Monday, January 10, 2022

Not About Baseball: The Timeout

 I was already up writing, so why not do a second piece as well?--JSS


Reader David S. emailed to say that he’d be OK with me writing about non-baseball topics. I’ve done so on rare occasion over the years, to mixed response, and I doubt I’ll make it a regular thing. As it turns out, though, I would like to write at length about last night’s NFL finale, which ended in some controversy. If you’re only here for the baseball, you can tap out at this point. Everyone else...

Some quick background: Yesterday was the final day of the NFL season, with 14 games scheduled, all intradivisional matchups. The NFL tries to batch its last-day games so that teams fighting for the same playoff berth are playing at the same time. It also tries to give its TV partners the pick of the litter, so when setting Sunday’s slate a week ago, it slotted the Chargers/Raiders game as the night game on NBC, the last game of the season.

When it did so, it seemed a good choice. The game was likely to be a do-or-die matchup, with the winner advancing to the playoffs and the loser going home. It was that, in fact, but due to some unlikely results in the first 13 games on Sunday, a quirk developed: The Chargers and Raiders could both advance to the playoffs if the game ended in a tie. This was a popular topic online all week, with sports nerds citing The Disgrace of Gijon a little more than anyone needed, amid speculation about a contest filled with kneeldowns and punts. Like a Giants game.

To their credit, that’s not how the teams played it. The Raiders ran out to leads of 10-0 and 29-14, only for the Chargers to come back to tie the game on the final play of regulation. This was no disgrace. Had it been a clean winner-take-all, it would have been plenty exciting, but the possibility of a winning tie -- and the Steelers taking it on the chin -- gave the whole situation an extra buzz.

With the teams tied headed to overtime, the possibility of ten minutes of passive play loomed. At no point, however, did we get anything that even remotely looked like collusion. The Raiders drove down and kicked a field goal, the Chargers countered with the same, converting a number of fourth downs along the way. (NFL overtime rules are a hoot. Suffice to say the above is all kosher.) The Raiders got the ball a second time, now with the game governed by sudden death rules, with about four minutes left in OT. If no one scored, both the Raiders and Chargers would advance. If we were ever going to see, if not disgrace, perhaps some light embarrassment, it would have been here. The Raiders, though, moved the ball aggressively and crossed midfield at the two-minute warning.

That’s a lot so far, so let’s reset the game. The Raiders advance to the playoffs with a win or a tie. They have the ball first-and-10 on the Chargers’ 45-yard line, with two time outs left. They completely control the game. They gain some benefit from winning -- a weaker opponent, though on shorter rest after a longer flight -- but the difference between a win and a tie for them is small.

The Raiders can, at this point, end the game with kneeldowns, running out the clock on a tie. Instead, they hand the ball off and lose a yard. The Chargers have two time outs left, and if they had any intention of being aggressive in an attempt to win the game, this would have been the spot to use one. They did not, surely hoping for a tie at this point. The Raiders again could have knelt down, but they wore down the play clock and ran a draw on second down, gaining seven yards to the Chargers’ 39. As the clock ran under 45 seconds, the Raiders were again not in victory formation, not signaling a kneeldown. They were in shotgun, lining up to run a play, likely similar to the draw they had just run for seven yards.

With 38 seconds left on the game clock and four seconds on the play clock, Chargers coach Brandon Staley called timeout. That’s why we’re here today.

This timeout made people very, very angry. It was seen as “stopping the clock,” which it literally did, but in the least effectual manner possible. Staley had not called timeout after the first-down loss, and had not called timeout immediately after the second-down run. By not doing so, he essentially forfeited any chance to get the ball back and do something with it after a punt. The clock was no longer a factor in this game. (At best, the Chargers could have gotten the ball back on their 20 with maybe 25 seconds left and no timeouts, and with no reason to risk a turnover by running plays.) Staley’s timeout, called with less than 40 seconds left, was intended to allow him to set his defense, while also leaving the Raiders the ability to run the clock out after the next snap.

The Raiders averaged five yards a carry for the game. They averaged nine yards a carry in overtime. Jacobs had just gashed the Chargers for seven yards in a situation when everyone knew a run was coming. The Raiders needed four yards for a first down, and anything short of that would most likely cause them to not run a fourth-down play. Their kicker, Daniel Carlson, has a strong, accurate leg, but even the best kickers lose accuracy -- and risk being blocked -- outside of 50 yards. Anything short of a Raiders first down, short of four yards, would have left Carlson kicking from 53 yards -- and more likely, the Raiders simply letting the clock run out.

