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I have to admit I’m a stickler for clock management in NFL games. It drives me bonkers when precious seconds are wasted. I scratch my head when coaches incorrectly utilize their timeouts. That’s one of the reasons why I am impressed with Joe Philbin. He gets it. He understands. He is as good at managing the clock as any coach I have covered.
And if you haven’t noticed before, try paying attention to it beginning Sunday against New England. It could very well have a direct impact on the final score.
I recently took Philbin aside to discuss this exact topic. I mentioned it and you could almost see his eyes light up. “It’s a huge part of the game,” he said. “It’s been important to me for a long time, but it’s even more important now. I always want to give this team the best chance to win.”
Like last season at Indianapolis when Philbin used his timeouts on defense late in the first half to get one more possession that ended with a 55-yard field goal as the clock expired. A big three points? Late in the game the Colts were driving for what would have been a winning score. But they were down by four and couldn’t tie or win with a field goal.
“You look back,” said Philbin, “and those points at the end of the first half were huge. The Colts had a fourth down at our 23-yard line. They had to go for it. We stopped them on fourth down and won the game. If we don’t kick that field goal at the end of the half, if I don’t use those timeouts on defense, the Colts are instead kicking a field goal to win the game. Things like that happen all the time.”
And Philbin is almost obsessed with being ready for every possible situation.
Thursday nights during the season, Philbin meets with special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi and special teams assistant Marwan Maalouf. They discuss every conceivable clock related scenario. I wish I were a fly on that wall.
“We look at unique endings to games,” Philbin said. “We look at clock management. If we are down by two possessions, when is the right time to start calling our timeouts on defense? Is it with five minutes left? With six minutes left? Should we wait for the two-minute warning? We try to take everything into account.”
But Philbin goes even further than that. He studies other games, other coaches, other philosophies. “You can learn so much that way,” he said. “But it’s also important that you have your own way of doing things.”
Like a season-long timeout chart that Philbin keeps. Every good timeout is highlighted in green; every bad one in red. He evaluates it all during the course of the year, always trying to find another edge, always wondering whether he could have done something differently.
“If you have one timeout left on offense, when do you use it?” Philbin asks. “These are questions I always ask myself.”
Few things bother Philbin more than wasted seconds. He knows how they add up. He knows what they could mean late in a game. I asked him which coaches he admires from a game management standpoint. The first name he mentioned was Bill Belichick, who just happens to be Sunday’s opposing coach.
“You look at New England and how good they are in two-minute drives and you have to be impressed,” he said. “But there are many coaches like that. They understand the importance of managing the clock.”
It goes even further than that. Philbin studies his use of challenge flags, knowing all too well that a faulty challenge will eliminate a valuable timeout. His mind dissects so much in those precious seconds when he has to decide whether to pull out that red flag and toss it on the field.
How’s he doing? Eight of the nine plays he challenged last season were overturned in his favor. That’s an impressive percentage. But the perfectionist that he is, Philbin still laments about the one that didn’t go his way.
It all begins again this Sunday against the Patriots. We focus so much on the big decisions made during the course of a game, we tend to lose track of all the small decisions that also have so much to do with the outcome.
This is where Philbin is on top of his game. Always thinking ahead. Always dissecting every timeout. Always trying to steal a few seconds that, who knows, could lead to another possession just like it did last season in Indy.
“I take a lot of pride in this,” Philbin said.
And the Dolphins are certainly glad he does.
(On Wednesday, AC in the AM plays 10 questions with rookie receiver Jarvis Landry.)
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