have been heavily criticized for playing “too conservative.”
Like just about every other aspect of professional football, in the end, it comes down to execution on the field. All the X’s and O’s can’t overcome a dropped pass or a mental error.
Assembling a roster of players who know their role and (for lack of a better phrase) do their job is, in my opinion, more important to winning football games than any amount of scheming or strategy.