The Chargers could no longer win the game. They needed a tie. To get that tie, they had to keep the Raiders from gaining four yards on third down, forcing them to choose between a high-risk field goal or accepting a tie. Staley’s timeout had absolutely nothing to do with the clock, and everything to do with finding the right defense to stop the Raiders short of a first down.

It didn’t work. Jacobs ran straight ahead for ten yards, setting up a 47-yard field goal, which sharply changed the risk/reward calculus. That’s the NFL now, where 47-yard field goals are safe plays. Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia sent on Carlson, Carlson knocked it through, and his kids can now go to Carnegie Mellon for free.

The reaction in the wake of all this was to blame Staley’s timeout for the field goal. I wasn’t listening, but apparently NBC’s Cris Collinsworth made a big deal out of it. Staley has been in the line of fire as an aggressive decision-maker, including calling for a fourth-down attempt deep inside his own territory earlier in this game, so he’s a natural target for blame in our sports culture wars. The thought was that the Raiders were accepting the tie until Staley called the timeout, and that his calling the timeout spurred them to change their minds and try hard to win.

It’s nonsense. The Raiders could have accepted a tie by running kneeldowns once past the two-minute warning. They didn’t. They had second-and-11 and they went into shotgun and ran a draw for seven yards. They had third-and-four and lined up in shotgun. At no point in the game did the Raiders stop trying to gain yards and make first downs. They were not rushing to the line, but they were running plays, and their running game was having success. The best evidence of their intentions, certainly so far as Brandon Staley would know, was in their play calls and their formations.

The timeout changed nothing. The Raiders were set up to run the ball on third-and-four with 38 seconds left when Staley called timeout, and they were set up to run the ball on third-and-four with 38 seconds left when the ball was snapped after the timeout. What changed? They got ten yards. The ten yards is what changed the decision, something Bisaccia was crystal-clear about after the game.

“[Playing for a tie] was a conversation, we were talking about it. We ran the ball there and they didn’t call a time out. So I think they were probably thinking the same thing, you know, and then we had the big run through there, and when we got the big run and got what we thought was advantageous field-goal position for us, we were gonna take the field goal and try to win it. But we were certainly talking about it on the sideline, we wanted to see if they were gonna call time out or not on that run, they didn’t so we thought they were thinking the same thing, and then we popped a run and it gave us a chance to kick the field goal to win it. So we were talking about it.”

This has been framed -- see the underlying URL above, and in many other places -- as an admission by Bisaccia that the Raiders were playing for a tie. That’s not what he said at all. In that situation, of course you’re discussing it, managing the game. It would be absolute malpractice for Bisaccia and his staff to not be talking about it. At no point, however, did the Raiders do things to play for a tie. They didn’t kneel down. They didn’t get into a victory formation. They didn’t stop trying to advance the ball. They got seven yards on the play immediately prior to the timeout! Whatever conversations were happening, the Raiders were playing to win on every play until the timeout was called.

What changed was that Staley’s defense didn’t get a stop. The Raiders had second-and-11 on the Chargers’ 46, and two snaps later the Raiders had first-and-10 on the Chargers’ 29. That was what changed the game. That’s why the Raiders won and the Chargers lost, not the timeout, but the two plays wrapped around it.

There is so much magical thinking out there today about this sequence, this idea that the Raiders were settling for a tie before the timeout but got their backs up after Staley called it and decided to win. The only way to sell this is to ignore everything the Raiders actually did leading up to the timeout, ignore everything Bisaccia said after the game, ignore all but the first five words of what David Carr said after the game. The only way to sell this is to center a timeout that didn’t change the game state at all, and ignore the 17 yards on the ground that very much did.

There is some baseless speculation about what the Chargers might have tried, but it doesn’t fit the game script at all. If they’d wanted the ball back, calling timeout on second-and-11 with 1:55 left would have been the play. If it was about the clock on third-and-four, Staley could have called timeout with 1:15 left instead of waiting. There was all this rambling about what dangers Bisaccia must have divined by Staley taking the timeout, and none of it makes any sense with 38 seconds left. There’s no path for the Chargers to get the ball back and score with so little time left. Any last-minute Chargers possession would have consisted of a single kneeldown and a celebration.

Brandon Staley makes a nice big target because he doesn’t take short field goals and because he goes for it on fourth down a lot and because his team didn’t win. There’s room to debate many of his decisions -- I’m a stathead and I haven’t agreed with every high-profile choice he’s made -- but not this one. Staley called timeout to stop a run game that had been wrecking his defense, to make a field goal attempt a bad idea, to salvage the only thing left: a tie. It didn’t work out, but the timeout didn’t make a difference to the outcome at all. The timeout didn’t lose the tie. The defense lost the tie.