On the list of phrases a Dallas Cowboys fan hates to hear, it’s safe to assume that “clock management issues” is near the top – on too many occasions over the previous three seasons, poor time management from the coaching staff had been a factor in winnable games. But it’s a different story this year and when reviewing the elements that have contributed to the improvement of the squad, head coach Jason Garrett and the rest of the staff deserve a tip of the cap for their progress in this area.
Clock management was most certainly not at the forefront of the minds of most fans as we entered this season. How quarterback Tony Romo would fare after returning from surgery or who would replace linebacker Sean Lee after his season-ending injury were more far more paramount.
But with point differential between winners and losers getting smaller and smaller, clock management has become a far more significant part of the game meaning that getting it right could be the difference between a team making it to the playoffs versus sitting on a couch watching someone else play in January.
A quick trip down memory lane is a good reminder how clock management can make or break a season:
2011: Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
The preeminent example of a coach icing his own kicker, this might be the most egregious of all the examples. With the score tied 13-13 and time winding down in the 4th quarter, kicker Dan Bailey takes the 49-yard kick and splits the uprights. Cowboys win. Oh wait, not so fast.
They’d let 18 seconds run off the clock after wider receiver Dez Bryant’s catch that got them to the 32-yard line and then spiked the ball in order to set up the field-goal attempt – instead of using one of their two timeouts. Then Garrett does call a timeout – right before the snap. With Cowboys fans screaming at their tvs and Cardinals fans thanking their lucky stars, Bailey had been iced.
While the might have been the correct call – a field goal attempt made while rushed is never a good thing – it was just the final in a series that did not seem to make sense given where the game stood and the amount of time ticking down. At the time, Garrett said,
"“I think the biggest thing you try to do is you try to evaluate the situation, how you handled it and why you made that decision,” Garrett said. “If you get in that situation again, maybe you handle it the exact same way, maybe you do something differently.”"
2012: Cowboys at Baltimore Ravens
In basically a deja-vu scenario of the loss versus the Cardinals, the one positive was that Garrett did not choose to ice his own kicker. Umm, baby steps, right?
After a 1-yard catch from Dez Bryant, they let the clock run down 16 seconds. Bailey misses the 51-yard attempt. Oy. Garrett said:
"“When I look at it, I say we left too much meat on the bone there,” Garrett said Monday. “We needed to get more than one yard when we had one timeout and 26 seconds. It starts with the play call that I had and then it really goes from there.”"
2013: Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
This whole second half was a disaster. The defense played terribly and Tony Romo threw two picks in the final 3 minutes. But, the decision to continue to throw the ball was what experts pounced on. In breaking down the game, Peter King wrote in his column:
"“It’s mystifying why the Cowboys hardly ran the ball in the second half."
Now, why do these matter this season, especially when the team currently sits at 10-4? Because you can’t appreciate how far the coaching staff has come in this respect without seeing where they were. A commitment to the run, heads up playing calling, good challenges, and an eye on the clock have meant that this is no longer part of the storyline, except in a good way.
"“It took me a moment during the Dallas Cowboys’ victory over the Tennessee Titans. I thought I must be hearing things. As the first half wound down and the always reliable Dan Bailey came out to effortlessly boot a routine 51-yard field goal and extend the lead to 16-0, Troy Aikman complimented the Dallas coaches – on how well they managed the clock.”"
It has continued from there – while we most often focus on the final minutes of each half, decisions made in the over the course of the game – timeouts not called, not playing a slow-down tempo, a player failing to get out of bounds when their team is behind – are perhaps more important than we realize.
Take Garrett’s decision to challenge the catch by Eagles’ tight end Brent Celek. Eagles are down by 8 with 8 minutes left to play and the hurry-up offense in full effect. With barely a few seconds to make a decision, Garrett throws the challenge flag, believing Celek fumbled the ball prior to being down.
A risk worth taking, it ended up being a momentum boost for the Cowboys, something the staff has become more known for than in season’s past.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is quoted as saying, “Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” The shadow of poor clock management is one that has hovered over Garrett and the coaching staff for too long but they seem to have finally left it behind. This is a development we can all applaud.