If you didn’t give up on this apparently lopsided Super Bowl midway through the third quarter, you were privileged to witness one of the great comebacks in sports history. The fact that Brady and Belichick co-authored this improbable win for their fifth Super Bowl titles makes it all that much more dramatic. As painful as this loss had to have been for the Atlanta Falcons, it now gets only worse as many critics are questioning some of their play choices down the stretch, and particularly their use of the clock.
Clock management is a delicate science when it comes to sports. Most coaches pay little attention to the clock until the later stages of a game when the more obvious strategies of aggression for the trailer and conversely conservatism for the leader take hold. We will often see a basketball team trailing by double digits in the second half rolling the ball up the uncontested floor to protect every second. Meanwhile, with a similar deficit in the first half the point guard may be walking and dribbling, oblivious to his worst enemy – the clock. In football, because the game clock may run during play stoppages, the effect of time decay can be even more pronounced.
The Edj Football Playcall Simulator allows us to examine the effects of the clock with precision and to inform the decisions of both the trailer and the leader at any juncture of the game. Consider Atlanta’s situation early in the third quarter while driving for another touchdown and already leading 21-3. In such a game condition it can be very easy to get carried away with the dominating circumstances of the game. One can hardly blame Dan Quinn for not optimizing every second when his win probability is already over 95%. According to our simulations, even in this extraordinarily advantageous situation, the Falcons give up about 0.1% of Game-Winning Chance (“GWC”) for every 20 seconds of unused play clock. This may not seem like much, but it adds up. When the clock is your friend you must embrace all that it gives you.
Similarly, the Patriots were trying to maximize every bit of game equity as they engineered their comeback. By unnecessarily allowing 40 seconds of game clock to tick away between plays, they too were slowing bleeding away valuable GWC in fractions of percentages (0.1% to 0.2% at a time).
Each decision in a game matters, and often the seemingly trivial choices can accumulate quickly. Every play is effectively a single pull in a game of tug-of-war. Before the game started, this matchup was considered a near toss up by most experts with the Patriots considered the slightest of favorites according to our analysis. This means that from the opening kickoff to the final bell each team was trying to accumulate an additional 50% of GWC to gain a victory – a victory that is ultimately comprised of every random event, every call from the referee, every executed play and every coaching decision.