The closest of football games are decided by factors like tactics and luck, since the skill level of the teams in question are so close. Many factors determine NFL tactics, like deciding whether to punt or go for it on fourth down, deciding when to call a timeout, or deciding what sort of formations to run on offense or defense. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at one particular tactical factor – the careful use of timeouts.
The most important factor about timeouts is that not all timeouts are created equal. First-half timeouts are far less valuable than second-half timeouts, because teams often need timeouts to get the ball back in a late-game trailing situation. Thus, in the first half, a coach should be far more willing to bet a timeout on the result of a challenge if he has anything significant to gain. This is not to say that the Browns’ Pat Shurmur was right to challenge the spot of the ball on a first down play that gained about ten yards – even winning the challenge to deny the opponents a first down and leave them a second-and-inches at their own 30 is barely a gain worth mentioning. Since coaches only get two (or three if they win the first two) challenges per game, challenges should not be used recklessly, but can be used more aggressively in the first half than in the second.
In almost any second-half situation, it is actually better to take a delay of game penalty than to waste a timeout to prevent it. To have one less timeout in the last four minutes is a far more costly disadvantage than turning a first-and-10 into a first-and-15. Teams convert first-and-10 situations at about a 55% rate, while first-and-15 situations at about 45%. This 10% reduction in the chances of getting a first down pales in comparison to saving 40 seconds in a late-game situation when the opponent is trying to run out the clock. The only situations when a timeout is significantly better than just taking the penalty is a 3rd down (or 4th down you intend to go for) situation with two yards or less to go, or when preparing to kick a long field goal, as in any other case the five yards have a relatively small impact on your chance of converting or of scoring the three points.
Similarly, second half timeouts are far too valuable to “waste” discussing strategy in nearly all circumstances. Football has enough natural pauses through the time between plays and through huddles for teams to decide the correct course of strategy, and coaches even have radio contact with their quarterbacks directly into their helmets. The ideal time for coaches to use second half timeouts is whenever they are trailing and the other team is trying to burn clock. The more seconds you can keep the opponent from burning, the more chances you have to score and retake the lead. Will tactical use of timeouts help decide this week’s Super Bowl? Only time will tell, but it seems unlikely as both coaches this week have demonstrated good use of timeouts thus far this season.