Printed in American Football Quarterly in 1998

Who is the best football clock manager in the world? It's probably not any of the great long-lived coaches like Grambling's Eddie Robinson.

The best football clock manager is most likely a 12-year old boy. How so? The Grambling legend only coached 573 games in his 55 years, an average of 10.4 games a year. A 12-year old boy with a heavy video-game habit can coach several games a day. He'd pass Robinson in months. "But that's not the same!" you protest. Actually, it's close enough.

Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy reportedly observed that pro players who play football video games are better football players as a result. Simulators are used to train pilots, astronauts, tank drivers, oil tanker captains, and other operators of complicated devices. They don't train on the real thing because the it's too expensive, too dangerous, or too unavailable. So it is with running a football team. By rule, you can only coach 8 to 21 games a year depending on your league and your success. Clock management at all levels of football is abysmal. Lack of reps by the coaches is one of the main reasons.

When computer simulators were first invented, they were extremely complicated and expensive devices that only made sense for Boeing or NASA or the nuclear submarine service. But like everything else in computers, the cost has come down. In fact it has come so far down that simulators, which were always great fun, are now sold as toys. You can fly supersonic planes or spacecraft, drive race cars, pilot submarines, and ride jet skis through various video games. And you can coach football in a video game.

Video games typically have two elements: twitch and strategy. Twitch refers to the rapid wrist and finger movements that control various actions in video games. Twitch skill is absolutely worthless as far as becoming a better coach is concerned. But football video games are super for improving strategic and tactical decision-making skills.

Football video games come in two realistic varieties: NFL and college. There are also unrealistic versions like NFL Blitz. Ignore the unrealistic ones. High school coaches should use the college versions because college rules are much closer to high school rules than NFL rules.

Play the game strictly for its strategy and tactics benefits. The game will automatically run all the players. Coaches other than position coaches should just use the joy stick and buttons to call defenses, formations, and plays and to call for the snap.

Some games let you turn on penalty and injury generators. These interject penalties and injuries to your players randomly. Turn them on. They add realism. Video-game penalties give you practice deciding when to accept or decline penalties.

When there is an injury, the game automatically substitutes the next guy on the depth chart. But as a real-world coach, the trick with injuries is remembering that the individual in question is out and making sure his substitute goes in whenever a unit involving the injured player goes onto the field: offense, defense, or special teams. To get full benefit from the video game's injury generator, you will have to make a special external-to-the-game rule that the name of any injury backup must be called out whenever an injury-affected unit goes in.

Essentially, you are using the video game just to generate situations. That gives you practice reacting and making decisions under time pressure.

Video games are programmed with the rules pertinent to the level in question. The NFL versions will have a 40-second play clock; the college versions, a 25-second play clock. The clock stops for penalties, first downs, incomplete passes, and so forth as the rules of the pertinent level require. These games are extremely faithful to the rules, which is one reason they are excellent simulators.

I do not like the way plays are called in football video games. They have an on-screen play book which you click through to get to the play you want. The plays are an assortment of dives, traps, sweeps, and passes.

Select the plays you want to use and figure out the key stroke sequences that select each of those plays. For example, in the game College Football USA, you call a triple option left by hitting the A key, then the down arrow, then the A key again. Make a translation table that says,

option left: A down A.

The games also let you set up a limited number of audibles which can be called with fewer keystrokes. The translation table will enable you or your assistant to quickly enter the play you want into the game when you are practicing your hurry-up.

You can use a video game to practice clock management against another coach or you can play solitaire against the game itself. In the solitaire mode, it will call defenses and plays against you, call time-outs, and so forth.

You need not play an entire game each time. You can set the game clock to less than sixty minutes so that you are only practicing the last part of a half or game. In NFL Quarterback Club 98, you can set the clocks on normal, accelerated or turbo speed. A second on the game and play clocks becomes about half a second in accelerated and about a third of a second in turbo. That lets you get more reps when you are practicing your slowdown mode, which takes excruciatingly long at normal speed.

You cannot preset a score in any of the video games I know of. The games always start with the score 0-0 no matter how much time remaining you choose, but it is a simple matter to record a different starting score on a piece of paper then just add whatever additional points are scored to each team's original score. (This won't work when you play solitaire because the game will base its decisions only on the score the game's internal scoreboard displays.)

In NFL Quarterback Club 98, you can select the camera angle. Choose the one that most resembles a coach's sideline view of the game, "action cam east" or "action cam west" in QB Club. Clock management is done from the sideline, not the booth.

I recommend that you attach the video game player to a combination TV/VCR and videotape your session. Review the tape and critique your clock-management mistakes afterwards.

If you use messengers to send in plays in a game, figure out how many seconds it takes from the time you tell him the play until the snap, then refrain from calling for the snap in the video game until that many seconds have elapsed after you select a play. If you fail to do that, a video game, with its instant response, will cause you to get into the bad habit of taking too long to decide on a play. When you subsequently get into a real game, you will draw delay penalties.

The same thing applies to getting your punt and field-goal teams onto the field. The video game will do it instantly. Your players won't.

You can benefit from solo video-game sessions, but your team will probably get more benefit if you involve your staff in the same way that they are involved in clock management on game day.

During your video-game practices, your clock-management coach should be signaling with an up or down arrow when you should be speeding up or slowing down. He should also be referring to his charts and tables as to when to call time-outs, take a knee, and so forth.

You can have up to seven players on one side of the ball being controlled by seven different joy sticks. Position coaches should operate a joy stick that controls one of their players. For example, the quarterback coach should operate the joy stick that controls the video game quarterback so he can get into the habit of running out of bounds or throwing incomplete passes when receivers are covered in the hurry-up mode, and pulling the ball down and running with it inbounds when in the slowdown mode.

On a more limited basis, you can and should involve your players in your video-game sessions. Have your quarterbacks operate the quarterback joy stick. Field captains communicate plays and defenses to their teammates, call time-outs and accept or decline penalties. This would make a good rainy-day practice or a late-season change of pace when normal practice sessions are getting stale. I predict your players will love the idea. My 17-year-old football player son agrees.

You could set the video game up on the sideline or in the press box at your game field and run a rehearsal that is directed by the video-game. Have a coach or player act as referee blow the whistle, throw flags, and place the ball for the next play as instructed by the video game. The video game's audio, which has a realistic announcer, could be piped through your field's public address system by placing the announcer's microphone next to the game's speaker. All eleven offensive players would execute your equivalent of the video-game play being run against air to get a feel for the clock-management aspects of the game.

You and your staff should do a coaches-only rehearsal of this type of practice before you try it with your players. Electronic equipment is tricky. You don't want to get up in front of your players and waste their time because you cannot get the equipment to work.

Clock management is largely a mental exercise. You don't have time to think. You need to acquire the correct habits and instincts in advance because of the time pressures in a game. You should be at your peak in terms of your clock-management skills on the first day of August practice, so your most intense video-game sessions should be in the weeks before that.

Much of what I advocate in this column each quarter and in my book is new and radical to coaches. By practicing your clock-management skills in video games, you can experiment with my advice in a setting where it will not get you fired. Seeing the techniques work in the video-game sessions, in turn, will give you enough confidence in my various clock-management techniques to use them in actual games, games where poor clock management can get you fired.