Copyright 2011 by John T. Reed

On 9/17/11, I was channel surfing looking for the best college football game when I was surprised to find my alma mater Army on national TV playing Northwestern.

It was the beginning of the fourth quarter. Army was ahead 21-14.

Sloppy slowdown

They were in a maximum slow down, which was correct, but they were far too sloppy about it.

I am the author of THE BOOK on that subject: Football Clock Management.

My clock management rule 1.20 says,

When in the slowdown tempo and the game clock is running: (b)wait until the end of the play clock to (1) call for the snap.

Perhaps I need to be more specific when I create the fifth edition. I need to say “there is one second left on the play clock” instead of “the end of the play clock.”

Throughout their slowdown, Army repeatedly snapped the ball when there were four to ten seconds left on the play clock. That is coaching malpractice.

At normal tempo, there are about 15 offensive plays by each team per quarter in a college or pro game. In a slowdown, maybe around ten. Say Army left an average of seven seconds on the play clok at the snap. Times 10 is 70 seconds better known as 1:104.

You leave that much time on the clock unnecessarily, you are liable to get beat during the last 1:10 of the game. On this day, Army won, but that slop job slow down (called a four-minute drill in football lingo) could have stupidly cost them the game.

Cutting it too close?

Do you think I am cutting it too close to wait until the last one second of the play clock to snap?

If so, you’re wrong

In 2004, I was the head coach of the Monte Vista (Danville, CA) High School freshman team. I live within walking distance of that school.

My quarterback was Justin Boulton, a seven-year youth football veteran at running back, but a rookie at QB. My players were mostly 14 years old—some 15.

We practiced both our hurry-up (two-minutet drill) and our slowdown (four-minute drill) starting in June, always using it as a way to run wind sprints as well as in standard practice segments.

Human play clock

In college and pro stadiums, they have a visible play clock at each end of the field. In high school, such a clock is illegal as a practical matter. So we used what I call a human play clock. Mine was Alex Krychev, the father of one of my 2003 players who later walked on at Texas. Alex won the European power lifting championship for Bulgaria and a silver medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics in that event. Great, experienced athlete, but not really any preparation to be a football human playclock. (Alex was our strength and kicking coach. He also learned to run a station of our daily tackling drill and other miscellaneous coaching chores.)

He was trained to watch the referee. When the ref gave his ready-to-play signal, Alex would start his stop watch. During summer sprints and practices, I would play the role of referee. When the time left on the play clock was 19, he would put his right arm straight down in the six o’clock position then move it up like a second hand until it was directly over his head which meant zero seconds left on the play clock.

Our QB would look over at Alex. At 19, he would bark“ Down!” to his line. Then he would say the cadence that our varsity coach made mandatory: “Set Blue two nine Blue two nine hut.” He would time that so the ball was snapped at :01 left on the play clock.

Our final game of the season was against California High. They nearly beat San Ramon Valley HS which had slaughtered us earlier in the season. I figured we were three-TD underdogs. Cal had a potent offense. I decided to do a whole-game slowdown. That should reduce the score by both teams. It cuts the total number of plays from a normal of 40 in a freshman game to about 20. Fewer scoring opportunities means fewer scores.

By keeping the total low, I figured we might have a chance to get a lead on special teams or defense, then clock them to victory. I told the coaches and team that at the beginning of the last week and we worked on it all week.

In the event, it worked better than we expected. And we had a funny moment. Boulton came over to the sideline and said, “Coach, the ref just came over to me and said I was really cutting it close on the play clock.” Boulton and the other coaches and I roared with laughter. “That’s the whole freaking idea,” I said. The ref never noticed Alex the human play clock. All he saw was the QB looking a the side line as the play clock approached zero. He thought Boulton was calling the snap on the last second by luck!

We beat Cal that day 20-0. (Tehcnically it was 20-6 because we put in the subs at the end and even called time outs to prolong the game so the bench could get maximum reps.) One of our scores was indeed, by our defense. Cornerback Rick Moore intercepted a pass and ran it back about 70 yards for a TD.

Goose and go

The play our offense scored on that day was “goose and go.” It is also called a freeze play. It is somewhat analogous to what Army would have done if they had ever sopped during their first set instead of always relaxing then sapping during the second set.

Our varsity coach ordered us to use an indirect snap always. (See my online football terms dictionary.) That is the common one where the QB puts his hands under the center and touching the center. A lot of old timers call it the“ T formation sna”p because it started when the T formation replaced the single wing in the 1940s and 1950s. I am famous for running the single wing and have written three books about it. Its most common usage in TV football recently has been the so-called “Wildcat” in the NFL.

Anyway, I told the QBs and centers to work out a hand-pressure signal that meant the QB was saying, “Forget about the play the coach just called from the sidelines, give me the ball right now and blast off.” This was a “silent audible.” When the QB did it, nine of our players had no clue what the center and QB were doing. They were all getting ready to run 26 counterboot or some such on the first hut.

