In Week 8, seven games came down to a final drive, once again underlining the significance of being able to run an effective two-minute offense. Trying to successfully execute that offense can be challenging, exciting and possibly career-defining. It can also be heartbreaking and season-ending -- and, as a coach, it can take years off your life.
Why are hurry-up offenses so much more important in the NFL than in college ball? Simple: The margin for error is so much narrower on Sundays. Parity across the pro landscape means more games go down to the final minutes and the last possession.
That was abundantly clear last weekend. The Week 8 slate brought into sharp relief the multiplicity of challenges a coach faces with the two-minute offense. Of course, "two-minute offense" is a misnomer. The mentality of the hurry-up offense -- or its opposite, when a team with the lead is trying to kill the clock -- can extend far beyond the closing two minutes of each half.
Let's take a quick look at the clutch, crunch-time play on display across the NFL this past Sunday/Monday:
» In an ending that carried a little Halloween-weekend horror for Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger drove his Steelers 64 yards in nine plays, only to have time run out on a red-zone pass into the end zone. That allowed the Bengals to get off to a 7-0 start, and gave them just their third win against Pittsburgh in the past 11 showdowns.
The number of scenarios a coach has to consider in these situations is mind-boggling. I remember some analytics savant calculating that there are more than a billion possible scenarios -- given the variables of score differential, field position, down-and-distance, time remaining and timeouts left -- in the final four minutes of a game. This is, inevitably, where head coaches receive most of their criticism. There's always room to find fault, because there is never a single decision made independently of another that is provably either right or wrong. The result of the drive is either successful or unsuccessful, and it's the result on which you'll be judged. (For all the fans still angry at me for a purported "clock-management mistake" here or there, I apologize for not having all one billion options down pat.)
The most important aspect of preparing your players for these situations is making sure they recognize that your increased tone and tempo is not panic. As the legendary John Wooden instructed, "Be quick, but don't hurry." This is instructive, from the head coach to the offensive coordinator, from the offensive coordinator to the quarterback, and from the quarterback to the offense.
It's the quarterback who sets the tone on the field. The standard-bearers in this area can be hypnotic in their ability to execute. Given the widespread fatigue among players late in the fourth quarter, and the pressure of the outcome hanging in the balance, mistakes inevitably will be made. (Even in a successful drive, there are almost always gaffes here and there.) To this end, even though you have to contend with one billion different options, you need to keep the process as clean and direct as possible.
Here are some crucial coaching points:
» Everyone must know the objective, whether it's to score three points, score six points, score a quick six and then get the ball back, or just finish the game with the ball.
» Everyone must know how many timeouts are left and what the plan is for using them.
» Concentration and memory are vitally important, because often the quarterback is calling two plays in the huddle, and -- if all goes well and the sticks are moving and there are no incomplete passes or you don't want to burn a timeout -- calling another at the line of scrimmage.
» In no-huddle situations, you'll want to simplify formations and protections so they can be orchestrated with minimal verbiage.
» Don't get cute with the snap count.
» Know the clock-vs.-yards ratio -- or, to put it more explicitly, how much ground you need to gain and how much time you've got to gain it. An incomplete pass is not the end of the world, but a short pass/gain can be.
What you're trying to attain is a roughly continuous flow: Luck was truly locked in on this front during the last two drives in regulation Monday night. The offense gets into a rhythm, while the defense -- in its valiant effort to hold the fort -- can get winded and frustrated.
When it works out well, it looks like a miraculous combination of smarts and synchronicity and planning and spontaneity and athleticism. I still vividly remember Tony Banks leading our team on a seven-play, 75-yard, game-winning TD drive in the last two minutes against Jacksonville early in our Super Bowl season of 2000.
But of course, you don't have to coach very long before you realize it's not always going to work out well.