So during that California High game, because we were running a whole-game maximum slowdown, we always snapped with one second left on the play clock and after the usual, “Down Red one five Red one five Set hut” cadence. Except, however, when the QB chose to call “goose and go.” He would do that without about five seconds still left on the play clock and with nothing but “down” before hand. In other words, the snap came as a surprise to all eleven defenders and nine of my offensive players.

Furthermore, this freeze play creates an optical illusion of a false start. Two offensive players move, but the rest of the offense just slowly stands up as if waiting for the penalty to be announced and marked off. As a result, it takes the defense two or three seconds to recognize that this may be a real play and that they need to stop it just in case. That is not the mental state in which you want a defense to play.

Using a during-game charts I call a point-of-attack-success chart, (that chart is explained in my Coaching Youth Football, Coaching Freshman & JV High School Football, Coaching Youth Football Defense, and Coaching Youth Flag Football books) I saw at half time that California had some weakness up the middle. I showed it to the players at half time and told them we are going to run goose and go and inside trap a lot in the second half. To our QB, I said, “Justin, normally you only call goose and go when you see something. In the second half, I want you to just call it regardless of what you see. There is apparently some invisible weakness in the middle of the Cal defensive line.”

We either got both TDs on the “goose and go” or one with that and one with inside trap.

No delay penalties, no visible play clock, no college players on the field

I do not recall any team of mine ever getting a delay penalty when we were in a conscious solwdown tempo. And my players were always either youth or high school kids!

We did that with a team of 14- and 15-year old high school freshmen, most of them football rookies. So don’t tell me the highly disciplined, recruited Division I football player/cadets at Army can’t wait until there is one second left on the clock to snap the damned ball. Hell, they have a visible, elctronic play clock!!


Last year, I heavily criticized two Army games for terrible tackling: Navy and the SMU Armed Forces Bowl (which I attended in person).

Apparently, Army made tackling a point of emphasis because I saw a number of excellent, sure, wrap-the-thighs tackles in the Army-Northwestern game. There were also some poor or missed tackles, most notably one on the Northwestern touchdown that tied the game in the fourth quarter. But in general, the 2011 Army tackling in the Northwestern game was excellent. Good job on that!

Contrarian offense

I am the author of the book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense. That book and other things that I have written since the early 90s say, among other things, that failure to run a contrarian offense (tactics and strategies) is coaching malpractice. The logic is simple and irrefutable. The fewer times your opponents’ defenses see your offense, the less well they will do against it. So make sure the only time they see it is when they play you. Run a unique offense, and while you’re at it, design it to take advantage of the strenghs of their defenses against the normal offenses.

Did Army do that in 2010? I thought they did somewhat, but not enough.

Were they contrarian against Northwestern?

They ran the Darrel Royal late 1960s wishbone triple option, or a 2011 facsimile of it. Is that contrairan?

One way to be contrarian is to run an offense that no one has ever seen.

Another almost equally good way is to run an offense that no one has seen in decades.

Darrel Royals’ Texas wishbone has not been seen in about three decades.

Northwestern better on paper

It looked like Northwestern was a faster more athletic, bigger team than Army—just what you would expect with Army’s Afghan war and no NFL career recruiting handicaps. But they upset Northwestern. Bravo! That’s what army needs to do.

I think they will need to be even more contrarian than that to beat Air Force and Navy, because they are triple-option teams. At present, I think they run a form of the triple option called the flex bone. Whatever. It is close enough to the Royal wishbone that it will not flummox Air Force and Navy.

Get set, relax, get set again, snap

Last year and this, Army followed the set, relax, set again routine before every snap that I saw. I think Oregon started that.

I do not understand its purpose. It sure as hell screws up your hurry-up when you need that.

My Contrarian book has a chapter titled “Tempo.” That chapter advocates running max slowdown and max hurry-ups, for reasons other than game clock wasting. Actually, my Football Clock Management book also has a chapter titled “Other uses of tempo” which covers the same subject: catching the opposing defense off balance by varying when you snap the ball so they are often surprised. For example, during a hurry-up you could wait until late in the play clock to snap the ball—after getting set, if the game clock was not running (like after an incompletion). And better yet, you could snap the ball instantly as soon as the ref signaled ready for play when you were in a slowdown—at any time, but without clock damage if the game clock were not running (again like after an incompletion).

So I am suspecting the set, relax, set again routine enables you to do the occasional surprise early snap.

Okay, but I never saw any such snap in the Army-Northwestern game on in 2010. If you never snap during the first set, what’s the point?

Coaches typically vary the snap count, which I actually oppose. It causes false starts. (See my warp speed no huddle article for technical analysis of the supposed logic of varying the snap count.) But they do not vary what they should vary: the remaining play clock time of the snap. In college, they should vary it from :39 to :01 at least occasionally to surprise or mentally tire the defense. Both my Contrarian and Clock books advocate that, the Army set, relax, and set routine sets to set up the ability to snap early or late, but then Army never snaps early.


John T. Reed